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Aston University research identifies four eating behaviour patterns in children

by Leah Llano

Children fall broadly into four eating categories, according to new research at Aston University, and parents feed their children differently depending on those categories.

The four categories identified by Dr Abigail Pickard and the team in the School of Psychology are ‘avid’, ‘happy’, ‘typical’, and ‘fussy’.

In the UK, around a fifth of children are overweight or living with obesity when they begin school, rising to around a third by the time they leave primary school at age 11. The team sought to identify eating behaviour patterns and how these are associated with temperament, feeding practices and food insecurity, as a way to predict which children are more at risk of becoming overweight.

Typical eaters made up 44% of the children in the study, while fussy eaters accounted for 16%. But of greatest interest to the team was that around one in five young children in the study were found to show “avid eating”, including greater enjoyment of food, faster eating speed, and weaker sensitivity to internal cues of ‘fullness’.  The behaviours that distinguish children with avid eating from those who show ‘happy’ eating (17.7% of children in the study), who have similarly positive responses to food, are wanting to eat (or eating more) in response to the sight, smell or taste of palatable food, and a higher level of emotional overeating. In combination, these eating behaviours can lead to overeating and subsequent weight gain.

Dr Pickard and the team, which includes academics from Aston University, Loughborough University, Kings College London and University College London (UCL), have also shown that there are significant differences in children’s temperament and caregivers’ feeding practices between each of the four eating behaviour patterns. Children with avid eating are more likely to be active and impulsive, and their caregivers are more likely to give them food to regulate their emotions or to restrict food for health reasons. Children with avid eating were also less food secure than children who showed happy or typical eating behaviours.

Principal investigator of the project, Professor Jackie Blissett, said:

“Whilst feeding practices are key intervention targets to change children’s eating behaviour and child weight outcomes, there has been little evaluation of how feeding practices interact with children’s food approach behaviours to predict eating behaviour.”

She explained that despite the knowledge of the influence of feeding practices on children’s weight, current public health advice is generic and does not reflect variability in children’s appetites. Parents and caregivers can be left feeling frustrated when trying to manage their child’s food intake. By defining the four eating behaviour profiles, this research project, which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and co-developed by Professor Claire Farrow, Dr Clare Llewellyn, Dr Moritz Herle, Professor Emma Haycraft and Dr Helen Croker will make it easier to identify the best feeding practices for each eating pattern and provide tailored, effective advice for parents.

Dr Pickard said:

“Parents can use this research to help them understand what type of eating pattern their child presents. Then based on the child’s eating profile the parent can adapt their feeding strategies to the child. For example, children in the avid eating profile may benefit more from covert restriction of food, i.e., not bringing snacks into the home or not having foods on display, to reduce the temptation to eat foods in the absence of hunger. Whereas, if a child shows fussy eating behaviour it would be more beneficial for the child to have a balanced and varied selection of foods on show to promote trying foods without pressure to eat.”

The team has planned further research investigating avid eating behaviour and will invite the caregivers and their children into the specialist eating behaviour lab at Aston University to get a better picture of what avid and typical eating behaviours look like in a real-life setting. All the findings will be integrated and the researchers will work with parents to develop feasible and helpful feeding guidelines to reduce children’s intake of palatable snack foods.

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