But the truth is, we are all triggered to eat for a variety of reasons, and health and nutrition isn’t always the main player. Sometimes our kids (and we) overindulge– and even overeat.
When it comes to kids, many parents wonder why their child wants to eat. And they may be confused (and frustrated) by their child’s desire to eat, and his propensity to overeat.
Why does he ask for a snack an hour after dinner?
Why is she hungry when she just ate?
Why does he ask for junky snacks?
Why does she eat in secrecy?
Have you been surprised (or alarmed) to find empty candy wrappers hidden in your child’s room? Have you felt embarrassed when your child goes nuts for sweets at birthday parties? Have you felt annoyed by the constant questions about when and what is being served at meals and snacks?
You’re not alone. In my many years of working with families, this topic has been one of the underlying frustrations of parents. They don’t understand their kid’s eating, the many reasons that trigger a desire to eat, and their child’s overeating.
The antidote to this confusion is to understand the many reasons why your child wants to eat and may be overeating.
Hunger is the signal to seek food and eat. Appetite is closely tied to growth, and since children are in an eighteen-year growing process, hunger is a primary driver for eating. You will see greater hunger during the baby and teens years (the adolescent growth spurt), as these are the two high growth periods in childhood.
Tip: Stay ahead of hunger by offering meals and snacks at regular times of the day, in general every three to four hours. These are opportunities to eat, not mandated eating times. Better yet, make sure you’ve got a balanced meal plan in effect–it helps quite a bit!
Active kids burn calories when they exercise. They get hungry when they’ve burned through their calorie reserves, causing blood sugar to drop, and signaling the brain it’s time to refuel. Depending on the intensity and duration of exercise, hunger can be a real bear with which to contend.
Tip: For recreational exercise lasting less than an hour, stay on a routine of timely meals and snacks. There is no need to provide extra food. For the athlete exercising longer than an hour, offer a small pre-exercise snack and an after-exercise snack, making sure both provide some quality protein and carbohydrate.
In the school age and teen years, the influence of peers is strong. Translated: children and teens want to eat what their friends are eating, which is often influenced by commercials and advertising. This alone can be the reason for junky requests.
Tip: Don’t be overly restrictive with sweets or junky, processed food, rather find a way to work reasonable amounts into the diet, emphasizing that these are treats for occasional eating. I encourage a balance of 90% nutritious, wholesome foods and 10% sweets or junky foods (aka Fun Foods).
4. Sensory Signals
The smell and appearance of food can make a child want to dig in. Prior enjoyment of a food can trigger a desire to eat it when seen.
Tip: Make healthy food look and taste good! This will tap into the sensory appeal to eat it.
Kids learn to eat out of boredom, typically between ages five and nine. This can occur when there are no boundaries, or loose limits exist around food and eating.
Tip: Close the kitchen, ask first, and structured meals and snacks are three boundaries you can set to combat eating out of boredom.
I think we all eat more at celebrations! It’s part of the party mentality: dig in, indulge, and let go. The challenge with kids is the multitude of parties to which they are exposed, including those in the classroom, for friends, at home and for special holidays.
Tip: Have your child eat a regular meal or snack before heading out to a party or event. Staying on track with meals and snacks before attending a celebration will lessen the likelihood of over-indulging (hopefully!).
Comforting or soothing a child with food can teach him to associate eating with feelings of sadness, loneliness or unhappiness. Researchers call this Eating in the Absence of Hunger and it is tied to higher weight and poor eating habits.
Tip: Encourage kids to communicate about their feelings and work through them in healthy ways, rather than turning to food for comfort.
8. Food restriction
If kids have experienced an overly restricted food environment at home (ie, no sweets, no junk food), they may be seeking these restricted foods when they aren’t being monitored.
Tip: Work in exposure to foods like candy, sweets and fried foods so that your child is familiar and exposed to them (how much is your choice). She is less likely to overeat when they are available (and you aren’t).
9. Irregular meals
When meals and snacks are erratic, hunger can build up, leading to food-seeking behavior. Also, when meals don’t contain enough food or aren’t nutritious and satisfying, children can desire more food later and become too focused on food.
Tip: Stay on a regular meal and snack delivery system, and offer a balanced plate of protein, grains, vegetable, fruit and dairy foods.
Eating is an enjoyable endeavor for many children—the process of eating, the taste, the smells, and community with others—all together making eating an exciting and pleasurable endeavor.
If eating is enjoyable for your child, congratulations, you’re halfway to raising a healthy child! We should all be striving to have children who enjoy eating and coming to the table. Just because your child enjoys eating, doesn’t mean he’s overeating.
Tip: Keep up with food variety, a positive meal environment and structured meals and snacks. Put food and eating in its place—at mealtime or snacks.
Do any of these reasons explain why your child may be overeating?