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three “a-ha” studies that shaped how I thought about food and feeding

Posted by on Feb 26, 2013 in Blog Posts | 10 comments

baby-eating-peas-280X280Here are a few of my favorite studies. I have included citations, links, and italics are excerpts from my book Love Me, Feed Me, ‘cus I’m lazy (busy), and heck, it’s already edited and proofed 🙂 What are your favorite studies? Do these make you think at all differently?

1) Pass the Ketchup Please

Pliner P, Stallberg-White C. “Pass the Ketchup, Please:” Familiar Flavors Increase Children’s Willingness to Taste Novel Foods. Appetite. 2000;34:95-103.

“Condiments can be your friend. Parents often express a reluctance to serve sauces and dips, worrying the child won’t learn to eat foods plain. Think of ketchup and dips like “training wheels.” You probably won’t have a teenager pouring ketchup on rice or corn on the cob— that is, unless you are fostering or adopting a teenager who comes to you doing that. The bottom line is that condiments help children learn to like new foods.”

take home message: Don’t be afraid of condiments. They help rather than hinder the process of learning to like new foods.


2) Green Bean Study

Forestall CA, Mennella JA. Early Determinants of Fruit and Vegetable Accep- tance. Pediatrics. 2007;120:1247-54.

“Even defining food “rejection” is problematic. Most parents give up on offering a food after only a handful of tries, and studies show that parents aren’t always able to distinguish the process of learning to like new foods from rejection. In one study introducing green beans, babies squinted and frowned with the new food, but with repeated no-pressure exposures, most were eating the green beans after about a week. Interestingly, though the infants were eating the beans, the authors wrote, “Mothers were apparently unaware of these changes in acceptance.” Clearly, quantifying rejection is tricky, and the quality of the feeding relation-ship plays a role in the apparent traits of the child.”

take home message: Parents aren’t very good at being able to tell if an infant “likes” a new food. Keep offering the foods you want them to learn to like to eat—over and over.


3) Mind over Milkshakes

Crum AJ, Corbin WR, Brownell KD, Salovey P. “Mind Over Milkshakes:” Mindsets, Not Just Nutrients, Determine Ghrelin Response. Health Psychology. 201;30:424-9

Consider a 2011 study called “Mind Over Milkshakes.” Study participants were given the same shake and told on the first occasion that it was “sensible” and “no-fat,” and on another occasion they were told that it was rich, creamy, fatty, and “indulgent.” Guess which one they thought tasted better? (It’s the same shake.) Answer: the “indulgent” one. No surprises there, but the new finding was that despite identical calories, fat, and nutrients, what the study participants thought about the shake affected the body’s measured hormone response.

Thinking “indulgence” meant lower hunger-hormone (ghrelin) levels, and presumably, less hunger. “Sensible” (a.k.a., deprivation), meant that the “hungry-hormone” level did not fall as much. In spite of the same intake, these “sensible” shake drinkers had higher hormone levels associated with more hunger.

When we feel “sensible,” or that we have to use “willpower” to get through the day, many of us feel deprived. In the magic that is our mind-body connection, the feeling of deprivation may result in higher hunger-hormone levels. A “sensible” mindset equates to hormone levels associated with hunger. How we think about food affects how much we enjoy it and how our bodies respond. The authors concluded, “Mindset meaningfully affects physiological responses to food.”

take home message: How we feel about food effects how our body uses food and drives our hunger. Eat food that tastes good. Think of all tasty foods as indulgent and creamy. Don’t eat a food just because you think you “should.”



4) No such thing as too sweet for kids…

Coldwell SE, Oswald TK, Reed DR. Biological Drive For Sugar as Marker of Growth Differs Between Adolescents with High Versus Low Sugar Preference. Clinical Nutrition. 2010;29:288–303. (not original citation, but related link)

“One of my favorite studies looks at children’s versus adult’s preference for sweet taste, and when the shift to adult tastes happens. Through various ages, study participants were asked to add sugar to a drink until it got too sweet.

For children, there was pretty much no such thing as “too sweet.” They continued adding sugar until it wouldn’t dissolve any more. Adults stopped at about the sweetness of soda, finding anything sweeter to be “too sweet.” Interestingly, the point the shift occurred was not by age or from something the children learned in school. The shift to adult taste for sweet tended to happen just after the growth plates in the long bones fused, meaning the children had reached close to adult height, or stopped growing. What that suggests is that there is a biological drive behind that preference for sweet taste. Children are growing, and it makes sense biologically that they would be attracted to sweeter, and therefore higher energy, foods to fuel growth.

Think back to your own childhood. I loved sugar-sweetened cereals at hotels or sleepovers, but I was not allowed them at home, and tended to enjoy large amounts when I had access. However, now as an adult, the thought of that pink, oversweet milk, “marshmallows,” and cereal is off-putting. Children’s tastes mature, and they will do so more readily if we don’t interfere.”

take away message: Children will outgrow their super-sweet tooth. They will do so more readily if we don’t mess with that natural process.




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  1. kisekileia

    My growth was stunted due to picky eating, from what I can tell, and I never outgrew my sweet tooth.

  2. jaed

    That last one about the sweet tooth is interesting to me, because I never lost my sweet tooth (I don’t like sweet drinks, but I do like sweet everything else), and I didn’t completely stop growing until I was 20 or so. Hmmm, wonder whether they’re related?

    • katja

      I think some people always prefer sweet or salty, but I think it’s getting at the intensity overall. Are there things you think you preferred even sweeter as a child? Like the sugary cereal example? Fun to think about!

    • Samantha C

      Same here, I’m 23 and I’m only barely starting to find ‘too sweet’, I’ve only encountered it in things like super-frosted cookies. I had a mocha just this afternoon that was really chocolate milk with a splash of coffee, and I don’t picture myself ever wholly preferring dark chocolate to milk (I love a good 50% or so, but I have friends who don’t go below 70).

  3. Natasha

    I recently read this randomized controlled study on benefits of Mediterranean diet, supplemented with olive oil and nuts, compared to low-fat diet ( It showed cardiovascular benefits in older adults who were in the study. I wonder if there are also strong benefits of this kind of diet for kids; they certainly seem to love nuts! And this seems to support the notion that fats are necessary for our health, and different kinds of foods have different fats.

    • katja

      Yes, small children need a larger percentage of fats, particularly 2 and under. Getting fats frmo a variety of foods, including nuts, is important. I see lots of parents pushing low-fat diets that tend to be bland (which also worsens picky eating…) and don’t meet the nutritional needs for kids with their rapid brain development. Good point!

  4. Heather

    Not a specific study, but reading Child of Mine was incredibly eye-opening. I think if I hadn’t read it as early in my son’s life as I did, I probably would have ended up in a very stressful feeding relationship with him, as he is both tiny and extremely picky and it would have been easy to fall into a pattern of pressuring him to eat.

    • katja

      Yes! Child of Mine was my first intro into Ellyn’s work, and feeding research. It blew my mind, and it seemed to right and such great advice. I too am grateful I found her work!


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