Children Eating Habits NJ NY New Jersey Pediatrics

A recent French study suggests that young children are more responsive than adults to others’ facial expressions while eating. They’re more likely to want a given food after seeing a picture of someone looking happy while eating it.

The small research project studied the responses of 120 adults and children. The subjects were shown photos of people eating different identifiable foods, and then asked if they would like to eat some themselves. Some people in the photos were fat, some slender, some looked pleased while eating, while others wore expressions of disgust.

Across the board, the adults in the study responded most to the body weight of the photographic subjects, showing less desire to eat items that were being eaten by an overweight person.

But the children, who were 3 to 8 years old, were influenced by multiple factors. They were swayed to some degree by the diner’s weight, but more important was whether the food itself was something they already liked, and what emotion the diner was expressing while eating.

If the picture showed one of their favorite foods, the kids said they wanted some, no matter what the depicted diner’s weight was. Their desire for it was increased if the food was visibly pleasing to the diner, and lessened if the diner had a disgusted expression, with fatness or thinness apparently having no effect on their response.

In the case of foods they didn’t like, depicted emotions had a decisive influence. Pleased expressions made the children more likely to say they’d be willing to try the food, disgusted expressions had the opposite effect. Also, with disliked items, the body weight of the diner in the photograph counted more than with favorite foods: a slender diner looking happy prompted more openess to trying the questionable item than a fat one. An obese diner shown eating a disliked food had the kids expressing increased dislike for it.

Sylvie Rousset of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research discussed the findings, which have been published in the journal Obesity,  via e-mail with Reuters Health. “The children’s reactions were unexpected. To our knowledge, no experiment has shown the influence of ‘disgusted’ or ‘pleasant’ faces on children’s desire to eat.”

She explained that with children in this young age group, imitation of emotion shown by those around them may play a significant part, moreso than for adults.

To the degree that the youngsters were influenced by the body weight of the depicted eaters, they showed some awareness of the negative cultural attitudes about obesity, though not nearly to the degree shown by the adults.

The aim of this study and others like it, said Rousset, is to determine the “psychosocial” elements that form youngsters’ attitudes and long-term habits about food and eating. Do these findings translate into helpful suggestions for parents?

Parents would probably do well to be aware of the cues they give children at mealtime – often adults convey their feelings and opinions about different dishes without being aware of it, through those tell-tale facial expressions. Looking pleasant while eating healthy foods that you want your kids to like is probably a good idea.

Of course, real life situations don’t really mirror the conditions of scientific studies. The social aspects of food and dining are complex. For instance, the adult participants were at least partially turned off the idea of eating after seeing pictures of fat people eating—but other research has shown that people eat more when eating with a friend than with a stranger, particularly if both were overweight.

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