Kids’ personalities may influence food portion size

Nov. 27, 2013, Medical Daily

By Lizette Borreli

Assessing a child’s personality may be an effective way to ward off childhood obesity in unhealthy kids. Extroverts are found to serve themselves more food than introverts regardless of whether they’re given a large or small bowl, according to a recent study.

In the United States the rate of childhood obesity has doubled over the past 30 years, with more than one-third currently overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unhealthy diet and poor eating habits are the most common contributors of this nationwide epidemic. Consuming fatty foods and sugary drinks, and indulging in oversized portions leads to excessive weight gain and increases the likelihood of becoming obese. A child’s personality may even be more easily influenced by environmental cues, such as large dinnerware, which could make them more susceptible to being over-served, and could lead to overeating.

A team of researchers at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab examined the influence of extraversion and introversion on eating behavior in elementary school children with an average age of 8 years. The study took place over the course of four consecutive breakfasts.

For the first two days, a school-cafeteria server gave the children either a larger (16 oz.) or a smaller (12 oz.) bowl, in which the kids indicated how much cereal and milk they wanted. For the last two days, the children were allowed to serve themselves as they were randomly assigned to a large or small bowl. The researchers implanted hidden scales in the table with remote sensors as a means to measure how much cereal and milk each child served themselves or was served. The subtraction of the amount of cereal and milk that was left over after breakfast was used to determine how much food the kids consumed.

[To determine each child’s personality type, four teachers and counselors rated each child’s degree of introversion and extraversion on a scale of 1 to 9. Researchers used the average of these scores to classify each child as an introvert or an extravert.]

When serving themselves, the extroverted children were more likely to be influenced by the size of their bowl than their counterparts. They served themselves 33 percent more breakfast in the large bowl when compared to introverted kids, who only served themselves 6 percent more when their bowl size increased, according to the news release. The average child was found to serve themselves 23 percent more than when they were served by an adult.

However, when the child is served by another person — such as a parent or a caregiver — and asked how much they wish to eat, both introverted and extroverted children requested over 50 percent more if the server used a larger bowl compared to a smaller one.

The findings suggest it might be best for caregivers to do the serving whenever possible to prevent overeating and excessive weight gain in children, especially for those with extroverted personalities. Extroversion may be a personality trait to observe when discussing their susceptibility to environmental cues, wrote the researchers. The dinnerware — the environmental cue — significantly influenced both personality traits when they were served by an adult. An extroverted child may feel more compelled to fill their bigger bowls to the top when they are left in charge of their own portions.

Heal Your Life says extroverts typically eat because of environmental cues. For example, if the clock reads noon, an extrovert is more likely to see this as a signal that it’s time to eat lunch, whereas introverts may rely on internal cues, such as a rumbling stomach and other symptoms of hunger. Personality may very well determine an individual’s eating behavior, which can help account for the differences in eating styles.

From decreasing plate size to serving kids to evaluating personality traits, practical solutions to childhood obesity may be feasible.

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