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Do Ear Infections = Fat?

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New research suggests a common childhood affliction may lead to major weight problems.

Have a kid with a sweet tooth? Who doesn't?! But get this--new research shows that people who consistently crave rich, high-fat foods may be able to blame their cravings on more than a lack of willpower--those with a history of chronic childhood ear infections, that is.


Experts from the University of Florida College of Dentistry in Gainesville are saying childhood ear infections may damage a vital taste-sensing nerve in kids, triggering a preference for rich foods and making them 70% more likely than those without a history of infections to be obese later in life.

Worse, those who suffer harm to the "chorda tympani nerve" (which makes people crave sweet, salty and high-fat foods) may not realize why they can't stay away from sweets that pack on pounds. When this nerve doesn't work, two other nerves take over, drawing people to more intense flavors and textures.

According to test results, 17% of those with moderate to severe ear infections were obese, compared to about only 10% of those with no infection history. And 35% of those with histories of infection were overweight, compared to about 31% of those without infections.

This theory isn't new. Past studies show middle-aged women with taste nerve damage preferred sweet and high-fat foods--and had larger waists. Another study showed severe ear infections treated with tubes lead to higher body mass index in toddlers. In addition, more research showed those who had tonsillectomies (a once-common treatment for ear infections), were at greater risk of being overweight.

But there's no need to install a lock on the fridge if your kid is prone to ear infections.

"The data was collected retrospectively and using a questionnaire, making it less reliable," says Dr. Cara Natterson, pediatrician and author of Your Newborn: Head To Toe and Your Toddler: Head To Toe. "First of all, they are analyzing old records to answer their question. They are also asking adults to accurately remember whether or not they had ear infections as children and if they did, whether the infections were frequent or severe--that's tough to recall.

"Plus, the researchers didn't actually confirm nerve damage in the participants. Instead, they asked people to taste slips of tissue paper treated with a bitter chemical to test how sensitive they were to the flavor," she says. 

The study was also based on a questionnaire administered to 7,308 people but they only followed up with about 120 of them.

"What's more, diagnosing an ear infection can be subjective," she says. "Some doctors use the term to mean any fluid in the ear, while others refer to an infection as one that's caused by a bacteria and treated with antibiotics.

"Pediatricians have over-diagnosed ear infections in the past, so it's possible at least some--perhaps many--of the people interviewed in these studies were told they had ear infections when they didn't."

But there are various reasons people overeat--boredom, distraction and depression--to name a few. Can we really blame obesity on a typical childhood affliction?

"The researchers are suggesting that ear infections may only be one trigger, but it still seems like a stretch," Dr. Cara says. "The issue isn't the type of food you like, it is the amount you consume that determines obesity.

"The bottom line is, whether or not a kid has multiple ear infections and whether or not the infections alter taste sensation, moderating sweet and fat intake is important," she says. "We all should be eating healthfully, and that should start at a young age."

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4 comments so far | Post a comment now
M.L. August 27, 2008, 5:42 PM

I am 35 and still get ear infections, I have all my life, and so has my mom who is 57, and neither one of us craves these foods or are fat.

Anonymous August 28, 2008, 5:10 PM

What a load of crap.

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Ten Tees January 9, 2011, 10:56 AM

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