Overweight children may inherit faster eating behaviour, UCL scientists reveal

8 December 2008

Overweight children may inherit faster eating behaviour, according to a Cancer Research UK study published in the ‘American Journal of Clinical Nutrition’ today. Researchers from Cancer Research UK’s Health Behaviour Research Centre at UCL (HBRC) filmed 254 twins aged 10-12 years eating a standard meal in their homes, to test whether their speed of eating was related to the amount of fat they carried, and whether eating rate was a heritable characteristic.

Waistline

The results indicated that the children’s eating rate was partly influenced by their genes, and that a faster eating rate was linked to a higher body weight in general, with overweight twins eating the fastest and eating more in a sitting.Previous experiments have confirmed that faster eating is linked to eating more, but studies making the direct link between a faster eating rate and higher body weight have produced mixed findings. 

The 160 pairs of twins were divided into three weight groups to compare eating rate within the normal range, as well as between obese and normal groups. They were then left alone (with a video recorder) in a room at home to eat from a plate of 24 sandwich quarters and two pre-chopped fruit salads. This was more food than the children could manage because in all cases food was left over. The researchers measured total eating time and eating rates across the meal. 

The researchers found that the overweight group ate significantly more than the other two groups. The overweight group ate the fastest, at 4.3 bites per minute, followed by the higher-normal weight group which ate on average 4.1 bites per minute. The lower-normal weight group ate slowest at 3.8 bites per minute. 

Professor Jane Wardle

It is estimated that currently more than 13,000 cases of cancer in the UK could be avoided each year if everyone maintained a healthy body weight. Research has shown that obesity increases the risk of breast cancer, bowel cancer, womb cancer, kidney cancer and food pipe cancer.

Professor Jane Wardle, the Centre’s Director and lead author of the study, said: “This twin study suggests that children who eat faster inherit this trait, and that it is a worrying risk factor for weight gain which could potentially be modified in childhood.“If eating rate can be modified, and if it results in consumption of less food, then early promotion of slower eating for all children could lower the average population weight and help to control current obesity trends.”

Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK’s Director of Health Information (and a graduate from UCL Genetics) said:  “This is really important research because we know that obesity is a major risk factor in some cancers and these findings help explain how some groups of people are more likely to put on weight.”

Related stories in the UCL news archive:
Obesity gene stops you feeling full (28/07/08)
Obesity: the fuller figures (07/02/08)

The UCL HBRC
The UCL HBRC undertakes research aimed at advancing our understanding of behaviours that have a major impact on health, and at contributing to the development of interventions to promote healthy lifestyles. The Centre is part of UCL Epidemiology and Public Health, and is staffed mainly by health and clinical psychologists. The Centre’s three main areas of research are dietary choice, participation in screening programmes, and tobacco smoking. Dietary choice and smoking have together been estimated to account for up to 70 percent of all cancer deaths, as well as playing a significant role in heart disease. The HBRC receives core funding from Cancer Research UK, with additional funding received from the Medical Research Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Department of Health, and the British Heart Foundation.

The Cancer Research UK and UCL Cancer Trials Centre
The Cancer Research UK and UCL Cancer Trials Centre is responsible for the development, conduct and analysis of trials of novel therapies and new approaches to the treatment of patients with cancer. The Trials Centre is part of the UCL Cancer Institute.  

Cancer Research UK
Cancer Research UK is the world's leading independent charity dedicated to research into the causes, treatment and prevention of cancer. Working alone and in partnership with others, it researches the biology and causes of cancer in order to develop effective treatments, improve the quality of life for cancer patients and reduce the number of people getting cancer.