In developmental science, there is an extensive literature on non-food related self-regulation in childhood, where several domains relating to emotions, actions and cognitions have been identified. There is now growing attention to food related self-regulation in childhood, especially difficulties with ASR, and the consequences for weight gain and adiposity. The aim of this narrative review was to conduct a reciprocal analysis of self-regulation in the food and non-food domains in childhood (referred to as appetite self-regulation (ASR) and general self-regulation (GSR) respectively). The focus was on commonalities and differences in key concepts and underpinning processes.
Databases and major journals were searched using terms such as self-regulation, appetite self-regulation, or self-regulation of energy intake, together with associated constructs (e.g., Executive Function, Effortful Control, delay-of-gratification). This was followed by backward and forward snowballing.
The scholarship on GSR in childhood has had a focus on the role of the cognitively-oriented Executive Function (EF), the temperamentally-based Effortful Control (EC) and the recursive interplay between bottom-up (reactive, emotion driven, approach or avoidance) and top-down (cognitive, conscious decision-making) processes. "Hot" and "cool/cold" EF and self-regulation situations have been distinguished. There were some parallels between GSR and ASR in these areas, but uncertainty about the contribution of EF and EC to ASR in young children. Possible differences between the contribution to ASR-related outcomes of delay-of-gratification in food and non-food tasks were apparent. Unique elements of ASR were identified; associated with psychological, biological and neurological responses to food and bottom-up processes. A diverse number of situations or elements connected to ASR exist: for example, energy balance homeostasis, caloric compensation, hunger regulation, satiation, satiety, energy density of food, eating in the absence of hunger, emotional eating, etc. CONCLUSIONS: Self-regulation in food and non-food domains are amenable to a reciprocal analysis. We argue that self-regulation of appetite should be added as a domain under the umbrella of self-regulation in childhood along with the other non-food related domains. This could lead to a broader understanding of self-regulation in childhood, and generate novel lines of enquiry.