How do children’s abilities to self-regulate their food intakes change as they age?

Children get better at self-regulating their behaviours, thoughts and emotions as they grow up – is this also true of their eating behaviours?

We might not be surprised if a child in the midst of the “terrible twos”, or a “threenager”, started yelling, hitting or stomping if they were not able to get their way. But we probably wouldn’t expect this of 9- or 10-year-old children. This ability to “self-regulate” emotions, thoughts and behaviours improves as children grow and areas of the brain involved in planning, memory and thinking about the future develop. But do children also get better at regulating their food choices and energy intakes as they age? This was the question that we sought to answer with our recent review.

Many infants are innately good at regulating their energy balance- they can adjust their milk intakes to match their energy needs. But what happens after weaning? Do children maintain this ability to match energy needs with expenditure? Current prevalence rates of childhood overweight and obesity suggest otherwise.

What is appetite self-regulation?

We were particularly interested in the developmental course of appetite self-regulation in the early years. The ability to self-regulate appetite means that children can select appropriate foods and portion sizes and eat when they are hungry, but not when they are full (even if offered tasty foods). During this period of development, there is an interplay between the biological processes involved in energy balance and cognitive functioning, goal-directed behaviours, decision making and hedonic responses to food.

We examined the available evidence on indicators of appetite self-regulation including children’s abilities to balance energy intakes and expenditure, to delay gratification, to adjust energy intakes according to earlier energy consumption, to avoid eating appetising foods when they are full, and their general appetitive traits such as how reactive they were to the presence of food cues, or how responsive they were to internal feelings of fullness. We then compared and contrasted this evidence with that from self-regulation in non-food areas like emotions and non-eating behaviours.

Our findings showed that in general, non-food self-regulation improves as children develop, as we expected. Yet appetite self-regulation on average declines across childhood, despite development in areas of cognitive functioning that help non-food self-regulation. The evidence suggested that for many children their desires for appealing foods and drinks were not matched by their improved self-control capacities. However, we also found that there were large individual differences. Some children were able to self-regulate their appetite better than others. These children tended to be less affected by the reward value of food and/or better able to control their impulses.  

The obesogenic environment is very hard to resist

The obesogenic food environment in countries like Australia is characterised by easy access to tasty, energy dense foods that are vigorously marketed to children. Our findings suggest that the appeal of these foods and their packaging and advertising is too great for many children to resist with their developing cognitive control capacities. In the absence of major changes to the food environments that children are exposed to, parents and schools can encourage the development of children’s appetite self-regulation capacities by reducing exposure to rewarding foods or food advertising where possible, and/or assisting children with developing stronger impulse control when they are exposed to appealing foods or food advertising.

Where to from here?

It is clear that there is still much to be learned about how and why appetite self-regulation develops or is disrupted in children. This is particularly important in the context of obesogenic food environments. Cleverly designed research that can tell us more about how and why some children develop strong appetite self-regulation, while for others, appetite self-regulation is disrupted will be important for designing new and effective approaches to promote healthy eating and growth. Our work indicates that research that has a focus on understanding the processes and mechanisms involved in children’s appetite self-regulation will be particularly helpful.

Georgie Russell’s research is focused on understanding how and why we eat what we do. Her research aims to provide insights into the mechanisms and processes underlying food choices and intakes to identify opportunities to help people eat well to benefit both individual and planetary health and wellbeing. In particular, she investigates how psychological and social factors (e.g. attitudes towards eating, parent feeding practices) interact with biological factors (e.g. temperament) and environments to affect our eating behaviours. You can find out more about her research here.

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