Infants who can’t resist food ‘are up to three times more likely to develop an eating disorder as a teenager’

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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  • Children with a strong appetite are more likely to binge eat as teenagers
  • These children are also at a higher risk of restrictive eating to lose weight 

Young children who cannot resist the sight and smell of food are twice as likely to develop an eating disorder as a teenager, research suggests. 

Four or five-year-olds with the strongest appetites had double the risk of binge eating a decade later than those who scored lowest, a study found.

In contrast, youngsters who take their time at mealtimes and feel full faster had the lowest chances of uncontrolled or emotional eating when older.

Experts said although some of the risk was genetic, a healthy food environment and developing parental feeding strategies could help to lower 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 links to subsequent eating disorders.

Higher food responsiveness in young children was linked to increased risk eating disorder symptoms, including a 47 per cent greater risk of binge eating

They examined survey data from parents of 3,670 young people in the UK and the Netherlands on factors such as their child’s enjoyment of food, food avoidance fussiness, speed while eating and emotional overeating.

Parents rated their child’s food responsiveness on a five-point frequency scale regarding how often they thought their child typically demonstrated those types of food behaviours – never, rarely, sometimes, often, always.

They found a particularly high food responsiveness at age 4 or 5 – defined as the urge to eat when you see, smell or taste palatable food – was linked to a higher likelihood of reporting a range of eating disorder symptoms when aged 12 to 14.

For each higher ranking – for example those rated as ‘never’ and ‘rarely’ there was a 47 per cent greater risk of binge eating and a 16 per cent higher chance of restricted eating, such as skipping meals.

They were also found to have higher chances of uncontrolled eating, emotional eating, restrained eating and other compensatory behaviours, researchers said.

Meanwhile, a slower pace of eating and feeling full more quickly in early childhood may be protective against developing some eating disorder symptoms later, according to the findings published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health.

About one in ten of the adolescents reported binge eating symptoms, where people eat an unusual amount of food or experience the feeling of loss of control overeating.

Half reported at least one behaviour to compensate their food intake or to avoid gaining weight, such as not eating breakfast.

Dr Clare Llewellyn, of UCL Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care, said: ‘Eating disorders can be harder to treat effectively once they develop and so it would be better to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

‘Our work in identifying risk factors in early life aims to support the development of possible prevention strategies. These could, for instance, involve providing extra support to children at higher risk.’

Appetite traits such as food fussiness, eating less due to low mood, and enjoyment of food in early childhood were not linked to later eating disorder symptoms in adolescence.

Researchers cautioned that high responsiveness to food is ‘very common behaviour and should be seen as just one potential risk factor among many rather than something to cause parents worry.’

They suggest responsive feeding – providing nutritious food at set mealtimes and snack times and allowing the child to decide what and how much to eat – could be an effective strategy against it.

Professor Pauline Jansen of Erasmus University Rotterdam said: ‘Overall, our findings suggest that developing and testing prevention strategies may be a worthwhile effort.

‘Although appetite has a substantial genetic component, we also know that there are environmental influences that offer opportunities for behaviour change.’


Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS

Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS

• Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruit and vegetables count

• Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain

• 30 grams of fibre a day: This is the same as eating all of the following: 5 portions of fruit and vegetables, 2 whole-wheat cereal biscuits, 2 thick slices of wholemeal bread and large baked potato with the skin on

• Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks) choosing lower fat and lower sugar options

• Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily)

• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consuming in small amounts

• Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water a day

• Adults should have less than 6g of salt and 20g of saturated fat for women or 30g for men a day

Source: NHS Eatwell Guide 


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