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The formation and evolution of dietary behaviours and preferences in young children

The European HabEat project, coordinated by INRA in Dijon and involving ten partners from six European countries, enabled a clearer understanding of how dietary behaviours and preferences develop during the early years of life.

Sylvie Issanchou, Directrice de recherche Inra au sein de l'UMR
Updated on 09/11/2015
Published on 05/06/2015

Although everything is not decided by the end of infancy with respect to dietary  behaviours and preferences, the first two years of life are of particular importance to the development of dietary behaviours in children, the moment of diversification being pivotal.

Four major European cohorts studied, involving nearly 25,000 mother-child dyads

The collaborative HabEat project tried to understand the factors that determine the formation of dietary behaviours using two different approaches: epidemiological and experimental.

In terms of epidemiological studies, the teams involved in HabEat exploited data obtained in four major European cohorts, in an attempt to answer common questions that notably focused on the diversity of the food repertoire at different ages and the acceptance of vegetables at various time points during development of this repertoire.

The experimental part of this work was in two sections. The first, focused mainly onkey learning mechanisms, concerned infants from diversification to the age of three years.The second section aimed to studydifferent strategies in order to observe if it were possible, between the ages of three and five years, to increase the consumption of vegetables.


Recommendations for child care professoinals

The principal results obtained were as follows:

  • Children breastfed for longer (more than 6 months) subsequently eat more fruits and vegetables.
  • The introduction of one type of vegetable (in purée form) at the start of the diversification period favours the acceptance of new vegetables in the short or medium term.
  • Presenting a new food several times (repeated exposure), and notably vegetables, is sufficient to increase its consumption by an infant.  However, repeatedly offering a food that is already familiar to children between the ages of 3 and 6 years in order to increase its consumption, has not proved effective.
  • Furthermore, it is difficult to increase the consumption of vegetables by older children (3-6 years).  An acceptable strategy may be to allow them to choose from several vegetables.
  • As from the age of 3 years, some children may (on average) consume excessive quantities when they are placed in incentive situations - particularly if they are offered snacks before a meal or foods they like after a meal - which may predispose them to becoming overweight at a later stage.

The scientific results will be translated into guidelines that in particular will be circulated to child care professionals, paediatricians, political decision-makers responsible for defining nutritional policies and also the food industry.


For more information

More information on all the findings of this work can be found on the HabEat project website, which includes a page for parents