Parents know that some kids are picky eaters and others are more enthusiastic about food, and keeping them all eating healthfully may require different approaches. But most formal guidance aimed at helping parents feed children hasn’t accounted for fundamental differences in children’s behavioral predispositions towards eating.
“The research on how to feed kids has pretty much taken a one-size-fits-all approach, even though we've known for decades that kids vary tremendously in their interest and enjoyment of eating,” says Jennifer Orlet Fisher, professor in the College of Public Health’s Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
Now Fisher is embarking on a five-year study to identify food-related parenting practices that may be most critical to obesity prevention among “highly food motivated” preschool children, who show behavioral susceptibility to overeating.
“If you think about kids at a birthday party, some are running around in the backyard, and other kids are saying ‘when can we eat the cake?’ It is those kids we are most interested in studying. We know that children’s eating behaviors are trait-like, and this study aims to identify the types of parenting practices that are most critical for supporting healthy eating and growth among kids who are biologically predisposed to love eating,” she says. Moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach to food parenting is particularly important for racial/ethnic minority families with low incomes who bear greater obesity-related burdens and are underrepresented in research, Fisher says.
The study will be conducted under a five-year grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Fisher will lead the project, with Sheryl O. Hughes, professor of Pediatrics-Nutrition at Baylor College of Medicine, as an investigator.
The new grant highlights Fisher’s growing national profile for her work to understand how early eating environments influence child behavioral controls of food intake and health outcomes. Fisher, who is associate director of Temple’s Center for Obesity Research and Education and directs its Family Eating Laboratory, recently was selected to serve on the federal dietary guidelines advisory committee which brings together the most up-to-date science to inform the US Dietary Guidelines, which are the cornerstone of federal food policy and set to be reissued in 2025. In 2021, she co-chaired the national Healthy Eating Research panel, a program that published science-backed guidelines to help parents and caregivers instill healthy eating behaviors among children ages 2 to 8.
The new study aims to follow 450 Hispanic and Black child/caregiver pairs in low-income families, at two points in time, as children transition from preschool to elementary school, when significant numbers of children begin to experience problems of poor diet quality and obesity. The research team will study how different approaches to food parenting are related to dietary intake and weight outcomes over time among children with varying food motivation. “We suspect that highly food motivated children will require more structured approaches, but this investigation will be the first to elucidate what and how much control is enough to support healthy eating behaviors among children who are highly food motivated”, Fisher explains.
Ultimately the researchers hope to build an evidence base that better supports the diverse needs of children and families. “Historically research on feeding children has focused on practices that increase risk of negative outcomes. This study will be among the first to comprehensively elucidate supportive food parenting strategies for highly motivated eaters through a lens that reflects the strengths and lived experiences of families who experience disproportionate burdens of diet-related chronic diseases.”