Ignoring Hunger and Satiety Cues

In an ideal world, kids (and adults) would eat only when hungry and then only enough until they feel full. Unfortunately, kids often eat because the food simply looks too good to pass up, or out of habit because it's time to eat, or simply because they're bored. Sometimes, they'll keep eating until they're well past full because they've gone on autopilot with their eating and are focusing on other things.

If you find your child heading to the refrigerator when he's just eaten a good meal, stop and ask him if he's eating because he's hungry or because he's bored. If the answer is the latter, take a time-out, and go and find something to do together. More importantly, talk with him about really asking himself about his own hunger every time he goes into snack-seeking mode.

Then sit down and make a list together of all the things he could do to make life more interesting instead of eating for fun. Make it varied — include quiet activities like reading as well as outdoor fun so he'll have choices in any kind of weather at any time of day — and post it on the refrigerator or inside the pantry door.

The next time he looks for food out of boredom, the list will hopefully trigger him to assess his actual hunger and motivate him to go do something else for fun if he finds he's eating to kill time.

In the Baylor University study of preschoolers and portion size, researchers found that kids who reported eating more snack foods when they weren't really hungry were also more likely to overeat when large portions were provided to them. Children with a higher BMI were also more likely to take larger bites.

Mindful Eating

Eating while performing other tasks such as watching television, playing video games, or talking on the phone can short-circuit feelings of satiety. If you're distracted by other things, it's possible to miss that feeling of fullness that tells you your stomach has had enough. This is the same phenomenon that causes you to eat an entire family-sized bucket of buttered popcorn solo while watching a movie.

Encourage your children to practice mindful eating. Ask that all meals and snacks be eaten around the kitchen table. Meals and snacks should be eaten with the television off and with the family when possible.

Listening to Your Child's Cues

Through their well-intentioned efforts to make sure children eat well, parents often ignore their children's hunger and satiety cues. If dinner is on the stove and your child says she's hungry for a snack, do you allow her to have a nutritious bite to eat, or does she have to wait until dinner? If she says she's full but has only eaten half her dinner, and hasn't touched her broccoli, do you excuse her from the table or demand she take a bite or two of the veggies?

If you insist on judging adequate nutrition by the clock or the quantity of food left on a plate, an you ignore your child when says she's hungry or full, you're reinforcing the idea that her hunger cues are not important. As a result, she may start disregarding them herself.

Food as a Social Occasion

Events where food is the center of attention can promote eating beyond or in the absence of hunger. The most notorious example for adults is probably Thanksgiving, but children face far more frequent occurrences in which food takes center stage. Birthday parties, holiday treats at school, candy from a teacher, pizza parties, team trips to an ice cream parlor — the list goes on and on.

When your child is headed off to a social event, make sure he knows it's okay to say no if he isn't hungry. If it fits the occasion, ask the host if you can contribute some snacks. Send along something healthy that he and his friends can munch on, so you'll know he has choices.

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