Young Girls Who Eat When They’re Not Hungry

Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
September/October 2003 Volume 13, Number 5
©2002 Gürze Books

The ever-increasing incidence of obesity among children has led concerned researchers on a serious mission to find underlying environmental or behavioral causes. Results of a recent study provide the first evidence that eating when not hungry may represent a stable phenotypic behavior of young overweight girls. Parents’ restrictive feeding practices may also contribute to this behavior (Am J Clin Nutr 2002;76:226).

Environmental cues count

Dr. Barbara Rolls and her colleagues have demonstrated that with time children become increasingly responsive to environmental cues, such as extra-large portions of energy-dense foods (J Am Diet Assoc 2000;100:232). In that study, 2-to 3-year olds ate roughly the same amount of a main course whether they were given a large or small portion. However, 4- to 6-year-olds ate 60% more when the portion size was doubled.

Exposure to tempting foods after lunch

In the current study, Jennifer Orlet Fisher and Leann L. Birch evaluated 192 non-Hispanic white girls and their parents, when the girls were 5 and 7 years of age. The girls’ eating patterns were recorded over a two-year period when they were exposed to palatable foods after they ate a standard lunch and reported they were no longer hungry. After lunch, each girl was asked to rate 2 bite-sized samples of 10 sweet and savory snack foods, including popcorn, potato chips, pretzels, and ice cream. The experimenter then left the room for 10 minutes. When the experimenter returned, the girl was interviewed about whether her parents let her have the snacks and how she felt about her eating.

Eating without hunger increased risk

Eating without hunger was moderately stable during the 2-year period for most girls. Girls who ate large amounts of snack foods in the absence of hunger at 5 and 7 years of age were more than 4 times more likely to be overweight at both ages.

Food restriction predicted overeating. Parents’ reports of restricting their daughter’s access to foods at age 5 predicted girls eating in the absence of hunger at age 7, even after controlling for their weight and eating in the absence of hunger at age 5. The extent to which this may represent parental attempts to limit intake among children they already perceive as having a tendency toward obesity is unclear.

Most parents expressed a wish to help their children avoid eating “high-fat” foods. One-half of the mothers and three-fourths of the fathers were overweight (body mass index above 25).

An environment of high-fat foods, in large portions

The study showed evidence for the environmental effects on overweight among children that result from what the authors term an “obesigenic” food environment. This is a setting where a wide variety of energy-dense foods are available in “super-size” portions, yet one in which parents may be restrictive about food.

The authors suggest that a healthier eating atmosphere for children doesn’t imply lack of structure, but instead suggests setting limits and offering children an array of healthy foods and portions sizes appropriate to their needs.

This study underscores the fact that children should be encouraged to focus on their own feelings of hunger and fullness as a guide to determining when eating begins and ends. Parents’ use of restrictive feeding practices is not effective for eliminating a child’s intake and can lead a child to eat restricted foods, with or without being hungry.

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