Have you ever wondered why some people reach for food when they're sad, while others lose their appetite? Why do some individuals feel compelled to clean their plate, while others are perfectly content to leave food untouched? These variations in appetite, known as appetitive traits, are present from early childhood and significantly influence dietary intake, nutritional status, and weight. Yet, the development of these traits has remained largely unexplored. Dr. Holly Harris explored the connection between DNA in newborns and the development of appetitive traits in early childhood. The study sheds light on the complex interplay between genetics, environment, and eating behaviors, which is critical for addressing issues related to nutrition and childhood obesity.
DNA methylation as predictor of childhood appetite
The study examined DNA methylation – or epigenetic markers – in 1,322 infants participating in the Generation R Study in the Netherlands and Healthy Start in the USA. Dr. Harris, and her colleagues analyzed the relationship between these epigenetic markers at birth and children's appetitive traits when they turned around 4 years old. The traits studied included food responsiveness, satiety levels, fussiness with food, and emotional eating patterns. The results showed that signals of DNA methylation in specific regions of the DNA could predict children's food responsiveness, satiety responsiveness, fussy eating, and emotional undereating. These findings highlight the crucial role that early biological processes play in shaping appetitive traits and suggest that future research should focus on understanding the factors that influence DNA methylation related to these traits.
Broadening the perspective of how appetitive traits develop
As a dietitian, Dr. Harris has always been intrigued by the diverse range of eating habits among individuals. She emphasizes that understanding the complexity of appetitive traits requires recognizing the interplay between genetics and environment. "It's crucial to acknowledge the diversity in children's appetitive traits and understand that while genetics play a role, they do not dictate our fate," Dr. Harris explains. "Our results show that to an extent, differences in appetitive traits could already be predicted from birth, and these differences are likely due to a complex interplay of genetics and experiences during pregnancy. Not everyone interacts with food in the same way, and much of this is beyond our control due to early biological influences. We must move beyond the outdated notion of blaming how parents feed their children and recognize the shared contribution of genetics and environmental impacts, some of which already occur in the womb of the mother."
Call for comprehensive research and effective policies
Dr. Harris envisions a future where policies promote a healthy and sustainable food environment accessible to all. She advocates for further research into the development of appetitive traits, which will be instrumental in informing effective nutrition and obesity prevention interventions.