Mya Care Blogger 09 May 2024

Eating disorders are multifaceted mental health conditions that disrupt healthy eating patterns and behaviors. They can pose serious physical and emotional consequences, particularly for teenagers, a group with heightened vulnerability. Research indicates that up to 22.36% of children and teens exhibit disordered eating patterns, emphasizing their alarming prevalence.[1]

Recent studies suggest a potential connection between eating habits developed in childhood and the later onset of eating disorders during adolescence. This relationship centers around the idea of "appetite traits," which refer to tendencies such as a child's enjoyment of food, responsiveness to hunger and fullness cues, and their level of food fussiness.

This article explores the latest research on eating disorders in children, including the significance of appetite traits, symptoms, and advancements in treatment.

Appetite Traits in Childhood

Appetite traits in children refer to various characteristics related to their eating behaviors and responses to food. These traits can influence their relationship with food, eating patterns, and overall nutrition.

Here is an overview of common appetite traits in children:

  • Food Responsiveness: A child's level of interest and excitement in response to the sight, smell, or taste of food. Children with high food responsiveness may be more likely to overeat or be drawn to easily accessible foods.
  • Satiety Sensitivity: How quickly a child feels full and satisfied after eating. A child with low satiety sensitivity may find it difficult to stop eating, as they do not feel full even if they reach their limit physically.
  • Slow Eating: The pace at which a child eats. Children who eat slowly may be more in tune with their body's fullness signals, potentially helping them regulate their intake.
  • Fussiness: A child's pickiness or reluctance to try new foods. Fussy eaters often have strong preferences, which can limit their exposure to a variety of foods.

These traits are observable as young as three months old and serve to build the foundation of a child's eating patterns throughout their lives.[2]

How Do Appetite Traits Influence Eating Disorders?

The relationship between appetite traits and eating disorders is complex and multifaceted.

The latest research from long-term studies highlights how the eating patterns and traits of children influence their chances of developing an eating disorder later on.[3]

High food responsiveness

Studies have shown that higher food responsiveness may share a link with a higher incidence of eating disorder symptoms in adolescents. Across 3670 children aged 4 to 5 years in the Netherlands and the UK, researchers found[4]:

  • A 47% increased odds of binge eating
  • A 16% higher risk of restrictive eating
  • A greater likelihood of uncontrolled eating habits and emotional eating

Children with higher food responsiveness are more likely to have a more challenging time regulating their food intake and stand a higher chance of turning to food for comfort or emotional needs.

Emotional eating represents eating as a way to cope with negative emotions. The development of an eating problem may be facilitated by the regular use of food as a coping technique. Children who engaged in emotional eating were more likely to overeat and develop compensatory mechanisms, such as skipping meals, exercising excessively, and fasting.

Restrictive eating was explicitly linked to the development of anorexia nervosa later on.

Satiety Sensitivity and Eating Pace

Satiety sensitivity is how well our bodies recognize fullness signals. Children with a low satiety sensitivity may eat larger portions than needed and struggle with the feeling of being satiated.

Children who do not reliably feel full may be more prone to overeating or binge eating later on due to never feeling truly satisfied with meals. This can also promote compensatory behaviors like purging or excessive restriction to manage the increased caloric intake.

On the other hand, children with higher satiety sensitivity, who recognize fullness more easily, tend to have better self-regulation of their food intake.

Satiety sensitivity and eating pace are related. Eating slowly permits your body to register signals of fullness as they arise. This can help prevent overeating and reduce impulsive eating during a meal.[5]

Children who eat slowly are less likely to develop compensatory behaviors and restrained eating in adolescence, while those who eat very quickly are at a greater risk.

Fussiness and Restrictive Eating

While not a direct cause, fussiness can make it difficult for children to develop healthy eating habits, which may increase the risk of eating disorders later. It can lay the foundation for restrictive or restrained eating and food avoidance.

