Happy or fussy? Scientists reveal how 4 distinct eating patterns affect kids’ health

BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom — Is your child a picky eater? Scientists have discovered the reason why. Researchers from Aston University in the United Kingdom have identified four distinct eating patterns among children and shed light on how parents can tailor their feeding practices accordingly. The study seeks to address the alarming rise in childhood obesity by understanding the relationship between eating behaviors, temperament, feeding practices, and food insecurity.

In the United States, nearly one-fifth of children are overweight or obese. To combat this concerning trend, researchers sought to uncover patterns in eating behaviors that could help predict which children are more vulnerable to becoming overweight. The study categorizes children into four distinct eating patterns: “avid,” “happy,” “typical,” and “fussy.”

“Typical eaters made up 44% of the children in the study, while fussy eaters accounted for 16 percent. 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,'” according to a university release.

Children with avid eating behaviors not only enjoy food more but also exhibit faster eating habits and are less sensitive to signals of fullness. They tend to consume more food when faced with the sight, smell, or taste of delicious food and display a higher level of emotional overeating. These combined behaviors can lead to overeating and subsequent weight gain.

Children eating vegetables
(© Oksana Kuzmina – stock.adobe.com)

The study, which includes researchers from Aston University, Loughborough University, Kings College London, and University College London (UCL), also highlights significant differences in children’s temperament and their caregivers’ feeding practices among the four eating behavior patterns. Caregivers of children with avid eating tendencies are more likely to use food as a way to regulate their children’s emotions or to restrict food for health reasons. Moreover, children with avid eating habits are generally less food-secure than those exhibiting happy or typical eating behaviors.

Researchers are emphasizing the need for tailored interventions.

“Whilst feeding practices are key intervention targets to change children’s eating behavior and child weight outcomes, there has been little evaluation of how feeding practices interact with children’s food approach behaviors to predict eating behavior,” says study principal investigator Jackie Blissett, professor at Aston University, explaining that current public health advice is generic and doesn’t account for the variability in children’s appetites, leaving parents feeling frustrated when trying to manage their child’s food intake.

To address this issue, the research project aims to provide more personalized guidance for parents.

“Parents can use this research to help them understand what type of eating pattern their child presents,” says Dr. Abigail Pickard, from the School of Psychology at Aston University. “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 behavior 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.”

Scientists plan to conduct further investigations into avid eating behavior, with caregivers and their children participating in a specialist eating behavior lab at Aston University. This will provide a more in-depth understanding of avid and typical eating behaviors in real-life settings. The ultimate goal is to develop practical feeding guidelines in collaboration with parents to reduce children’s consumption of palatable snack foods.

The study is published in the journal Appetite.

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