Queensland University of Technology developmental psychology researcher Linda Gilmore yesterday said she believed eating problems such as anorexia, bulimia or over-eating could be traced back to power struggles at the dinner table.
"Parents should not turn meal time into a struggle for control because some evidence suggests that eating disorders such as anorexia stem from a desire to take control over one's own body," Dr Gilmore said.
"If children are forced to 'sit at the table until you eat it' this can turn into a struggle for who has power over the child's eating habits, which could well set the scene for later eating problems."
Dr Gilmore said eating difficulties seemed relatively common in early childhood. Her research on 304 families with children aged two to four, and another researcher's study of 319 families with children aged seven to nine, indicated fussy eating was quite common, particularly in younger children.
"Some parents take their child's refusal to eat food they have prepared as personal rejection or think the child is just being really naughty," Dr Gilmore said.
"(But) some children simply don't like the taste or the texture, even the colour of certain foods.
"I've seen one child who would only eat white food.
"Likes and dislikes may change from week to week but it's important to recognise that this is fairly normal behaviour and not to turn it into a really big problem that interferes with the parent-child relationship."
She said while eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia affected about 3 per cent of the population, a much greater percentage were over-eaters, leading to obesity.
"Again, the power struggle could be an important factor because obesity is often related to inability to self-regulate," Dr Gilmore said.
"If children aren't allowed some control over what they eat, they cannot learn to develop good self-regulation."