Impulsiveness Is Tied to Faster Eating in Children, Study Finds

Girl with raspberries on fingers, close up

Uwe Krejci

Key Takeaways

  • There is a link between a child's temperament and their eating behavior.
  • Some eating behaviors increase the risk of childhood obesity.
  • Strategies are available to help regulate at-risk eating behaviors.

Many of us know a child who is so high energy it’s difficult to keep up. They are upbeat, excited, impulsive, and fast-paced. These kids do everything fast, including eating. 

On the flip side, kids who are typically lower in mood, a little irritable, and often dissatisfied are slower eaters. But they also have a bigger appetite and will eat in response to things in their environment, not just when they are hungry. 

Both of these behaviors have previously been linked to childhood obesity. In a new study published in Pediatric Obesity, researchers have found a link between child temperament and eating behaviors. If you recognize these temperaments in your own kids, watch their eating styles. With gentle guidance, you can help them find healthier ways of approaching their food and their emotions. 

About the Study

Researchers asked volunteer parents to fill in two separate questionnaires about their children. One related to eating behaviors, and one related to the temperament of their child. To qualify for study inclusion, children had to be considered "at-risk" for obesity.

Two main results emerged. A high-energy child was likely to eat faster and a child with negative affect was more likely to eat slowly but turn to food to soothe emotions. It is important to note that this research is exploratory, meaning that although the link has been found, researchers don’t yet know exactly what it means.

High Energy Kids Are Fast Eaters

The study found that children with high surgency were more likely to be impulsive. Surgency typically describes someone who is upbeat, high-energy, spontaneous, and sociable. This temperament trait was linked to fast eating speed.

Fast eating is “actually a big predictor of later obesity,” says Myles Faith, PhD, one of the study’s authors. “But we've not really known why kids differ in eating speed. So the fact that…temperament has some relationship with this really predictive trait was really interesting.”

Myles Faith, PhD

There's actually a lot of research on eating speed from infants to kids, to adults. And that's one of the really reliable behavioral traits that predicts later obesity status

— Myles Faith, PhD

Although there is a lack of research about effective ways to teach kids to slow their eating speed, there is research to back up eating speed and obesity

“There's actually a lot of research on eating speed from infants to kids, to adults. And that's one of the really reliable behavioral traits that predicts later obesity status,” explains Dr. Faith. 

Strategies to Help

Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, a registered dietician who works regularly with busy parents and their children offers the following tips on eating mindfully as a way to slow eating speed: 

  • Eat at the table.
  • Minimize distractions by turning off any screens including the TV.
  • Ask your child to pay attention to their food by asking some open-ended questions like: What does it smell like? How does it feel in your mouth? Can you tell me about the taste? 

“The more we include all of our senses when we eat, the more slowly we eat and the more mindful we become,” explains Palinski-Wade.

“Negative Affect” Kids Eat Slower but Eat Responsively

Negative affect is described as someone who is typically a bit low in mood and easily upset when things don’t go to plan. Dr. Faith also explains that these kids are prone to being a little irritable.

The study showed that kids with a negative affect were slower eaters. But, they also were more "food responsive." This means that they are more likely to reach for food based on emotions, smells, and sights. They also typically have a bigger appetite. 

“If we got 100 kids together and let's suppose they all ate the same amount of food—a bowl of pasta an hour ago—and we bring them into…a chocolate store, some kids are going to be like, ‘Wow! I’ve got to have those chocolates!’” explains Dr. Faith. “They're more food responsive to the sights, the smells, the whatever. And they have a bigger appetite.”

What's the Risk?

The risk of obesity with these kids is that they live for the feelings associated with food and not by the fullness cues from their tummy. Researchers do admit that some of this food responsiveness may be linked to parenting styles.

As a busy parent, if your child is upset and can be calmed with a nice meal or sweet treat, it can become automatic to offer this as a remedy. After all, no parent likes to see their child upset.

The difficulty is that soothing emotions with food in childhood can set up an ongoing battle with emotional eating, and subsequent obesity-related health challenges.

Strategies to Help

Palinski-Wade advises you to pay attention to your response when your child is upset. If you offer a food solution, don’t judge yourself. Just be aware of it. Awareness is the first step to change. 

Erin Palinski-Wade, RD

When your child is in a poor mood, first look at what the cause may be.

— Erin Palinski-Wade, RD

“When your child is in a poor mood, first look at what the cause may be," she says. When you can identify a reason, then finding a suitable non-food solution is easier to achieve. 

“If they are hungry, then offering food is a great solution," Palinkski-Wade adds. "But many times the cause could be being overly tired, frustrated at not being able to complete a task, or even fear or anxiety creeping in."

Some non-food alternatives to soothing strong emotions can include: 

  • Getting outside for some fresh air
  • Taking a walk or moving their body
  • Offering a hug
  • Snuggling with a favorite toy
  • Taking a nap
  • Distracting them with things like bubbles, music, or a favorite activity 

What This Means For You

As a parent, you typically understand your child’s temperament. By paying attention to their energy and emotions, you can guide your child toward healthy emotional regulation as well as healthy food choices. You also can encourage them to eat more slowly if they tend to rush through their meals and to learn to listen to and trust their body to let them know when they're hungry or full.

6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Fogel A, Goh AT, Fries LR, et al. A description of an ‘obesogenic’ eating style that promotes higher energy intake and is associated with greater adiposity in 4.5 year-old children: results from the GUSTO cohort. Physiol Behav. 2017;176:107-116. doi:10.1016/J.PHYSBEH.2017.02.013

  2. Button A, Faith MS, Berkowitz RI. Temperament and eating self-regulation in young children with or at risk for obesity: an exploratory report. Pediatr Obes. Published online June 2, 2021. doi:10.1111/IJPO.12821

  3. American Psychological Association. Surgency.

  4. American Psychological Association. Negative affect.

  5. Jansen PW, Derks IPM, Mou Y, et al. Associations of parents’ use of food as reward with children’s eating behaviour and BMI in a population-based cohort. Pediatr Obes. 2020;15(11):e12662. doi:10.1111/IJPO.12662

  6. Lazarevich I, Irigoyen Camacho ME, Velázquez-Alva M del C, Zepeda Zepeda M. Relationship among obesity, depression, and emotional eating in young adults. Appetite. 2016;107:639-644. doi:10.1016/J.APPET.2016.09.011

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