Children Eat More in Larger Groups, Study Finds

Children who eat in large groups may consume nearly a third more than when they are in small groups, a finding that sheds light on the problem of child obesity, a study published on Wednesday says.

University of Michigan researchers assessed the eating habits of 54 pre-school children aged between two and a half and six and a half.

Accompanied by their regular classroom teachers, but discreetly filmed by two cameras, the children were given a snack of wholewheat biscuits and offered a drink of milk, juice or water.

A plate of biscuits was put on each table, and the children could help themselves.

Two snack-eating sessions were carried out – with the children in groups of three and again, in groups of nine.

No time limit was set for the sessions. The children had a routine whereby when each had finished their snack, they left the table and returned to their classroom. As a result, the session time varied, ranging from 10 to 15 minutes.

After each session, the researchers went over the film to see how much each child had eaten and weighed the amount of any food left on the child’s plate.

If the snack time was relatively short, the children ate slightly more in a group of nine than when they were in a group of three.

But if the snack time was long, they ate almost 30 percent more on average in the larger group than when they were in the smaller group.

Social arousal – noise and group activity – are the likely drivers for the higher consumption, say the authors, led by Julie Lumeng of the university’s Center for Human Growth and Development.

This implies that having a peaceful, structured environment for eating, with a small number of people at the table, can be a good way of encouraging children to eat sensibly.

“The child who eats inadequate quantities may consume more when eating in a group (e.g. with the family at the table for a planned mealtime) than when eating alone, as often occurs when children graze over the course of the day,” Lumeng says.

“For the child who overeats, overconsumption may be driven by having meals in over-stimulating busy or chaotic environments, as is often the case when eating out, particularly at fast-food restaurants.”

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