When deciding which foods to eat, children take into account what they believe their mother would prefer them to have, say scientists.
And this triggers neurons that exercise self control over those sparked into life when seeking reward, such as a fatty or sugary treat.
Food decisions during childhood can affect diet related health for life with obesity causing a range of illnesses including heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
But the neural mechanisms underlying how youngsters make choices are not well understood.
Now a study using behavioural tests and brain scans has found children take into account what they reckon their mother wants them to eat when making these decisions.
And it pinpointed specific areas of the brain that become activated.
Neurons in the vmPFC (ventromedial prefrontal cortex), a region implicated in reward, were linked with the children’s own food choices, while those in the dlPFC (left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex), which regulates, self control, correlated with their mothers’ inferred preference.
In addition, when children made their choices, dlPFC blocked cells in the vmPFC.
The results published in Nature Communications suggest, on a neural level, the likings of caregivers can influence decision making in developing children.
Psychologist Professor Amanda Bruce, of the University of Kansas, said: “As children grow, they gradually learn how to make decisions independently.
“However, decisions like choosing healthy but less tasty foods can be challenging for children whose self-regulation and executive cognitive functions are still maturing.
“We propose a computational decision making process in which children estimate their mother’s choices for them as well as their individual food preferences.
“By employing functional magnetic resonance imaging during real food choices, we find vmPFC encodes children’s own preferences and the dlPFC encodes the projected mom’s choices for them at the time of children’s choice.
“Also, the left dlPFC region shows an inhibitory functional connectivity with the vmPFC at the time of children’s own choice.
“Our study suggests in part, children utilize their perceived caregiver’s choices when making choices for themselves, which may serve as an external regulator of decision making, leading to optimal healthy decisions.”
The study combined behavioural tests and fMRI scans (functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during food choice in 25 children aged between eight and 14.
Using images they first asked the participants to rate both the taste and health attributes of 60 items including apples, broccoli, chips and marshmallows.
They then had to rate to what degree they would like to eat one, or to guess the likelihood of their mother choosing a given food for them to eat.
Once incorporated into a computer model, the children’s personal choices were best explained as resulting from a combination of both their own taste ratings and their inferred mother’s preference.
Explained Prof Bruce said: “Not surprisingly, children’s own food choices were solely predicted by taste values, revealing their strong preference for delicious foods, and their de emphasis on health
“When children selected foods they believed their mother would choose for them, they used health values as well as taste values.
“Therefore, it appears children in our sample were aware of the health aspects of the foods, but had difficulty incorporating these values into their own choices, or could not assign priority to health over taste.
“Nonetheless, children could compute and utilise their projected mom’s choices while making their own food choices.
“This suggests asking children to consider what a parent would want them to eat might help them make better food decisions.”
One in three children in the UK is now overweight, while one in five is obese.
And Prof Bruce:”An improved understanding of how children make decisions is imperative for developing age appropriate interventions that promote a lifetime of healthy choices.”