Kids’ food responses linked to later eating disorder risks

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A recent study led by researchers from University College London (UCL) and Erasmus University Rotterdam has shed light on how early childhood behaviors towards food might predict the risk of developing eating disorders in adolescence.

The research, published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, draws from a large survey including 3,670 youngsters from the UK and the Netherlands.

It offers a nuanced look at how children’s initial reactions to food can influence their eating patterns years later.

The study zeroes in on a behavior known as high food responsiveness—essentially, the urge to eat when seeing, smelling, or tasting delicious food.

This trait, observed in kids as young as four and five, has been linked to an increased likelihood of experiencing a range of eating disorder symptoms by the time they reach 12 to 14 years of age.

Interestingly, the research suggests that children who eat more slowly and feel full sooner might be at a lower risk of developing these disorders.

Dr. Ivonne Derks from UCL points out that while these findings don’t prove a direct cause-and-effect relationship, they indicate that being highly responsive to food cues might be one of many risk factors for the onset of eating disorder symptoms in teens.

She reassures parents that high food responsiveness is a common behavior and shouldn’t be a sole cause for alarm.

The study found that children with higher food responsiveness were significantly more likely to report symptoms associated with eating disorders.

For instance, the highest levels of food responsiveness were linked to almost three times the likelihood of binge eating symptoms.

These symptoms include consuming a large amount of food and feeling out of control while eating. Other symptoms, like emotional eating and uncontrolled eating, were also more likely in these children.

On the protective side, traits like feeling fuller sooner and eating at a slower pace were associated with lower risks of developing such symptoms.

The researchers note that not all appetite traits had a clear link to eating disorder symptoms; for example, being picky about food or eating less when upset didn’t necessarily predict eating disorder symptoms later on.

The data came from two long-term studies: Generation R in the Netherlands and Gemini in the UK, focusing on children born around the early to mid-2000s.

Parents provided information on their children’s eating behaviors at ages four or five, while the adolescents themselves reported on their eating disorder symptoms in their early teens.

Interestingly, about 10% of these adolescents reported binge eating symptoms, and half mentioned engaging in behaviors to compensate for their food intake or to avoid weight gain, such as skipping meals.

Dr. Clare Llewellyn, also from UCL, emphasized the novelty of this comprehensive examination of appetite traits and their potential role in developing eating disorder symptoms.

She highlighted the importance of early identification of risk factors to prevent these disorders from occurring in the first place.

The researchers also discussed the importance of creating a healthy food environment and adopting responsive feeding practices.

This approach involves making nutritious foods available and encouraging children to make their own choices about what and how much to eat, without undue pressure.

A related study examined how early childhood feeding practices by parents might influence the risk of eating disorder symptoms in adolescence.

This research suggested that non-responsive feeding strategies could be linked to a higher likelihood of eating disorder symptoms, although the associations were small and varied between the two study groups.

Overall, the findings underline the complex interplay between early appetite traits, parental feeding practices, and the risk of developing eating disorders.

They suggest that developing and testing prevention strategies, focusing on both genetic and environmental factors, could be key in reducing these risks.

The research findings can be found in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health.