Background: Children of obese parents have a substantially higher risk of adult obesity than children of lean parents. Adoption and twin studies have shown that this risk is largely genetic but the proximal mechanisms of the genetic risk are not known. Comparisons of energy intake or expenditure in children of obese and lean parents have produced mixed, but generally negative results. An alternative hypothesis is that the early expression of obesity risk is through food and activity preferences, which provides a basis for later weight gain. The aim of this study was therefore to compare food and activity preferences in a large sample of young children from obese and lean families using parental obesity as a marker of the obesity-risk phenotype. Because the children from the families with obese parents were not yet overweight, differences observed in the two types of families are more likely to be causes than effects of obesity.
Methods: A total of 428 children aged 4-5 y, whose parents were either obese/overweight or normal-weight/lean were selected from a population sample of families with twin births. Food and activity preferences were assessed with a combination of food intake and taste tasks, and questionnaires completed by the mother during a home visit.
Findings: Children from the obese/overweight families had a higher preference for fatty foods in a taste test, a lower liking for vegetables, and a more 'overeating-type' eating style. They also had a stronger preference for sedentary activities, and spent more time in sedentary pastimes. There were no differences in speed of eating or reported frequency of intake of high-fat foods.
Conclusion: Part of the process whereby a genetic risk of obesity is transmitted to the next generation could be through differences in diet and activity preferences, which would place susceptible individuals at risk of positive energy balance in the permissive nutritional environment of industrialised countries today.