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Does Restrictive Feeding Influence Children’s Weight?

A recently published study clarifies the association between restrictive feeding and children’s weight.

Throughout an individual’s childhood, parents have a large influence on food intake. Many parents adopt a restrictive feeding strategy where they heavily control the types and amounts of food their child consumes. It has been hypothesized that such practices may have a significant negative impact on the child’s body composition and weight throughout their lifetime. Theoretically, children must learn to regulate their own food intake and therefore, due to restrictive feeding, children may engage in overeating when certain prohibited foods finally become accessible to them. Although a correlation between increased body weight and restrictive feeding in children has been identified, the causality between the two characteristics has been unclear. A study published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition assesses the causality between restrictive feeding and children’s body composition as well as BMI and maternal concerns about children’s weight.

The study was conducted using 4,689 mother and child pairs in the Netherlands. A parent-reported questionnaire was utilized to keep track of restrictive feeding at 4 years of age and 10 years of age. The child’s BMI was recorded at ages 4 and 10 as well. When a child reached 6 years of age, the method of dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry was employed to calculate the child’s fat mass (FMI) and fat-free mass (FFMI) indices. Statistical analyses were carried out to test both directions of causality between restrictive feeding and body weight, and to test the role of maternal concerns of their child’s weight.

Results indicated that BMI scores at age 4, and FMI and FFMI scores at age 6 indicated increased restrictive feeding by age 10. No correlation was found between restrictive feeding at age 4 and the child’s BMI at age 10. Maternal concerns were found to partially mediate the correlation between restrictive feeding and body weight. It was concluded that restrictive feeding at age 10 was primarily a response to the child’s increased weight, as opposed to the cause of the child’s weight.

Based on the results, the study suggests a reconsideration of the inhibition of restrictive feeding practices. The research debunks an assumption of causality based on a correlation between restrictive feeding and children’s weight. The information is valuable to nutritionists recommending food intake practices for children, as well as to parents ensuring their child maintains a healthy diet.  This study is important as guidelines discouraging restrictive feeding may need to be reconsidered.  Further studies are needed to solidify these findings however the data presents compelling evidence that restrictive feeding is not the cause of a child being overweight but is rather a common parental response to a child being overweight.

Written by Shrishti Ahuja, HBSc


Dirks IPM, et al. Testing the direction of effects between child body composition and restrictive feeding practices: results from a population-based cohort. Am J Clin Nutr September 2017 vol. 106 no. 3 783-790.

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