Children fall broadly into four eating categories, according to research at Aston University, and parents feed their children differently depending on those categories. The four categories identified by Dr Abigail Pickard and the team in the School of Psychology are ‘avid’, ‘happy’, ‘typical’, and ‘fussy’.
In the UK, around a fifth of children are overweight or living with obesity when they begin school, rising to around a third by the time they leave primary school at age 11. The team sought to identify eating behaviour patterns and how these are associated with temperament, feeding practices and food insecurity, as a way to predict which children are more at risk of becoming overweight.
Typical eaters made up 44% of the children in the study, while fussy eaters accounted for 16%. 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’. The behaviours that distinguish children with ‘avid’ eating from those who show ‘happy’ eating (17.7% of children in the study), who have similarly positive responses to food, are wanting to eat (or eating more) in response to the sight, smell or taste of palatable food, and a higher level of emotional overeating. In combination, these eating behaviours can lead to overeating and subsequent weight gain.
Dr Pickard and the team, which includes academics from Aston University, Loughborough University, Kings College London and University College London (UCL), have also shown that there are significant differences in children’s temperament and caregivers’ feeding practices between each of the four eating behaviour patterns.
Children with avid eating are more likely to be active and impulsive, and their caregivers are more likely to give them food to regulate their emotions or to restrict food for health reasons. Children with avid eating were also less food secure than children who showed happy or typical eating behaviours.
Dr Pickard said: “Parents can use this research to help them understand what type of eating pattern their child presents. Then, based on the child’s eating profile, the parent can adapt their feeding strategies to the child.”
The team has planned further research investigating avid eating behaviour and will invite the caregivers and their children into the specialist eating behaviour lab at Aston University to get a better picture of what avid and typical eating behaviours look like in a real-life setting. All the findings will be integrated and the researchers will work with parents to develop feasible and helpful feeding guidelines to reduce children’s intake of palatable snack foods.
Paper: Pickard A, et al. (2023). Identifying an avid eating profile in childhood: Associations with temperament, feeding practices and food insecurity. Appetite.; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2023.107050.