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Appetite in infancy linked to childhood obesity risk
Is your child a ‘hearty eater’ who finds it hard to resist tempting food and has difficulty knowing when they are ‘full’? Two studies in the journal JAMA Pediatrics suggest that childhood obesity could be related to these key aspects of appetite. The studies, led by researchers in the UCL Health Behaviour Research Centre in the UK, looked at weight gain in relation to both lower satiety responsiveness (a reduced urge to eat in response to internal 'fullness' signals) and higher food responsiveness (an increased urge to eat in response to the sight or smell of nice food). The studies suggested that both of these elements correlated with weight and risk of obesity.

Childhood obesity is a major public health concern in westernised nations, to the point of being termed an epidemic. Public health campaigns focus on trying to educate parents to pay attention to portion sizes, frequency of giving treats, avoiding sugary drinks and making sure children take enough exercise. The two current studies shed light on what elements of appetite place children at risk of developing obesity and stress that problems can be identified in infancy.

The first study examined non-identical, same-sex twins born in the UK in 2007. Twins were assessed for differences in their satiety responsiveness (SR) and food responsiveness (FR) at three months of age, then their growth was monitored up to fifteen months. It was observed that within a twin pair, the child with greater food responsiveness or lower satiety responsiveness grew faster than their twin, potentially increasing their chance of developing childhood obesity.

Professor Jane Wardle, the lead author on the study from the UCL Health Behaviour Research Centre said: "Identifying factors that promote or protect against weight gain could help identify targets for obesity intervention and prevention in future. These findings are extremely powerful because we were comparing children of the same age and same sex growing up in the same family in order to reveal the role that appetite plays in infant growth…It might make life easy to have a baby with a hearty appetite, but as she grows up, parents may need to be alert for tendencies to be somewhat over-responsive to food cues in the environment, or somewhat unresponsive to fullness. This behaviour could put her at risk of gaining weight faster than is good for her."

In the second paper, data from 2258 ten-year old children born in the UK between 1994 and 1996 was examined. Researchers calculated a ‘polygenic obesity risk score’ (PRS) to figure out genetic susceptibility of each individual child to obesity by adding up the number of obesity-risk alleles from a panel of 28 obesity-related genes. A high PRS indicated an increased genetic predisposition to obesity. The researchers then matched the PRS to children's satiety responsiveness and adiposity (body fatness) to figure out if these was any correlation. They found that children with higher PRS tended to have higher BMI and waist circumference. But even more importantly, they confirmed that higher PRS also correlated with lower satiety responsiveness.

Dr Clare Llewellyn, lead author from the UCL Health Behaviour Research Centre said: "This suggests that satiety sensitivity could be targeted for pharmacological and behavioural interventions, to prevent or treat obesity. For example, children with lower satiety sensitivity could be taught techniques that might improve their fullness signals when eating, such as slowing their eating speed. Another approach might be to provide better advice to parents and children about appropriate portion sizes, limiting access to 'second helpings' and ensuring tempting treats are out of sight between meals."


Press release: [Accessed 18 February 2014].

LLEWELLYN, C.H., TRZASKOWSKI, M., VAN JAARSVELD, C.M., PLOMIN, R. and WARDLE, J., 2014. Satiety Mechanisms in Genetic Risk of Obesity. JAMA Pediatr. 2014;(): doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.4944

VAN JAARSVELD, C.M., BONIFACE, D., LLEWELLYN, C.H. and WARDLE J., 2014. Appetite and Growth: A Longitudinal Sibling Analysis. JAMA Pediatr. 2014;():. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.4951
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