A big appetite for sweets may be a risk for obesity. Here's how to help.

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little girl eating ice cream
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Ever felt full after a meal—then magically had room for dessert? It's a strange phenomenon, but there's no doubt that eating past the point of fullness isn't good for health or for body weight. New research shows that even very young children are vulnerable to it, too.

In a recent study from C.S. Mott Children's Hospital at the University of Michigan, toddlers were fed a filling lunch but then given free access to a plate of treats that included foods like cookies and potato chips. Children who ate sweet foods from the plate (but not salty) were more likely to have a higher BMI at 33 months of age, as were kids who got upset when the plate of treats was taken away after ten minutes. Boys were more likely to eat from the treat plate than girls were, especially the sweet foods.

The tendency to eat when you're full is what researchers call "eating in the absence of hunger," and it's linked with a greater risk for obesity. They say it's probably a gene-environment interaction: Some people are likely born with a genetic predisposition to eat when they're not hungry, but their environment can make it worse if they're frequently given access to desirable foods when they're full. According to this new research, this habit can begin developing at a very young age—and that seems to be especially true for sweets.

So how can you help your child avoid eating when he's not hungry, especially when it comes to sweet foods? Here are some ideas:

Keep a schedule for meals and snacks. If you have a set time for meals and snacks, it means your child should be hungry when food is available—and that food isn't available when he's not hungry.

Consider serving dessert with the meal. Serve just one small portion along with the regular food to neutralize dessert's power and to encourage your child to only eat until he's full. Read more about that strategy here.

If you have a planned dessert after the meal, such as birthday cake or trip to the ice cream shop, encourage your child to save room for it. That's counter to what parents usually tell kids ("eat your healthy food, then you can have dessert"), but if the goal is to avoid eating past fullness, it makes total sense. Read more about that strategy here.

Talk about hunger and fullness. Talk to your child about these concepts and encourage them to listen to their bellies. For instance, if your belly is feeling full and uncomfortable at the party, it's okay to take your cupcake home and save it for later.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. She collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.