Funded PhD Opportunity Environmental influences of portion size control in children

This opportunity is now closed.

Subject: Biomedical Sciences


The increasing prevalence of childhood obesity has become a major public health issue worldwide, with recent UK data alone indicating that 1 in 5 children are now obese by the age of 5 years (1). Notwithstanding the underlying biology and/or genetic predisposition to obesity, large food portion size is one of a myriad of environmental factors associated with the increase of obesity in children (2). The predisposition to overeat in response to large portion sizes appears to be a ubiquitous phenomenon and occurs irrespective of age.  Several observational and experimental studies show that from as early as 1 year, children eat greater amounts when presented with larger portions (3-4), even though at this young age, food intake is reported to occur primarily in response to hunger and satiety cues (5). For example, early laboratory evidence demonstrates an innate ability of young children to self-regulate their energy intake (6-8). There is a general paucity of research into the key drivers that influence portion control in children. Notably however, recent qualitative research by the ‘Energy balance, food choice and nutrition education’ research team in NICHE, has provided evidence that parents of children aged 3y and under may not consider the impact of larger than appropriate food portion size on weight status in their children, or appreciate the potential influence of early portion control on future eating behaviour   (9).  Data on parental opinions in regard to food portion size to represent older children, as well as that examining parental behaviour under experimental conditions, will therefore be two of the key and novel outcomes of this research.

The main objectives of this proposed PhD research will be met using a range of qualitative and quantitative research methods to: (a)systematically review and evaluate the literature and other relevant sources of information to determine the impact and influencers of typical food portion sizes reported and consumed, among children (b)examine typical portion size patterns of commonly consumed foods in a representative cohort of both Irish and UK children using National survey data (c)investigate parental knowledge, attitudes and behaviour regarding food portion sizes for children from aged 3-12 years (this aspect will extend the previous data collected in parents of children aged<3y (9)) (d)conduct a pilot study to examine the influencing factors of the amount of food served by parents to their children in a controlled environment using a randomised crossover trial within the human intervention studies unit in NICHE.

The PhD student appointed to the project will be given every opportunity to maximize on training by participating in relevant workshops, specialist skills sessions, relevant online courses, PhD researcher initiatives and personal development activities organised by the doctoral college. In addition, the student will be expected and strongly encouraged to prepare and present their research findings when appropriate at national and international conferences of relevance e.g. those organised by the Nutrition Society and the Association for Obesity.

This project will be based at Ulster's Nutrition Innovation Centre for Food and Health (NICHE).


1.The Health and Social Care Information Centre. National Child Measurement Programme: England, 2010/2011 School year. Available at:

2.Young LR & Nestle M (2002) The contribution of expanding portion sizes to the US obesity epidemic. Am J Public Health. 92:246-249.

3.Birch LL (1998) Development of food acceptance patterns in the first years of life. Proc Nutr Soc. 57:617-624.

4.Birch LL & Fisher JO (1998) Development of eating behaviors among children and adolescents. Pediatrics. 101:539-549.

5.Fox MK, Devaney B, Reidy K et al. (2006) Relationship between portion size and energy intake among infants and toddlers: evidence of self-regulation. J Am Diet Assoc. 106:S77-83.

6.Fisher JO, Liu Y, Birch LL et al. (2007) Effects of portion size and energy density on young children's intake at a meal. Am J Clin Nutr. 86:174-179.

7.Birch LL & Deysher M (1986) Caloric compensation and sensory specific satiety: evidence for self regulation of food intake by young children. Appetite. 7:323-331.

8.Birch LL, Johnson SL, Andresen G et al. (1991) The variability of young children's energy intake. N Engl J Med. 324:232-235.

9.Pourshahidi LK, Livingstone MBE, McCotter LE, McCaffrey TA, McCarthy H & Kerr MA (2017) An exploration of parental barriers to appropriate portion sizes for young children: a qualitative study. Proc Nutr Soc 76(OCE3), E105.

Essential Criteria

  • Upper Second Class Honours (2:1) Degree or equivalent from a UK institution (or overseas award deemed to be equivalent via UK NARIC)
  • Sound understanding of subject area as evidenced by a comprehensive research proposal
  • A comprehensive and articulate personal statement

Desirable Criteria

If the University receives a large number of applicants for the project, the following desirable criteria may be applied to shortlist applicants for interview.

  • First Class Honours (1st) Degree
  • Completion of Masters at a level equivalent to commendation or distinction at Ulster
  • Research project completion within taught Masters degree or MRES
  • Experience using research methods or other approaches relevant to the subject domain
  • Work experience relevant to the proposed project
  • Publications - peer-reviewed
  • Experience of presentation of research findings


    Vice Chancellors Research Scholarships (VCRS)

    The scholarships will cover tuition fees and a maintenance award of £15,009 per annum for three years (subject to satisfactory academic performance). Applications are invited from UK, European Union and overseas students.


    The scholarship will cover tuition fees at the Home rate and a maintenance allowance of £15,009 per annum for three years. EU applicants will only be eligible for the fees component of the studentship (no maintenance award is provided).  For Non EU nationals the candidate must be "settled" in the UK.

Other information

The Doctoral College at Ulster University

Launch of the Doctoral College

Current PhD researchers and an alumnus shared their experiences, career development and the social impact of their work at the launch of the Doctoral College at Ulster University.

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My experience has been great and the people that I have worked with have been amazing

Kieran O'Donnell - 3D printing of biological cells for tissue engineering applications

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Completing the MRes provided me with a lot of different skills, particularly in research methods and lab skills.

Michelle Clements Clements - MRes - Life and Health Sciences

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Throughout my PhD I’ve been provided with continuous support and guidance by my supervisors and the staff at the University.I’ve also received many opportunities to further enhance my professional development in the form of teaching experience and presenting my work at conferences which will aid in my pursuit of a career in academia or industry.

William Crowe

Key Dates

Submission Deadline
Monday 19 February 2018
Interview Date
6, 7 and 8 March 2018

Contact Supervisor

Dr Maeve Kerr

Other Supervisors

Apply online

Visit and quote reference number #237768 when applying for this PhD opportunity