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17 March 2017

Sweet Satisfaction: Overweight Preschoolers Find Cookies More Rewarding

Keywords: fruit, health, preschoolers, vegetables, North America, eating behavior, food,

Overweight and healthy-weight preschoolers differ in how rewarding they find healthy and unhealthy snacks, a study in Appetite concludes. While overweight preschoolers find cookies more rewarding, healthy-weight preschoolers are more satisfied with fruit. 

Take aways

  • Overweight preschoolers find unhealthy snacks more rewarding and healthy snacks less rewarding than healthy-weight preschoolers do. 
  • Parents should know that overweight preschoolers find unhealthy snacks more satisfying. They are advised to reduce access to these snacks, while facilitating access to healthy snacks, such as fruit and vegetables.

Study information

  • The question?

    Does the reinforcing value of healthy snacks (fruit) and unhealthy snacks (cookies) differ between healthy-weight and overweight preschoolers?

  • Who?

    Thirty overweight preschoolers (BMI > 85th percentile) and 30 healthy-weight preschoolers (BMI between the 5th and 85th percentile) between the ages of 3 and 5 years.

  • Where?

    A children's medical center in the Midwest of the United States

  • How?

    The researchers measured preschoolers’ weight and height to calculate BMI (correcting for gender and age). To measure the rewarding value of fruit and cookies, preschoolers performed a computer task. This task assessed how many times they were willing to click the mouse to get a healthy or unhealthy snack. To earn each type of snack, the first round began with 4 mouse clicks needed to get the snack, which doubled with each subsequent round with a maximum of 8 rounds. The preschoolers could stop earning snacks at any time they wanted.

    To determine the relative rewarding value of the snacks (cookies and fruit), the researchers divided the maximum number of mouse clicks for cookies or fruit by the total number of mouse clicks for cookies and fruit together.

Facts and findings

  • Overweight preschoolers found cookies more rewarding than healthy-weight preschoolers (see upper part of Figure 1).
  • Healthy-weight preschoolers found fruit more rewarding than overweight preschoolers (see lower part of Figure 1).
  • Fun fact: All children found grapes and chocolate chip cookies the most rewarding among all fruits and cookies, respectively.
  • Critical note: The researchers did not explicitly measure how rewarding fruit and cookies were for preschoolers, but measured how much effort (number of mouse clicks) they were willing to put into getting these snacks. 
  • Critical note: This study does not show whether differences in reward value of snacks causes overweight, or whether being overweight causes differences in reward values of snacks.