Restrained eating refers to attempts to limit food intake or control eating patterns for weight loss or avoiding weight gain. In young children, this might manifest as picky eating beyond the norm, skipping meals, or expressing undue concern about body size and shape.

There is compelling evidence suggesting a link between restrained eating in children and the later development of binge eating symptoms.[6]

Studies show that restrained eating often backfires, leading to increased sensitization in the brain toward how a child approaches food, which leads to a greater risk of binge eating episodes.[7]

Restrained eating can lead to feelings of deprivation and intensify cravings, making it harder to maintain control over eating. This can trigger binge eating, characterized by devouring large amounts of food quickly and feeling a loss of control.

This can contribute towards a cycle of exacerbated negative emotions like stress and anxiety and turning to food as a management technique, leading to successive binge eating episodes.

Parental Involvement

Another recent study examined the impact of parental feeding practices in early childhood on the likelihood of eating disorder symptoms in adolescence.

The researchers analyzed two similar cohorts and found that non-responsive parental feeding practices, such as pressuring kids to eat or using food to reward or comfort them, were associated with a higher likelihood of developing eating disorder symptoms later on.

However, the associations observed were small and differed between the two cohorts. The researchers highlighted the need for further replication studies to validate these findings.

Other Considerations

While evidence points towards the influence of specific appetite traits on the risk of developing an eating disorder and obesity, it is essential to note that possessing any of these traits does not directly cause an eating disorder or weight gain.

Other factors, such as genetics, environmental influences, and psychological factors, also play a role in the development of an eating disorder, as does body weight[8]. However, understanding how appetite traits can influence eating behaviors can help identify children who may be at risk and intervene early on.

Promoting Healthy Eating Habits in Children

While treatment is crucial for children with eating disorders, it is also essential to promote healthy eating habits to prevent the development of disordered eating behaviors.

Here are some suggestions for encouraging healthier eating patterns in children:

  • Encourage a variety of foods: Offer them a medley of healthy foods and encourage them to try new things. This can help prevent picky eating and promote a balanced diet.
  • Avoid labeling foods as "good" or "bad": Instead of labeling foods as "good" or "bad," teach your child about the significance of balance and moderation in their diet.
  • Model healthy behaviors: Children learn by example, making it meaningful to model healthy eating habits yourself. Avoid restrictive diets or negative comments about your own body.
  • Encourage mindful eating: Familiarize your child with their body's hunger and fullness cues, showing them to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. Avoid making this the main emphasis of mealtimes to avoid undue stress.
  • Avoid using food as a reward or punishment: Children may develop a negative relationship with food if it is used as a form of reward or punishment. Instead, find non-food ways to reward and discipline your child.[9]
  • Maintain a Relaxed Mealtime Setting: Creating a relaxed and enjoyable mealtime atmosphere helps children develop a positive relationship with food. Turn off distractions and have conversations that do not revolve around eating. Avoid pressuring children to eat specific amounts or clean their plates.[10]
  • Use Age-Appropriate Terms: Explain concepts like satiety and slow, mindful eating in a way children understand. For example, feeling full means your tummy is comfortable and happy, like after a nice warm hug. Eating slowly means giving your tummy time to tell your brain it has had enough. Without being alarmist, you can explain that sometimes people have trouble hearing their tummy signals or eat too fast. This can lead to tummy aches, eating too much, or trying to make it go away later, which does not feel good.
  • Use Covert Restriction: While there is place for treats in a balanced diet, restricting them or labeling them 'bad' can lead to over-consumption when they are available. It is better to keep food the child should not habitually eat out of sight or not to have it in the house.[11]
  • Show Them a Way to Identify Hunger Cues: Help children recognize hunger and fullness – a rumbling tummy might mean it is time to eat, and a comfortably full tummy means they can stop.
  • Exposure is Key: Repeatedly offering a variety of foods (even disliked ones) increases the chance of developing a broader palate and healthier preferences[12]. It is normal for children to be afraid or uncertain of newer foods until exposed more often. Encourage children to touch, smell, and try new foods without pressurizing to eat them. Give them choices within reason so they have a sense of control.

