Acquisition of Food Preferences
and Eating Patterns in Children
LEANN L. BIRCH
By definition, as mammals, we all begin life on an exclusive milk diet. During the first years of life, the transition from milk to a modified adult diet takes place, and to maintain growth and health, the infant must learn to accept at least some of the foods we offer to them. Individual differences among children in the control of food intake begin to emerge during this early transition period. As children’s genetic predispositions are modified by learning and their experience with food and eating, food preferences and more adult-like controls of food intake begin to emerge. Early experience with food provides opportunities for learning that are critical to this process. Parents play a central role in shaping the child’s food environment and early experience with food and eating.
Parents influence the development of food acceptance patterns by structuring children’s early eating environments in a variety of ways. At birth, the parents’ choice to breast-feed or formula-feed has implications for subsequent food acceptance patterns. Once the transition to solid food begins, parents also have the opportunity to shape the child’s food environment by offering some foods and not others, by the timing and size of meals, and by the social contexts in which children’s eating occurs. For children, eating is usually a social occasion, complete with other eaters who can serve as models.
The child of overweight parents is at greater risk for becoming overweight, and this familial resemblance is the result of the interaction of genetic and environmental factors. Childhood overweight is the result of a gene–environment interaction, in which genes and environment work in concert to produce overweight, and for children, parents provide both genes and the food environment during the early years of life. We cannot alter the child’s genetic predisposition but the feeding environment is modifiable and could be the target of specific interventions once we understand how environmental factors operate in concert with genetic factors to promote or discourage the development of childhood