Influences on Child Eating and Weight Development From a Behavioral Genetics Perspective

Tanja V. E. Kral, PhD; Myles S. Faith, PhD


J Pediatr Psychol. 2009;34(6):596-605. 

In This Article

Parent (Eating) Behaviors and Food Preferences Predict Child Eating Behaviors and Food Preferences: The Familial Association

The home food environment also plays a crucial role in forming children's food preferences and eating traits. Parents can influence the development of food acceptance patterns by structuring children's early eating environments (Birch, 2002). They decide the types and amounts of food that are served to their children, determine the timing of children's meals and snacks, and provide the social context in which eating occurs.

Parents influence their children's eating by exerting feeding practices which may either be conducive or hindering to the development of healthy eating and growth patterns. For example, data have shown that those children whose parents exert much control over their eating or restrict certain desired foods from them, tend to show a weaker intake regulation (Birch, McPhee, Shoba, Steinberg, & Krehbiel, 1987) and more pronounced EAH (Birch et al., 2003; Francis & Birch, 2005), an eating trait which will be discussed further below. It should be noted that these feeding relationships are often bidirectional in that parents also respond to children's requests for particular foods. On the other hand, restrictive feeding practices may be the result rather than the cause of increased BMI in children.

Parental feeding practices can also modify genetic predispositions for likes and dislikes of foods and help shape food preferences in children. Data from a recent study (Breen, Plomin, & Wardle, 2006) with monozygotic (MZ) and dizygotic (DZ) twins suggest that variations in food preferences are heritable when aggregated across certain groupings of foods. Specifically, the investigators found a modest heritability for fruits (heritability, h 2 = 51%), vegetables (37%), and desserts (20%) and a high heritability for liking of protein foods such as meat and fish (78%). There also exist data on family correlations which provide further evidence for a familial transmission of food preferences. Across studies, the relationship between child and parent food preferences appears to be statistically significant but small in magnitude (Faith, 2005). A meta-analysis by Borah-Giddens and Falciglia (1993) indicated mean parent-child correlations of r = .19 for mother-child pairings and r = .14 for father-child pairings.

Genetic predispositions for food preferences can be modified by home environmental factors such as parent feeding practices. For example, children are born with a genetic predisposition to neophobia which refers to the hesitancy to eat novel foods (Barnett, 1963). Neophobia can impede children's acceptance of new foods such as fruits and vegetables. Studies have shown that repeated exposure to novel foods can significantly reduce neophobia in children (Birch & Marlin, 1982; Sullivan & Birch, 1994). In support of these findings are results from studies which have shown that simply making certain types of foods available and easily accessible to children can impact their eating habits. For example, Cullen and colleagues (Cullen et al., 2003) showed that the availability and accessibility of fruits and vegetables in the home accounted for 35% of the variance in reported consumption of those foods. Thus, early exposure to foods can shape children's liking of these foods not only for ones that parents desire their children to consume (e.g., fruits and vegetables), but also for energy-dense snack foods, which may facilitate the overconsumption of calories.

Studies have shown that not only the types of foods that are available in the home, but also the amount of food that is being served to children significantly impacts how much children eat. For example, data from nationally representative cross sectional studies revealed positive associations of food portion sizes consumed and daily energy intake in children ranging from 6 months to 5 years (McConahy, Smiciklas-Wright, Birch, Mitchell, & Picciano, 2002; McConahy, Smiciklas-Wright, Mitchell, & Picciano, 2004). Specifically, data from the Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals (1994-1996, 1998) showed that portion sizes for the 10 most frequently consumed foods in the diets of 2- to 5-year-old children accounted for 17-19% of the variability in children's energy intakes (McConahy et al., 2004). Similarly, experimental studies showed that increases in the portion size of a main entrée resulted in significant increases in intake among young children (Fisher, 2007; Fisher, Liu, Birch, & Rolls, 2007; Orlet Fisher, Rolls, & Birch, 2003; Rolls, Engell, & Birch, 2000). Thus, food environments which offer children convenient access to large portions of palatable, energy-dense foods may contribute to excessive energy intake and weight gain.

In summary, the early home environment in which eating occurs is believed to influence, in important ways, children's eating regulation and the development of food preferences. Genes exert their influence through eating behaviors which in turn are directly affected by the immediate food environment and feeding styles. Therefore, early experiences with food and eating have the potential to not only establish healthy eating habits but also to modify genetic predispositions (e.g., neophobia) which in turn may lead to better food acceptance patterns.


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