Background: The ability to self-regulate appetite means that children can select and consume appropriate foods and portion sizes, and eat when they are hungry but not when they are full, even if offered appealing foods. Appetite self-regulation involves an interplay between the biological structures and processes involved in energy balance (appetite regulation) along with cognitive functioning, goal-directed behaviours, decision making and hedonic responses to food. The developmental course of appetite self-regulation is an emerging field of theory and research.
Methods: We examined the available evidence on indicators of appetite self-regulation including children’s abilities to balance energy intakes and expenditure, to delay gratification, to adjust energy intakes according to earlier energy consumption, to avoid eating appetising foods when they are full, and their general appetitive traits such as how reactive they were to the presence of food cues, or how responsive they were to internal feelings of fullness. We then compared and contrasted this evidence with that from self-regulation in non-food areas like emotions and behaviour.
Results: The results showed that in general, non-food self-regulation improves as children develop, as we expected. In contrast, appetite self-regulation on average declined across childhood, despite development in areas of cognitive functioning that help non-food self-regulation. We also noted large individual differences.
Conclusion: In contrast to non-food self-regulation, bottom up automatic reactive processes appear stronger in appetite self-regulation. For many children, then, these bottom-up approach or avoidance processes to foods may not to be matched by improvements in top-down regulatory capacities. Advances in conceptualisation and measurement of appetite self-regulation in tandem with research on mechanisms would advance our understanding of appetite self-regulation development and disruption during childhood.