Poor Eating Habits Critical Factor in Childhood Obesity

New research finds that the way a child relates to food and eating is the most important characteristic for weight control during adolescence.

Norwegian researchers studied a variety of factors that can influence obesity.

“We’ve looked to see if physical activity, television time, and appetite traits can explain why some children’s body mass index (BMI) increases more than others’ do,” says Silje Steinsbekk, an assistant professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Department of Psychology.

Steinsbekk and Professor Lars Wichstrøm explain that a child’s weight should increase as they grow older, but the challenge is to gain weight in an appropriate manner. Accordingly, the researchers studied why some children put on weight faster than others.

“BMI is a way to measure our spherical shape — it indicates how round our bodies are,” says Steinsbekk.

A healthy baby is chubby and round. At preschool age, most children slim down until they gradually fill out again, especially around puberty.

“In adults, a BMI over 25 is defined as overweight, and a BMI over 30 is defined as obese,” says Steinsbekk. When calculating BMI in children, both age and gender are taken into account, since boys and girls develop slightly differently.

The researchers found that the way children related to food and eating was crucial. Physical activity and TV viewing, on the other hand, did not explain why the BMI of some children increased more as compared to others.

“Our study shows that BMI increases more in children where food especially triggers their eating behavior. Their food intake is controlled more by the sight and smell of food, and less by an inner experience of hunger.

Prior studies have shown that children who respond more enthusiastically to food, and continue to eat even when they are satiated, also actually eat more.

It is therefore plausible that the reason obesity-promoting appetite traits (triggered by food, does not stop even if full) lead to a steeper BMI curve is because these children eat more than others.

To learn more about this area, researchers asked parents a variety of questions. For example:

Does the child really look forward to mealtimes? Is the child is very concerned about food? Does the child want to have more food, even if they are full? Does the child eat faster than other children? Does the child resort to comfort eating?

The current investigation is part of a long-term study that looks at children’s psychological and psychosocial development over several years. The same children are examined every two years, and in this particular study, the researchers dealt with data from when the children were four, six, and eight years old.

Another critical question the researchers would like to answer is: What comes first, appetite or overweight?

Do the child’s eating habits explain the differences in BMI, or is it just the opposite, that children’s BMI explains their eating habits? Or in another way of asking — is it the enthusiasm for food that explains the higher BMI, or is it that kids with a high BMI need more energy and thus consume food more eagerly?

The researchers found that it seems to go both ways.

“Our results show that in relative terms, the BMI of children who are particularly triggered by food increases more when compared with others. But we also found the opposite effect: a high BMI leads to children becoming even more triggered by food over time (at around six to eight years old). As they get older, they are even less able to stop eating when they’re full,” says Steinsbekk.

Why this is, scientists can’t answer yet. More studies are needed.

Steinsbekk points out that many obese children find it difficult to know when they are full and therefore need their parents’ help to regulate their food intake (for example, one serving at dinner).

On the other hand, we know that in order to promote the development of normal eating behavior, it is important for children to decide how much they want to eat. If children are pushed to eat everything on their plates, they may stop relying on their own body’s signals, and eat until the parents are happy.

Source: Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Department of Psychology