Role of parents in the determination of the food preferences of children and the development of obesity
D. Benton, Department of Psychology, University of Swansea, Swansea, Wales, UK
International Journal of Obesity, July 2004, 28: 858-869
The role of parental behaviour in the development of food preferences is considered. Food preferences develop from genetically determined predispositions to like sweet and salty flavours and to dislike bitter and sour tastes. Particularly towards the second year of life, there is a tendency to avoid novel foods (neophobia). Food aversions can be learnt in one trial if consumption is followed by discomfort. There is a predisposition to learn to like foods with high-energy density.
However, from birth genetic predispositions are modified by experience and in this context during the early years parents play a particularly important role. Parental style is a critical factor in the development of food preferences. Children are more likely to eat in emotionally positive atmospheres. Siblings, peers and parents can act as role models to encourage the tasting of novel foods. Repeated exposure to initially disliked foods can breakdown resistance. The offering of low-energy-dense foods allows the child to balance energy intake. Restricting access to particular foods increases rather than decreases preference. Forcing a child to eat a food will decrease the liking for that food.
Traditionally, educational strategies have typically involved attempts to impart basic nutritional information. Given the limited ability of information to induce changes in behaviour, an alternative strategy would be to teach parents about child development in the hope that an understanding of the characteristic innate tendencies and developmental stages can be used to teach healthy food preferences.