The study, published in Eating Behaviors, looked at young children's eating habits in the absence of being hungry and how parental feeding control impacted those behaviours in both girls and boys – finding that 100% of children opted for a sweet or savoury snack despite eating a filling healthy lunch only 15 minutes prior.
Lead researcher Holly Harris, from Queensland University of Technology's Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, said the results highlight the health risks for children frequently confronted with an abundance of energy-dense, high-calorie foods.
"Of the 37 children who took part in the study, all children displayed eating in the absence of hunger, even though more than 80% reported being full or very full just 15 minutes earlier," said Harris.
"An impaired ability to respond to signs of feeling full and being unable to self-control food intake in an environment where children are frequently faced with high-energy foods is likely to have undesirable ramifications on a child's energy balance and weight status,” she added.
Harris and her colleagues analysed data from 37 mothers and children enrolled in the NOURISH RCT. Each mother-child grouping participated in a modified eating in the absence of hunger (EAH) protocol conducted in the child's home.
Children were fed a lunch containing one sandwich consisting of two slices of bread, spread, and filling; 250 mL of full fat milk or 175 g of flavored yogurt; and fruit. This provided the children with aproximately 2700 kJ - which is almost half of their daily energy requirement, said the team. After 15 minutes, the team then offered the child sweet or savoury snack items, which included savoury biscuits, sweet biscuits, fruit ‘leathers’, potato chips and a cereal bar; providing a total of 2104 kJ.
The team noted that all children displayed EAH behaviours, despite 80% reporting to be full or very full following completion of the lunch only 15 minutes earlier.
Harris added that the results also revealed that pressure by mothers to eat was also positively linked to higher levels of snack food intake in the absence of being hungry, but noted that this was a result found only with boys.
"Mothers who reported that they typically pressured their boys to eat during meal times, had boys who also ate more snacks when they were no longer hungry," she said. "This adds weight to the argument that boys' and girls' eating behaviours may be influenced or expressed in different ways.”
"For example, in boys it may be that controlled feeding practices such as encouraging boys to finish everything on their plate may compromise their ability to determine their own hunger. Therefore they may be more likely to eat and overeat in the presences of highly palatable snacks.”
Harris suggested that forcing boys to eat their breakfast, lunch of dinner may impact their ability to self-regulate their snack food intake as well. However she noted that when mothers pressured girls to eat, it did not have the same impact on their child's snack consumption.
A learned response?
Harris added that people are born with a capacity to self-regulate their food intake – noting that infants will not consume energy in excess of what their body requires.
“Internal hunger and satiety signals are relayed to the brain and tell infants when to stop and start eating," she said. "But as we grow older, we become increasingly aware of the abundance and rewarding value of food and in turn our ability to respond appropriately to our appetite may diminish.”
"In a society which constantly promotes over-consumption from convenient, energy-dense foods a susceptibility to respond to environmental food cues over appetite cues may lead to an imbalance in energy and food intake and undesirable weight gain,” warned the lead researcher. "Preserving this ability to self-regulate energy intake early in life may be the key to resisting environmental stimuli to eat, later in life."