Babies who can’t resist food ‘are up to three times more likely to develop an eating disorder as a teenager’

  • Children with strong appetites are more likely to binge eat as teenagers
  • These children are also at greater risk for restrictive eating to lose weight

Research shows that young children who cannot resist the sight and smell of food are twice as likely to develop an eating disorder as teenagers.

Four- or five-year-olds with the strongest appetites had double the risk of binge eating a decade later than those who scored the lowest, a study found.

In contrast, young people who take their time at meals and feel full more quickly were the lowest likely to engage in uncontrolled or emotional eating when they are older.

Experts said that while some of the risk was genetic, a healthy food environment and developing nutritional strategies for parents could reduce the chances.

In the first study of its kind, researchers from University College London and Erasmus University Rotterdam focused on the role of appetite traits in early childhood and the links with subsequent eating disorders.

Higher food sensitivity in young children was linked to an increased risk of eating disorder symptoms, including a 47 percent greater risk of binge eating

They examined survey data from parents of 3,670 young people in Britain and the Netherlands on factors such as their child’s enjoyment of food, anxiety about food avoidance, speed of eating and emotional overeating.

Parents rated their child’s food sensitivity on a five-point scale, indicating how often they thought their child typically exhibited this type of food behavior: never, rarely, sometimes, often, always.

They found that particularly high food sensitivity at age 4 or 5 – defined as the urge to eat when you see, smell or taste appetizing food – was associated with a greater likelihood of reporting a range of eating disorder symptoms at the age of 12 to 14 years.

For each higher ranking – for example, scores like ‘never’ and ‘rarely’, there was a 47 percent greater risk of binge eating and a 16 percent greater risk of restrictive eating, such as skipping meals.

They also appeared to be more likely to engage in uncontrolled eating, emotional eating, restrained eating and other compensatory behaviors, researchers said.

Meanwhile, a slower eating pace and feeling full more quickly in early childhood may be protective against developing symptoms of an eating disorder later, according to findings published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health.

About one in ten adolescents reported symptoms of binge eating, in which people eat an unusual amount of food or experience a feeling of losing control over eating too much.

Half reported at least one behavior to compensate for their food intake or prevent weight gain, such as not eating breakfast.

Dr. Clare Llewellyn, from the UCL Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care, said: ‘Eating disorders can be more difficult to treat effectively once they develop, and so it would be better to prevent them in the first place.

‘Our work in identifying risk factors in early life aims to support the development of possible prevention strategies. For example, this could involve offering extra support to children at higher risk.’

Appetite traits such as pickiness in eating, eating less due to a bad mood, and enjoying food in early childhood were not linked to later eating disorder symptoms in adolescence.

Researchers warned that high food sensitivity is “a very common behavior and should be seen as just one potential risk factor among many, rather than something that concerns parents.”

They suggest that responsive feeding – providing nutritious food at regular meals and snacks and letting the child decide what and how much to eat – could be an effective strategy against this.

Professor Pauline Jansen from Erasmus University Rotterdam said: ‘Overall, our findings suggest that developing and testing prevention strategies may be worthwhile.

‘Although appetite has a substantial genetic component, we also know that there are environmental influences that provide opportunities for behavioral change.’


Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, preferably whole grains, according to the NHS

Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, preferably whole grains, according to the NHS

• Eat at least 5 portions of varied fruit and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruits and vegetables count

• Basic meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, preferably whole wheat

• 30 grams of fiber per day: This is the same as eating all of the following: 5 servings of fruits and vegetables, 2 whole wheat cereal biscuits, 2 thick slices of whole wheat bread and large baked potato with skin on

• Provide some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soy drinks), opting for lower fat and lower sugar options

• Eat some beans, legumes, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish per week, one portion of which is fatty)

• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consume them in small quantities

• Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water per day

• Adults should have less than 6 grams of salt and 20 grams of saturated fat for women or 30 grams for men per day

Source: NHS Eatwell Guide