Even though they are not hungry, children as young as age 3 find high-energy treats too tempting to refuse, according to new research from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT).
In a study of 3- and 4-year-olds, 100 percent of children opted for a sweet or savory snack despite eating a filling healthy lunch only 15 minutes prior.
Nutrition researcher Holly Harris, from QUT’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, said the results highlighted the health risks for children frequently confronted with an abundance of energy-dense, high-calorie foods.
Harris’ study, published in the journal Eating Behaviors, looked at young children’s eating habits in the absence of being hungry and how parental feeding control impacted those behaviors in both girls and boys.
“Of the 37 children who took part in the study, all children displayed eating in the absence of hunger, even though more than 80 percent reported being full or very full just 15 minutes earlier,” Harris said.
“An impaired ability to respond to signs of feeling full and being unable to self-control food intake in an environment where children are frequently faced with high-energy foods is likely to have undesirable ramifications on a child’s energy balance and weight status.”
Harris said pressure by mothers to eat was also positively linked to higher levels of snack food intake in the absence of being hungry, but this was a result found only with boys.
“Mothers who reported that they typically pressured their boys to eat during meal times, had boys who also ate more snacks when they were no longer hungry,” she said.
“This adds weight to the argument that boys’ and girls’ eating behaviors may be influenced or expressed in different ways.
“For example, in boys it may be that controlled feeding practices such as encouraging boys to finish everything on their plate may compromise their ability to determine their own hunger.
“Therefore they may be more likely to eat and overeat in the presences of highly palatable snacks. So forcing boys to eat their breakfast, lunch, or dinner may impact their ability to self-regulate their snack food intake as well.”
She said when mothers pressured their girls to eat, it did not have the same impact on their child’s snack consumption.
According to Harris, all people are born with a capacity to self-regulate their food intake. “Infants will not consume energy in excess of what their body requires. Internal hunger and satiety signals are relayed to the brain and tell infants when to stop and start eating,” she said.
“But as we grow older, we become increasingly aware of the abundance and rewarding value of food and in turn our ability to respond appropriately to our appetite may diminish.”
“In a society which constantly promotes over-consumption from convenient, energy-dense foods, a susceptibility to respond to environmental food cues over appetite cues may lead to an imbalance in energy and food intake and undesirable weight gain.”
“Preserving this ability to self-regulate energy intake early in life may be the key to resisting environmental stimuli to eat, later in life.”