It’s become a milestone moment so many parents look forward to: their baby’s first bite of birthday cake when he turns one.
For some children, it’s love at first taste, leading to photos of messy, frosting-covered faces. Others need extra prodding to eat the sugar-laden treat. Parents may want to take note of which camp their child falls into – it could already be a clue to their risk of unhealthy weight gain in the future.
As childhood obesity remains a concern in the U.S., pediatricians are working to better understand how we can reverse the trend. In a study recently published in Pediatrics, our team of researchers from the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital found signs of overeating in children as young as 21 months old.
One predictor of unhealthy weight gain? A sweet tooth.
In the study, children ages one to three were offered a plate of sweets like chocolate chip cookies and Oreos and salty treats like chips immediately after eating a normal lunch. They were told to eat as much as they’d like. Those children who chose sweets were found to be more likely to continue those eating patterns and be overweight as they grew older. However, the same was not true for those who preferred salty snacks on a full belly.
Better understanding obesity is a research priority for the National Institutes of Health. We’re making progress to better understand why some people are more prone to obesity than others. Our study found evidence that points to a child being on that trajectory from a very young age — 21 months. We’ll need to conduct further research to understand if we can see signs of a propensity to overeat at even a younger age, and strategies to employ for reducing the risk of obesity.
What Can Parents Do?
The most important takeaway from this study for parents is to recognize that all children are different, and may need different parenting approaches. You may have one child who will happily eat a box of cookies whether or not he or she is hungry, and another child who will take a few bites and be satisfied. Look for those signs and differences in your children, and adjust your parenting style as needed.
If your child loves sweets, work to limit access. Give him or her one cookie, not a whole package. Better yet, get in the habit of having fruit for a snack or dessert. Try to stay in the mindset that food is for nutrition and not to be used as a reward, punishment or way to occupy your child. For young babies, delay introducing sweet foods to them (including fruits) until they are older.
Take the next steps:
Julie Carroll Lumeng, MD, received her medical degree from the University of Michigan, where she also completed her pediatric residency. She completed fellowship at Boston University School of Medicine and is board certified in developmental and behavioral pediatrics. Dr. Lumeng does research on the development of children’s eating behavior. Away from clinic, Dr. Lumeng enjoys spending time with her husband and three children. Dr. Lumeng sees children with developmental, behavioral, or school functioning concerns who receive their primary care from the physicians at Ypsilanti Health Center.
University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital is consistently ranked one of the best hospitals in the country. It was nationally ranked in all ten pediatric specialties in U.S. News Media Group’s “America’s Best Children’s Hospitals,” and among the 10 best children’s hospitals in the nation by Parents Magazine. In December 2011, the hospital opened our new 12-story, state-of-the-art facility offering cutting-edge specialty services for newborns, children and women.