Diet foods and drinks for children may inadvertently lead to overeating and obesity, according to a study from the University of Alberta.
Researchers found that children who consume low-calorie foods may develop distorted connections between taste and calorie content, leading them to overeat as they grow up, according to the study, which was published this week in the academic journal Obesity.
"Based on what we've learned, it is better for children to eat healthy, well-balanced diets with sufficient calories for their daily activities rather than low-calorie snacks or meals," said Dr. David Pierce, a University of Alberta sociologist and lead author of the paper, in a news release.
For the study, researchers conducted a series of experiments that proved substituting low-calorie versions of foods and drinks led to overeating in a sample of young rats, including ones that were lean and ones that were genetically obese.
Although both lean and obese rats overate during their regular meals, the added calories have more serious health implications for obese animals.
Older rats that were fed diet foods did not display the same tendency to overeat. The researchers believe the older rats, unlike the younger rats, relied on a variety of taste-related cues to correctly assess the energy value of their food.
Pierce said that his team's "taste conditioning process" theory may explain "puzzling results" from other studies, such as a recent one from researchers at the University of Massachusetts, that found links between diet soda consumption (among children) and a higher risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. He added that further research is necessary with older animals using a variety of taste-related cues.
"Parents and health professionals should be made aware of this and know that the old-fashioned ways to keep children fit and healthy—insuring they eat well-balanced meals and exercise regularly—are the best ways," Pierce said. "Diet foods are probably not a good idea for growing youngsters."