High levels of fructose from the high-fructose corn syrup found in bottled drinks, candy and many processed foods may cause specific fat cells in children to multiply quicker. This may play a key role in childhood obesity and even Type 2 diabetes, according to a recent study.
High levels of fructose have come under fire often for affecting the health of American children, but this research provides a direct link between the substance and the widespread rise in obesity.
A laboratory study led by Georgina Coade at the University of Bristol in the U.K. found that when unnaturally high levels of fructose are present as fat cells develop, it makes more of them mature into belly and subcutaneous fat that is less able to respond to insulin. This kind of abdominal fat is typically found around a large waistline and increases the risk of both heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
“Our results suggest that high levels of fructose, which may result from eating a diet high in fructose throughout childhood, may lead to an increase in visceral [abdominal] obesity, which is associated with increased cardiometabolic risk,” said Coade.
While these studies were performed with cells taken from children, they were performed only in test tubes. Experts caution the need to wait to interpret the findings. The researchers studied biopsy specimens of both subcutaneous and visceral fat from children.
The study used cells from 32 children of healthy weights who had not yet gone through puberty.
The cells were soaked for 14 days in a solution of normal level glucose (the primary sugar found in the blood stream), high-level glucose or high fructose, and were allowed to mature.
According to the researchers, fat cells that grew in the high fructose solution divided and multiplied to a greater extent than those soaked in glucose. However, this was true only for visceral fat.
For both types of fat cells, maturation in a high fructose environment decreased the cells’ insulin sensitivity, which is the ability to properly transfer glucose from the bloodstream into fat and muscles. Decreased insulin sensitivity is characteristic of Type 2 diabetes.
Goade said, “Fructose alters the behavior of human fat cells if it is present as the fat cells mature. We can maybe compare this to periods in children when they are making their fat.”
According to the researchers, high-fructose corn syrup is becoming more prevalent than sucrose (regular sugarbeet sugar) in American foods.
Both the visceral and subcutaneous fat cells exposed to glucose displayed increased insulin resistance, a risk factor and property of diabetes.
“You can’t draw a conclusion based on a single study, and this study was not done in humans. We need to take that into consideration,” said Keri Gans, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
However, the startling increase in childhood levels of obesity and Type 2 diabetes does coincide with the increased use of high fructose corn syrup in many processed foods marketed to children.
“We’re seeing more Type 2 diabetes in children, and that’s due to children being overweight,” Gans said. “What’s even scarier is that children are increasing their risk for developing heart disease earlier.”
“The fear is that this generation might be the first generation that might not outlive their parents,” Gans said.
A rise in blood pressure and cholesterol levels in overweight children has been noted by experts. More information on childhood obesity is available at the Centers for Disease Control.www.cdc.gov/obesity/childhood/index.html
These research results will be presented at The Endocrine Society’s 92nd Annual Meeting in San Diego.