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‘Health Chatter’: Research Department of Behavioural Science and Health Blog



Parents need more guidance to prevent overeating in ‘at-risk’ toddlers

By ucjthsy, on 17 December 2015

A new study from the HBRC investigating how appetite influences children’s eating patterns has been published in ‘The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition’. The article concludes that reducing toddlers’ portion sizes or number of eating occasions could potentially help to prevent weight gain in later life.

The research has found that how often and how much young children eat seems to be determined by two distinct appetitive traits: 1) ‘food responsiveness’ (the urge to eat in response to the sight, smell or taste of appetising food) and 2) ‘satiety responsiveness’ (sensitivity to internal ‘fullness’ signals). Children who are very responsive to food cues eat more frequently (i.e. more times per day), and children who are less sensitive to internal feelings of fullness consume more calories each time they eat. These eating behaviours may help explain why children who exhibit these appetitive traits are at higher risk of weight gain.

The study used data from 1102 families with twins (2203 children) born in 2007 from the Gemini twin study, a large national birth cohort which focuses on early childhood growth, appetite and the family environment. ‘Food responsiveness’ and ‘satiety responsiveness’ were assessed with the Child Eating Behaviour Questionnaire (CEBQ) when the children were 16 months old; and eating patterns were determined from 3-day diet diaries completed by parents when children were 21 months old. The average eating frequency was 5 times per day (ranging from 1 to 10) and the average amount eaten on each occasion was 180 calories (ranging from 59 to 417 calories per eating occasion).

Previous research has shown that children who are highly food responsive and/or have poor satiety responsiveness tend to be heavier and at greater risk of obesity, but it was not clear why exactly. We know from experimental settings that food responsive children or children with poor satiety responsiveness will eat more when presented with palatable foods such as cookies and crisps. However, this new study is the first to shed light on how children with these traits might overeat in everyday life, and consequently gain weight.

Currently there is little guidance for parents of young children about eating frequency and portion sizes. Parents are commonly told to feed according to their child’s own their appetite as it is generally believed that young children will regulate their own intake. However, this new research suggests some children are less able to regulate their own food intake than others. This means parents may need more tailored advice and information if their young child is at risk of overeating. In addition, assessing eating behaviour in early childhood could help to identify children potentially at risk of obesity later in life.

The research was funded by The Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK and Nutricia Ltd and the results are published in ‘The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition’.

Syrad, H., Johnson, L., Wardle, J., & Llewellyn, C. H. (2015). Appetitive traits and food intake patterns in early life. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Published Online:16 December 2015.


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