When to Seek Help

It is important for parents and other caregivers to understand the warning signs and symptoms of eating disorders in children. Some common warning signs include:

  • Significant weight loss or gain
  • Obsession with body image and weight
  • Rejection of certain foods or food groups on an extended basis
  • Preoccupation with food, calories, and dieting
  • Changes in mood or behavior, such as irritability or withdrawal
  • Excessive exercise
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom after meals
  • Hiding or hoarding food
  • Wearing baggy clothes to hide weight loss
  • Complaining of stomach pain or feeling full after small amounts of food

If you notice any of these signs in your child, seek help from a healthcare professional. Early intervention is vital in treating eating disorders and can remarkably improve the odds of recovery.

Latest Advancements in Treatment

There is ongoing research and advancements in treating eating disorders in children. These advancements focus on promoting healthy eating habits and addressing the underlying psychological factors contributing to eating disorders.

  • Parent Training Programs: There is increasing evidence that programs guiding parents in supporting their children's eating habits show great promise. These programs teach parents how to create a positive mealtime environment, model healthy behaviors, and avoid behaviors that can inadvertently promote disordered eating.
  • Family Therapy: A new model for treating eating disorders in kids and teens is the Maudsley Method, which aims to integrate all members of the family into the treatment process. Studies show that this method helps to teach parents how to interact with their children calmly and facilitates remission.[13]
  • Personalized Interventions: Research in this area might pave the way for tailoring eating disorder prevention and treatment plans based on a child's specific appetite profile. For example, a child with low satiety sensitivity might benefit more intensely from interventions focused on mindful eating.
  • Mindfulness Interventions: Studies are exploring the potential of mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy and training for children and adolescents. This includes mindful mealtimes, recognizing internal hunger/fullness cues, and managing emotional eating triggers. These approaches are showing encouraging results in reducing disordered eating risk factors.[14]

Other areas of research and development aim to pinpoint eating disorders by identifying contributing factors from an earlier age, such as genetic and environmental factors.

  • The Role of Genetics: Researchers investigate how an individual's genetic makeup contributes to appetite traits like satiety sensitivity (how readily someone feels full) and food responsiveness (being easily tempted by food cues). Some studies reveal a link between genetics, over-eating, fussy eating, and under-eating[15]. Understanding this link could help pinpoint children who are more biologically predisposed to disordered eating patterns.[16]
  • Environmental Factors: Understanding that appetite traits do not operate in a vacuum is necessary. Researchers are also exploring how factors like family dynamics, social pressures, and media exposure interact with genetic predispositions to increase eating disorder risk.


Eating disorders in children are a serious and complex issue, but with early intervention and the latest advancements in treatment, recovery is possible. By understanding the influence of appetite traits and promoting healthy eating habits, we can help prevent the development of eating disorders in children and promote overall well-being. If you suspect your child may be struggling with an eating disorder, seek help from a healthcare professional as soon as possible.

To search for the best Oncology Doctors and Oncology Healthcare Providers worldwide, please use the Mya Care search engine.

  • [1]
  • [2]
  • [3]
  • [4]
  • [5]
  • [6]
  • [7]
  • [8]
  • [9]
  • [10]
  • [11]
  • [12]
  • [13]
  • [14]
  • [15]
  • [16]

Disclaimer: Please note that Mya Care does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The information provided is not intended to replace the care or advice of a qualified health care professional. The views expressed are personal views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Mya Care. Always consult your doctor for all diagnoses, treatments, and cures for any diseases or conditions, as well as before changing your health care regimen. Do not reproduce, copy, reformat, publish, distribute, upload, post, transmit, transfer in any manner or sell any of the materials in this blog without prior written permission from