Appetite Regulation in Children

Nowadays, it's important to restore appetite regulation in children so that they remain healthy for as long as possible.
Appetite Regulation in Children

Last update: 18 June, 2021

Although it’s hard to believe, appetite in children is innate. However, the environment and the availability of food alter their ability to detect it. Therefore, considering the high prevalence of illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, among others, it’s crucial to know how appetite regulation works in children.

Appetite regulation ensures little ones will be able to pay attention to these signals and eat enough for their bodies to function properly. Do you want to learn more about it? Keep reading!

What’s appetite?

First of all, appetite can be defined in two different ways according to the Royal Spanish Academy of Language and according to Biology. On the one hand, it’s the instinctive drive to satisfy the body’s energy needs. Therefore, we could say that it’s the urge to eat.

At the same time, it’s the set of physiological, psychological, and environmental processes that determine our eating patterns. In short, what, how much, and how we eat.

Moreover, it’s regulated by the interaction of homeostatic and hedonic mechanisms. A lack of energy stimulates the former and the presence of food stimulates the latter.

Considering both, it follows that, given the large amount of food that we have access to, the second pathway is stimulated. This means that the areas of the brain related to pleasure and reward are activated.

As a consequence, children tend to eat without being hungry and based on the pleasurable effects generated by sweets and products such as pastries. Below, we’ll discuss the most important factors that determine appetite regulation.

Factors involved in appetite regulation in children

A toddler eating junk food.

What if it’s the genes?

With respect to hunger, satiety, and food pleasure responses are 60-80 percent gene-dependent, as seen in twin studies. Based on this statement, appetite is innate, as its definition indicates. We must remember that the opposite is true when it comes to weight, for which the role of genetics is 10-20 percent.

Appetite-regulating hormones

This is a very complex process, as the body secretes them depending on the degree of hunger and the stimuli it receives, both internal and external. Just before eating, the senses of sight and smell, as well as saliva, alert the brain and stomach that we need energy.

On the one hand, we have hormones responsible for stimulating hunger, such as ghrelin, among others, which decrease as we eat food. We also know that children suffering from obesity have higher levels.

The same happens with leptin, as it’s proportional to the amount of body fat. However, the latter inhibits hunger, so there’s some resistance to its effect due to a lack of receptors.

At the same time, satiating hormones such as GLP-1, neuropeptide YY, etc. intervene. Among these, insulin stands out, whose values increase when we consume carbohydrate-rich foods. Moreover, in the face of hypoglycemia, the response is to choose energy-rich foods.

Even the constant consumption of palatable foods (rich in fats and sugars) blocks the satiety nucleus and increases the duration and quantity of ingestion by increasing the levels of serotonin and dopamine. These are the ones that generate pleasure.

The influence of the environment on appetite regulation in children

Since the 20th century, appetite regulation has become more important due to the great diversity of food we have access to and due to advertising. We must also add the ease with which food can be purchased at the click of a button over the Internet. Therefore, it’s possible that your children may find it difficult to control themselves and ask you for food throughout the day because of the constant bombardment of food all around them.

As for advertising, the fact that unhealthy products are available at low prices with gifts that appeal to children works against appetite regulation. It’s also worth mentioning the influence of family, cultural, and social customs.

A small child eating pasta.

And restaurants and industry haven’t lagged behind either, since they’ve increased the size of portions and packages. Without realizing it, we eat more.

How to restore appetite regulation in children?

As a result of this loss in the sensation of hunger and the increase in excess weight and other metabolic diseases, different policies have been implemented to improve the nutrition of children. How? Through:

  • Programs of activities taught by dietitians-nutritionists and other health professionals. These are based on theoretical and practical exercises.
  • Removing vending machines from schools or modifying the contents to make options healthier.
  • Implementing measures in school menus so that they’re balanced and comply with the requirements of consumption by food groups.
  • Limiting advertising in time slots according to age.
  • Taxing superfluous products (cookies, pastries, soft drinks, juices…).

Finally, as parents, you can teach your children that some products are for occasional consumption and that they won’t always have access to them.  What’s more, you can teach them to pay attention to their body’s hunger signals and to stop eating when they feel full.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Zanchi, D; Depoorter, A; Egloff, L; Haller, S; Mählmann, L; Lang, U E et al (2017) The Impact of Gut Hormones on the Neural Circuit of Appetite and Satiety: A Systematic Review. Neurosci Biobehav Rev, 80: 457-75.
  • Freitas, A; Albuquerque, G; Silva, C; Oliveira, A (2018) Appetite-Related Eating Behaviours: An Overview of Assessment Methods, Determinants and Effects on Children’s Weight. Ann Nutr Metab, 73(1): 19-29.
  • Hughes, S O; Frazier-Wood, A C (2016) Satiety and the Self-Regulation of Food Take in Children: A Potential Role for Gene-Environment Interplay. Curr Obes Rep, 5(1): 81-7.
  • Schwartz, M B; Just, D R; Chriqui, J F; Ammerman,A S (2017) Appetite Self-Regulation: Environmental and Policy Influences on Eating Behaviors. Obesity (Silver Spring), 25(suppl 1): 26-38. 
  • MacLean, P S; Blundell, J E; Mennella, J A; Batterham, R L (2017) Biological Control of Appetite: A Daunting Complexity, Obesity (Silver Spring), 25(suppl 1): 8-16. 

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.