Baby's appetite may be predictor of future obesity risk

Kate Monakhova

Have a baby or child with a hearty appetite? It could increase their chances of obesity in the future.

Two studies published in JAMA Pediatrics on Feb. 17 looked at how a child’s appetite was linked to their future weight gain.

The first study enrolled non-identical, same-sex twins from the U.K. and looked at their so-called satiety responsiveness -- defined by being less likely to eat when they feel full -- and their food responsiveness, which is how likely they would be swayed to eat by the sight or smell of good food.

The babies were monitored at three months of age, and then their growth up to the age of 15 months was recorded.

A baby that had more food responsiveness, meaning they were more likely to eat when something tasty was nearby, was about 1.4 pounds heavier on average than his or her twin counterpart at the end of the study.

The baby that had a lower satiety response, which meant they would still continue to eat even though they felt full for a longer period than their sibling would, was about 1.4 pounds heavier at six months and 2 pounds heavier at 14 months.  

The second study looked at 2,258 10-year-old children born in the U.K. between 1994 and 1996. Their propensity for obesity was determined through a genetic test, and they were given a polygenic obesity risk score (PRS) based on the number of higher-risk alleles they had out of the 28 obesity-related genes.

Then, the children were tested for their satiety responsiveness and how much fat they had, including  their body mass index (BMI, a ratio of weight to height) and waist circumference measurements. The researchers compared the PRS scores with this data.

Predictably, children with a higher PRS score, who more genetically predisposed to obesity, had a higher chance of having a larger BMI and waist circumference. But, researchers also discovered they were more likely to have a low satiety responsiveness.

Lead author of the first study Jane Wardle, from the University of College London Health Behavior Research Center, said in a press release that identifying these factors could help identify people who are more likely to become obese. She said the first study was especially important, because the findings were the same across gender, and compared kids who grew up in the same environment.

"It might make life easy to have a baby with a hearty appetite, but as she grows up, parents may need to be alert for tendencies to be somewhat over-responsive to food cues in the environment, or somewhat unresponsive to fullness. This behavior could put her at risk of gaining weight faster than is good for her,” Wardle explained.

Lead author of the second study Dr. Clare Llewellyn, from the UCL Health Behavior Research Center, added that these studies show that the satiety factor could be the key to combating or preventing obesity.

“For example, children with lower satiety sensitivity could be taught techniques that might improve their fullness signals when eating, such as slowing their eating speed. Another approach might be to provide better advice to parents and children about appropriate portion sizes, limiting access to 'second helpings' and ensuring tempting treats are out of sight between meals,” she explained.

Daniel Belsky of the Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development at Duke University Medical Center,  wrote in an accompanying editorial that these studies were important because they showed a way to help prevent weight issues before they even started. He asked for more studies looking at how different appetite factors affect adolescents and adults.

However, he pointed out to HealthDay that parents should not cut down on their baby’s food if they suspect they are eating too much.

"Babies are very good at what they do, which is grow and develop," he said. "More often than not, they know what they need and parents should follow their lead. If parents are concerned about their baby's appetite, they should talk to their pediatrician."