- Children with big appetites are more likely to binge eat in adolescence
- These children are also at higher risk of consuming restrictive foods to lose weight.
Young children who can’t resist the sight and smell of food are twice as likely to develop an eating disorder as teenagers, research suggests.
One study found that four- or five-year-olds with the strongest appetites had twice the risk of binge eating a decade later than those with the lowest scores.
In contrast, young people who take their time at mealtimes and feel full faster were the least likely to engage in uncontrolled or emotional eating when they were older.
Experts said that although some of the risk was genetic, a healthy eating environment and developing parental feeding strategies could help reduce the chances.
In the first study of its kind, researchers from University College London and Erasmus University Rotterdam focused on the role of appetite traits in early childhood and their links to later eating disorders.
Greater responsiveness to food in young children was linked to a higher risk of eating disorder symptoms, including a 47 percent higher risk of binge eating.
They examined data from a survey of parents of 3,670 young people in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands on factors such as their children’s enjoyment of food, concern about avoiding food, speed of eating, and emotional overeating. .
Parents rated their child’s responsiveness to food on a five-point frequency scale regarding how often they thought their child typically demonstrated such eating behaviors: never, rarely, sometimes, often. frequently and always.
They found that particularly high food responsiveness at age 4 or 5 (defined as the urge to eat when seeing, smelling, or tasting tasty foods) was related to a higher likelihood of reporting a range of eating disorder symptoms among 12 and 14 years old.
For each higher rating (for example, those rated “never” and “rarely”) there was a 47 percent greater risk of binge eating and a 16 percent greater chance of restricting eating, such as skipping meals.
They were also found to be more likely to engage in uncontrolled eating, emotional eating, restrained eating and other compensatory behaviors, the researchers said.
Meanwhile, a slower pace of feeding and faster feelings of fullness in early childhood may protect against developing some eating disorder symptoms later, according to findings published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health.
About one in ten teens reported symptoms of binge eating, in which people eat an unusual amount of food or experience the feeling of loss of control when overeating.
Half reported at least one behavior to compensate for their food intake or to avoid weight gain, such as skipping breakfast.
Dr Clare Llewellyn, from the UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Healthcare, said: “Eating disorders can be more difficult to treat effectively once they develop, so it would be best to prevent them in the first place.”
‘Our work in identifying risk factors in the early stages of life aims to support the development of potential prevention strategies. This could involve, for example, providing additional support to children at higher risk.’
Appetite traits such as fussiness about food, eating less due to bad mood, and enjoyment of food in early childhood were not related to later eating disorder symptoms in adolescence.
The researchers cautioned that high responsiveness to food is “a very common behavior and should be considered only as one potential risk factor among many, rather than something of concern to parents.”
They suggest that responsive feeding (providing nutritious foods at set meal and snack times and allowing the child to decide what and how much to eat) could be an effective strategy against this.
Professor Pauline Jansen from Erasmus University Rotterdam said: “Overall, our findings suggest that developing and testing prevention strategies may be a worthwhile endeavor.”
“Although appetite has an important genetic component, we also know that there are environmental influences that offer opportunities to change behavior.”