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Research indicates that many people do not eat according to current recommendations. Much research has explored why people eat what they do. This chapter will
describe developmental models, cognitive models and the role of weight concern in
understanding eating behaviour (see Figure 6.2).
A developmental approach to eating behaviour emphasizes the importance of learning
and experience and focuses on the development of food preferences in childhood. An
early pioneer of this research was Davis (1928, 1939) who carried out studies of infants
and young children living in a paediatrics ward in the USA for several months. The work
was conducted at a time when current feeding policies endorsed a very restricted feeding
regime and Davis was interested to examine infants’ responses to a self selected diet. She
explored whether there was an ‘instinctive means of handling . . . the problem of optimal nutrition’ (Davis 1928). The children were offered a variety of 10 to 12 healthy
foods prepared without sugar, salt or seasoning and were free to eat whatever they
chose. Her detailed reports from this study showed that the children were able to select a
diet consistent with growth and health and were free from any feeding problems. The
results from this study generated a theory of ‘the wisdom of the body’ which
emphasized the body’s innate food preferences. In line with this, Davis concluded from
her data that children have an innate regulatory mechanism and are able to select a
healthy diet. She also, however, emphasized that they could only do so as long as healthy
food was available and argued that the children’s food preferences changed over time
and were modified by experience. Birch, who has extensively studied the developmental
aspects of eating behaviour, interpreted Davis’s data to suggest that what was innate
was the ‘ability to learn about the consequences of eating [and] to learn to associate
food cues with the consequences of ingestion in order to control food intake’ (Birch
1989). Birch therefore emphasized the role of learning and described a developmental
systems perspective (e.g. Birch 1999). In line with this analysis, the development of food
preferences can be understood in terms of exposure, social learning and associative
Human beings need to consume a variety of foods in order to have a balanced diet and
yet show fear and avoidance of novel foodstuffs called neophobia. This has been called
the ‘omnivore’s paradox’ (Rozin 1976). Young children will therefore show neophobic
responses to food but must come to accept and eat foods which may originally appear
as threatening. Research has shown that mere exposure to novel foods can change
children’s preferences. For example, Birch and Marlin (1982) gave 2-year-old children
novel foods over a six-week period. One food was presented 20 times, one 10 times, one
5 times whilst one remained novel. The results showed a direct relationship between
exposure and food preference and indicated that a minimum of about 8 to 10 exposures
was necessary before preferences began to shift significantly. Neophobia has been shown
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