Obesity in Children – Natural Weight Control | Action Medical Research | Children's Charity

Obesity in children – tapping into the body's natural weight control system

First published on 24 May 2011

Updated on 16 February 2015

What did the project achieve?

“We’ve found that eating a high-fat diet early in life changes animals’ brains in a way that causes rebound weight gain after dieting,” says Professor Speakman.1 “Our findings suggest that eating foods that are high in fat at a young age may increase susceptibility to obesity.”

Obesity is at epidemic proportions, with high numbers of children affected. In England, for example, one third of 10–11 year olds and over a fifth of four to five year olds are obese or overweight.2 Although dieting can help children lose weight, this often fails over the longer term because of rebound weight gain.

“The results of our animal studies suggest that successfully treating obesity over the long term depends not just on eating fewer calories, but also on choosing healthy foods over unhealthy foods, and avoiding a high-fat diet, especially early in life,” says Professor Speakman.

“Are some fats more dangerous than others?” continues Professor Speakman. “How old are children when they’re most vulnerable to the negative effects of a high-fat diet? These are some of the things we hope to find out in future studies.”

The ultimate goal is to gather the evidence needed to create advice for parents on how best to feed young children to reduce their chances of becoming obese.


1. McNay DEG, Speakman JR. High fat diet causes rebound weight gain. Molecular Metabolism 2012; 2(2): 103-8.
2. Public Health England. Child Obesity. http://www.noo.org.uk/NOO_about_obesity/child_obesity Website accessed 27 January 2015.

This research was completed on 31 July 2013

A shocking 17 per cent of boys and 15 per cent of girls aged two to 15 years are obese in the UK,1 putting them at risk of serious, long-term health problems, such as heart disease and diabetes. Evidence suggests that a control circuit in the brain, which is responsible for natural weight control, is faulty in obesity. Researchers are investigating whether special diets might correct this fault and help children maintain a healthy weight.

What's the problem and who does it affect?

Worrying increases in childhood obesity

Obesity has reached shocking levels in children. Around one in six boys and one in seven girls aged two to 15 years were obese in England in 2008.1,2 Worldwide, the World Health Organization estimates that rates of obesity in children have tripled during the last 20 years.3

Obesity puts children at risk of eventually developing serious, long-term health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and some cancers. Obese children tend to grow into overweight adults, when ongoing weight problems can shorten life expectancy.2,3 

Obesity can also have a significant impact on a child’s day-to-day life. Obese children are more likely to suffer bullying, discrimination, low self-esteem and poor body image. This sort of psychological stress can hinder children’s progress at school, damage their friendships and even cause depression.

Getting plenty of exercise and eating a balanced diet is the best way to control weight. If a child does become obese, then carefully controlled dieting and special exercise plans can be necessary. Surgery is rarely recommended in childhood.

Unfortunately, though, rebound weight gain after dieting is common. We urgently need a longer term solution, which helps obese children lose weight and keep it off for good.

What is the project trying to achieve?

Fat, food and faulty circuitry

We need body fat, but it causes health problems if levels get too high or too low. A control circuit of nerve cells in the brain – called the energy balance circuit –plays a key role in controlling our weight. If we become overweight, the circuit detects our excess body fat and sends out signals encouraging us to eat less food and use more energy, so that we lose weight.

Most children are born with a healthy circuit, but it can become faulty if their lifestyle is unhealthy. Evidence suggests the circuit is faulty in people who are obese. The researchers have discovered using a laboratory mouse model that the cells of the energy balance circuit are continually regenerated. It seems that eating a high-fat diet blocks this process, causing people who are obese to be stuck with a circuit that is faulty.

The researchers now want to use their laboratory model to study several different types of diet, to see whether any particular nutrients can help repair a faulty energy balance circuit. The diets contain different proportions of key nutrients, such as protein, fat and carbohydrate. Evidence suggests long-term dieting can regenerate the circuit and repair the faults

What are the researchers' credentials?

Project LeaderProfessor J R Speakman PhD DSc FRSE FMedSci
LocationInstitute of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Aberdeen
Grant awarded19 November 2010
Start date2 February 2011
End date31 July 2013
Grant amount£68,194.00
Grant codeSP4581, GN1786

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The project leader, Professor John Speakman, is an expert in obesity and ageing, and a world-leading researcher on nutrition and energy balance in animals and humans. His colleague, Dr David McNay, is a leading researcher in the energy balance circuit and its nerve cells.

The research is taking place at the University of Aberdeen, which is a centre of excellence in all aspects of obesity research. The research team is part of the Aberdeen Centre for Energy Regulation and Obesity. The centre promotes collaboration between scientists within the Aberdeen area to stimulate novel research into what causes obesity and how it might be treated.

Who stands to benefit from this research and how?

Helping the body to help itself

The researchers’ ultimate aim is to help prevent and treat obesity in children, by finding ways to help children keep to a healthy weight.

This research focuses on the brain’s energy balance circuit, which plays a key role in natural weight control. Evidence suggests obesity is linked to faults in this circuit.

The researchers hope to reveal whether certain diets might help fix a child’s faulty energy balance circuit. The child’s circuit could then work in harmony with their diet and exercise plan. It could detect any excess body fat and send out signals to encourage the child to eat less.

In theory, this could mean children no longer get stuck in an endless cycle of dieting and rebound weight gain. Instead, they might lose weight and keep it off for good.

Helping children to keep to a healthy weight could decrease their risk of developing serious, long-term health problems and free them from the stigma that often comes with growing up with obesity.


  1. The NHS Information Centre, Lifestyles Statistics. Statistics on obesity, physical activity and diet: England, 2010. 10 February 2010. http://www.ic.nhs.uk/pubs/opad10 Accessed 3 January 2011.
  2. NHS Choices. Your health, your choices. Obesity – information prescription. Last reviewed: 25/02/2010. http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Obesity/Pages/Introduction.aspx Date accessed: 3 January 2011.
  3. World Health Organization. Nutrition. Facts and Figures. http://www.euro.who.int/en/what-we-do/health-topics/disease-prevention/n... Accessed 3 January 2011.
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