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Published July 13, 2021

BY MARCENE ROBINSON

Impulsiveness, tied to faster eating in children, can lead to obesity

Research suggests cravings after seeing and smelling food may be linked to a child’s inability to self-soothe

Children who eat slower are less likely to be extroverted and impulsive, according to a new study co-led by the University at Buffalo and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and co-autored by a GSE professor and doctoral candidate.

The research, which sought to uncover the relationship between temperament and eating behaviors in early childhood, also found that kids who were highly responsive to external food cues—the urge to eat when food is seen, smelled or tasted—were more likely to experience frustration and discomfort and have difficulties self-soothing.

These findings are critical because faster eating and greater responsiveness to food cues have been linked to obesity risk in children, said Myles Faith, a co-author and professor of counseling, school and educational psychology.

The research, published in June in Pediatric Obesity, supports including temperament in studies about and treatment for childhood obesity, a connection Faith explored further in previous research he co-led.

“Temperament is linked to many child developmental and behavioral outcomes, yet despite emerging evidence, few studies have examined its relationship with pediatric obesity,” said co-author and investigator Robert Berkowitz, MD, emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also director of the Weight and Eating Disorders Research Program at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which funded the study.

The researchers surveyed 28 participants beginning a family intervention program to reduce eating speed among 4- to 8-year-old children with or at risk for obesity.

The study examined the associations between three eating behaviors and three facets of temperament. The eating behaviors included responsiveness to feeling full (internal food cues); responsiveness to seeing, smelling and tasting food (external food cues); and eating speed. Temperament consisted of extroversion and impulsivity (also known as surgency); self-control; and the inability to self-sooth negative emotions such as anger, fear and sadness.

Children who respond well to feeling full exhibit more self-control, according to the findings. More research is needed to understand the role parents play in their children’s temperament and eating behavior, said Alyssa Button, co-lead investigator, first author and a GSE doctoral candidate.

“Parents may use food to soothe temperamental children and ease negative emotions,” said Button, who is also a senior research support specialist in UB’s Department of Pediatrics in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “Future research should examine the different ways parents feed their children in response to their temperament, as well as explore whether the relationship between temperament and eating behaviors is a two-way street. Could the habit of eating slower, over time, lead to lower impulsiveness?”

“This study established relationships between temperament and eating patterns in children. However, there is still the question of chicken-and-egg and which comes first,” Faith said. “Research that follows families over time is needed to untangle these developmental pathways.”

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