News - Eating disorders could start at toddler mealtime

15th December 2006

The seeds of eating disorders - both anorexia and obesity - may be sown during mealtime battles with 'fussy' eating toddlers, a Queensland University of Technology developmental psychology researcher says.

Research by Dr Linda Gilmore, a practising psychologist, is investigating the link between fussy eating in early childhood and the later development of eating disorders which, she believes, may be related to parent-child battles when the child refuses to eat certain foods.

"Some parents take their child's refusal to eat food they have prepared as personal rejection or think the child is just being really naughty," Dr Gilmore said.

"But my research suggests that eating difficulties are relatively common in early childhood.

"Parents should not turn mealtime into a struggle for control because some evidence suggests that eating disorders such as anorexia stem from a desire to take control over one's own body.

"If children are forced to 'sit at the table until you eat it' this can turn into a struggle for who has power over the child's eating habits which could well set the scene for later eating problems."

Dr Gilmore said while about 3 per cent of the population suffered from anorexia and bulimia a much greater percentage had over-eating disorders that led to obesity.

"Again, the power struggle could be an important factor because obesity is often related to inability to self-regulate.

"If children aren't allowed some control over what they eat, they cannot learn to develop good self-regulation.

"Ultimately children must learn to manage their own behaviour and to do that, they must be allowed to choose."

Dr Gilmore said many children seemed to become less fussy about eating as they got older. Her research on 304 families with children aged 2 to 4 and another cohort of 319 with children aged 7 to 9 indicated 'fussy' eating was quite common, particularly in younger children.

"Some children simply don't like the taste or the texture, even the colour of certain foods.
"I've seen one child who would only eat white food. Likes and dislikes may change from week to week but it's important to recognise that this is fairly normal behaviour and not to turn it into a really big problem that interferes with the parent-child relationship."

Dr Gilmore said parents nowadays seemed to be more concerned when their children were fussy eaters.

"If someone was a fussy eater in families of eight or nine, often no one took much notice and the child just went hungry until the next meal.

"But today there may be only one or two children in the family and parents are more focussed on the details of each child's behaviour, sometimes to the point of worrying obsessively and responding in ways that escalate a small difficulty into a much bigger problem."

Media contact: Niki Widdowson, QUT media officer, 07 3138 1841 or
** High res pics available for media use.

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