Childhood obesityReducing toddler’s food portion size, or the number of eating occasions could help cut weight gain in later life, new research has revealed.

The study, carried out by researchers from the University of Bristol and University College London (UCL), is the first to look at how the appetitive traits of ‘food responsiveness’ – that is, the urge to eat in response to the sight or smell of appetising food – and ‘satiety responsiveness’ (sensitivity to internal ‘fullness’ signals’) relate to the eating behaviours of toddlers in an everyday context.

The report found that these two appetitive traits follow different eating patterns. Children who are very responsive to food cues eat more frequently (i.e. more times per day), and children who are less sensitive to internal fullness sensations consume more calories each time they eat. These eating behaviours may be potential mechanisms through which children exhibiting these appetitive traits are at risk of weight gain.

The study used data from 1,102 families with twins (2,203 children) born in 2007 from the Gemini twin birth cohort, a large national cohort that focuses on early childhood weight trajectories, appetite and the family environment. 

‘Food responsiveness’ and ‘satiety responsiveness’ were assessed with the Child Eating Behaviour Questionnaire when children were 16 months old; and eating behaviours were determined from 3-day diet diaries completed by parents when children were 21 months old. The average eating frequency was 5 and ranged from 1 to 10 times per day and the average size of each eating occasion was 180 calories, ranging from 59 to 417 calories per eating occasion.

Dr Laura Johnson, Lecturer in Public Health Nutrition from the University of Bristol’s School of Policy Studies, said: “It's really exciting to see for the first time that meal size in young children is driven by appetite. Generally, it's believed that children naturally regulate their appetite quite well so a big meal is offset by a smaller meal the next time. What our study shows is that some children are better at actually doing this than others, and portion size guidance may be more important for parents of children with a lower sensitivity to fullness.”

Hayley Syrad, from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at UCL, said: “A number of previous studies have shown children who are highly food responsive and/or have poor satiety responsiveness tend to be heavier, but how this might occur is not clear. Our study sheds some light on how the eating behaviours of children exhibiting these traits could potentially lead to weight gain. 

“Assessing eating behaviour in early childhood could help identify children potentially at risk of obesity later in life. Currently, there is little guidance for parents of young children on recommended eating frequency and portion sizes, and our research suggests that some parents may need more tailored advice and information if their child is at risk of overeating.”