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Should you force your child to eat? New research is suggesting that regulating children’s eating can override their own internal hunger cues, and may result in over eating, and may even contribute to the childhood obesity epidemic.


Parental control of a child’s eating has been proposed to increase the likelihood of over eating, and result in weight gain. The thought behind this that a parent controlling a child’s eating, for example by forcing a child to finish a meal, may override the natural ability of a child to recognize and respond to internal hunger cues, and therefore self-regulate food consumption. When a child no longer eats in response to internal hunger cues, and eats in the absence of hunger, the tendency is to over eat and gain weight.

A recent study set out to determine the association between maternal control over feeding and a child’s tendency to eat in the absence of hunger. In addition, the study aimed to determine the differences that may exist between boys and girls. The three feeding practices that were assessed by the study were: pressure to eat, restriction of certain foods, and passive monitoring of food intake. A total of 180 boys and girls of preschool age (3-4 years) were recruited as a subset of the NOURISH randomized controlled trial conducted in Brisbane, Australia. The mothers of the preschoolers were provided with lunches and after lunch snacks to be offered to the children.

The first main result of the study was that despite the fact that 80% of children reported being ‘full’ or ‘very full’ after lunch, all children ate the snacks offered to them after eating lunch. There was no difference noted between boys and girls. This result shows that a child will eat a treat or snack that they enjoy, even if they are not hungry. However, this study now also demonstrated that this is occurring in children as young as 3 years old. A major concern is the ramifications on food intake regulation and weight gain.

The second main result of the study was that restricting specific foods, or monitoring food intake, did not significantly affect eating in the absence of hunger for either boys or girls. However, for boys only, there was a positive association between pressure to eat by mothers and eating in the absence of hunger.

The authors report that the results of the study suggest children as young as 3 years old respond to environmental cues in preference to physiological cues to eat. This could have detrimental effects on children, especially if they have easy access to high calorie, highly desirable foods. The concern is that body fat and BMI have been associated with eating in the absence of hunger in a variety of age groups. The results demonstrating that this is occurring in children as young as 3 years old is a concerning trend, and is something that may contribute to the rising childhood obesity epidemic.


Harris, H, Mallan, KM, Nambia, S, Daniels, LA. “The relationship between controlling feeding practices and boys’ and girls’ eating in the absence of hunger” Eating Behaviors, Volume 15, Issue 4, December 2014, Pages 519–522.

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Written by Deborah Tallarigo, PhD

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