Are you hungry? It seems like a simple question. Right? And it should have a simple answer: either you’re hungry or you’re not. For millions of Americans, though, knowing when they’re hungry or full is a challenge. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is for you too. Although most babies are totally in tune with their internal feelings of hunger and satiety, the research shows that parents often disrupt this link when their children are very young. Sometimes even as young as three.
Let me be clear: parents don’t teach their children to disregard their internal feelings of hunger and fullness intentionally. It’s simply the casualty of the average feeding dynamic. Take two more bites. If you want to have dessert you have to eat your veggies. Just eat this much and then you can be done. In each of these instances, parents have legitimate goals: to get their children to eat more vegetables, to be able to close the kitchen when meals are done, to prevent their children from experiencing hunger-induced meltdowns. The list goes on.
If you’re a parent, then you know how hard it is to figure out how much your kids need to eat. The problem is, though, that when parents pressure children to eat more food than they want, kids learn to ignore their internal cues of hunger and fullness. And that’s a condition that leads to disordered eating.
The path from pleasing parents to overeating is fairly straightforward: You ask your kids to eat more food and they do (especially if they’re trying to “earn” dessert). Portion size is another, subtler way parents inadvertently teach kids to overeat. There is incontrovertible evidence that the bigger the serving size, the more people consume, whether they intend to or not.
Unless, that is, you’re parenting someone with a slight appetite. Undereaters don’t respond to pressure the way typical eaters do. In the face of pressure, many undereaters eat less food regardless of how hungry they are. In other words, pressure teaches overeaters to disregard their feelings of fullness. On the other hand, pressure teaches undereaters, to disregard their feelings of hunger.
So, as a parent, what can you do? Make teaching children to recognize their internal hunger and fullness cues a priority (even if it means your kids eat fewer vegetables in the meantime).
- Start by talking to your children about hunger and fullness, undereating and overeating, and how these body states feel.
- Stop snacking on demand. Instead, create a schedule for when food will be available that your children can depend on.
- Let your children eat as much, or as little, as they want during these scheduled meals and snacks.
For some children, all you’ll need to do is eliminate the pressure and they’ll start hearing their internal signals as clear as a bell. Other kids, however, often need more help. Here’s an exercise that helps children match how much they eat with their internal feelings of hunger and fullness.1
- Make some small “stomachs” by filling a few stockings with varying degrees of salt.
- Strap these “stomachs” onto some dolls, at tummy level.
- Ask your children questions like, “Which doll’s tummy is hungry?” “Which doll is a little full?” “Which doll is really full?”
- Next, have your children place their hands on their own tummies and tell you whether they are hungry, a little full, or very full.
- Go back to the dolls and ask your children to choose the doll whose stomach best matches their own.
- Finally, practice this exercise at varying times throughout the day to “catch” your kids at different stages of hunger.
If making “stomachs” isn’t your cup of tea, you can always draw a few circles to represent the stomachs. Then, color in a different proportion of each circle.
Teaching your kids to manage how much they eat is one of the best gifts you can ever give them. Will your kids make mistakes? Absolutely. Eating is complicated business—especially in our modern food environment. But even though there are plenty of reasons not to let your kids decide how much to eat, you really have no other options. Your kids have to be their own eating experts because teaching your kids to trust your instincts rather than their own instincts prevents children from learning to regulate their eating accurately and to regulate on their own.
~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~
1 Johnson, S. L. 2000. “Improving Preschoolers' Self-Regulation of Energy Intake.” Pediatrics 106(6): 1429-35.
© 2014 Dina Rose, PhD, is the author of the book, It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating (Perigee Books). She also writes the blog It's Not About Nutrition.