Girl Eating Fries

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LONDON — Scientists have discovered a link between young children with ravenous appetites and eating disorders years later. Specifically, their findings reveal that four or five-year-olds who had powerful urges to eat whenever they saw, smelled, or tasted food went on to develop symptoms of eating disorders between the ages of 12 and 14.

Children who learned to eat at a slower pace and felt full more quickly were less likely to develop eating disorder symptoms during adolescence.

“Although our study cannot prove causality, our findings suggest food cue responsiveness may be one predisposing risk factor for the onset of eating disorder symptoms in adolescence,” says Dr. Ivonne Derks, a research fellow at the University College London (UCL) Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care and co-lead author of the study, in a university release.

Derks warns, however, that an enthusiastic appetite is not an unusual thing for kids and only becomes a concern when a child cannot resist food. The study author warns parents that this is only one of many risk factors that could contribute to future eating disorders.

Having a strong urge to eat food (higher food responsiveness) displayed a link to a 16 to 47-percent increased likelihood of developing eating disorder symptoms. These symptoms included binge eating, uncontrolled eating, emotional eating, restrained eating, and compensatory behaviors.

The most common eating disorder symptom among children with high food responsiveness was binge eating (47%). In this study, the team defined binge eating as consuming large portions of food and/or feeling unable to control their eating.

Adolescents whose parents rated them high in terms of food responsiveness were almost three times more likely to display binge eating habits than adolescents with normal appetites. The 16-percent increase was linked to restrained eating, where someone limits how much food they eat in order to lose weight or avoid weight gain.

Emotional overeating in early childhood was another risk factor for engaging in compensatory behaviors. This involves taking action to counteract the effects of eating and consuming calories, such as skipping meals, fasting, and excessive exercise.

Child eating fast food at home
Children who learned to eat at a slower pace and felt full more quickly were less likely to develop eating disorder symptoms during adolescence. (© Africa Studio –

Not all eating behaviors in childhood led to a greater risk of eating disorder symptoms. Some actually protected against it.

Children with higher satiety responsiveness — feeling full quickly after eating and full for longer — were less likely to display uncontrolled eating and other behaviors. Eating slower also helped children in control and feel full faster. Other appetite traits such as food fussiness, emotional undereating or eating less when in a low mood, and enjoyment of food did not show an association with adolescent eating disorder symptoms.

Study authors came to these conclusions after tracking the eating behaviors of children born in Rotterdam, Netherlands between 2002 and 2006. They also followed twins in England and Wales in 2007. Parents rated their four or five-year-olds’ appetites using a questionnaire. Almost 10 years later, the researchers had the 12 to 14-year-olds self-report their eating behavior.

Eating disorders often emerge among young teens. Ten percent of young teens displayed binge eating symptoms. Additionally, 50 percent reported skipping a meal or performing another behavior that would allow them to compensate for eating or avoid gaining weight.

“While the role of appetite in the development of obesity has been studied for many decades, this is the first study to comprehensively examine the role of appetite traits in the development of eating disorder symptoms,” says Dr. Clare Llewellyn, a professor at UCL Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care who served as co-senior study author.

“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,” Llewellyn adds.

The study is published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health.

About Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master's of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor's of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women's health.

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