Are you unintentionally raising a child who overeats? Many of us were probably brought up by parents who had been brought up in the shadow of the war. As such they impressed on us the importance of finish our plate. However, this is not the norm in other parts of the world. The body has natural receptors that tell us when we are full. If we continuously disregard them, by always eating past feeling full, they stop working. So children who have had a number of years of being unintentionally ‘force-fed’ are far more likely to become obese.
Diet trends are notoriously changing, but the fundamentals are well established. We discuss helping your child have a healthy relationship with food here. Children require adequate nutrients for proper growth and these are different from an adult. Especially when they are younger you worry about them growing and are keen for them to have a healthy diet. Therefore meal times can become through as we worry if they have eaten enough. One of the best bits of advice I was given was to look at what children eat over several days rather than each specific meal. Sometimes I don’t feel like breakfast if I have had a big meal the night before, this does not make me anorexic, just aware of my appetite. The reason your child might not be eating could be that they are not hungry. Rather than force them to eat, just see if they then eat more later that day at lunch.
So how do you get your child to stop eating when they are full and eat a balance of nutrients? We can learn a lot from continental Europe where obesity rates are amongst the lowest in the developed world.
Forcing Your Child to Overeat Through Love
Overeating describes the tendency for one to keep eating even when one does not feel hungry. This character is typical in some children and teenagers. You may observe that your child wants to eat at the mere sight of food or snacks regardless of when they had their last meal. The reasons that all of us do this is root in evolution. Where is the next food coming from and taste receptors that favour calorie dense foods for a similar reason.
While you may be happy to see your child eat without being forced or pressured, overeating isn’t a good habit for anyone to have. It could lead to indigestion and obesity that is a root cause of many other health problems. In addition, different factors may trigger overeating. Let’s discuss some of these factors below.
Other Reasons Why Your Child May Be Overeating
- They are hungry for too long. If you allow your child to get too hungry in between meals, chances are they may tend to overeat whenever they finally have access to food. Children, especially those below the age of 9, tend to be physically active. This means that they burn up a significant amount of energy within short periods. Ensure your child doesn’t go hungry for too long. Also, if they’re into sports that keep them active for over an hour at a time, you should give them a little snack before and after the game to energize them. A healthy snack at the right time will mean that when they sit down they will not eat quickly. It takes around 30 minutes for the receptors in the stomach to feed back to the brain that it is full.
- Friends and the media influence them. A child’s peers begin to influence them from a very young age, so does the media. Your child might take an interest in a particular meal or snack because their friend likes them. Food advertisements, especially those targeted at children, can also make them develop a special love for the advertised product. For example, if they watch little children eating a chocolate bar on TV, they may always want to have chocolate every day. This may pose a problem because food ads are primarily for processed or sugary products, and that’s not what you want your child consuming all the time. You may be tempted as a parent to prevent them from eating candy and sugary snacks altogether. However, it would help if you let them have some now and then, but make them understand they won’t always get a yes.
- They eat when bored. Children form habits at a young age, so you need to ensure they only stick to the right ones. Some children may turn to food whenever they feel bored or have nothing to do. Eating when bored may seem like harmless behavior, but that child will create an association between being bored and eating, leading to eating disorders. Instead of allowing your child to eat whenever they get bored, think of ways to keep them occupied.
- Exciting party foods. Celebrations and parties are opportunities for children to eat as much food as they like. Okay, even adults are guilty of this too. Your child may be so excited by the food available at parties; they may not be able to stop themselves even when they are full. Of course, children have lots of opportunities to eat a lot of party food as they’ll celebrate birthdays, get invited by their peers to parties, and have access to lots of foods and snacks during the holidays. In our house, the children can eat whatever they want at parties or restaurants. No food is forbidden. However, they know that at home we eat a healthy diet.
- Emotional eating. Unknowingly you may encourage your child to eat whenever they feel down or have any negative emotions. For example, you might offer them snacks when you notice they are not in a good mood or feel upset. Emotional eating isn’t a helpful way to deal with emotions; instead, you’re encouraging children to drown out bad feelings by going to food for comfort. It is better to help them identify, navigate, and deal with these feelings so they grow up to become emotionally resilient adults. Next time your child has a complaint or feels upset about something, don’t just offer them food. We have some advice about depression in children here.
How To Help Your Child Stop Eating When Full
- Serve a more appropriate size of food. It is easy to serve your child a large quantity of food and expect them to finish it. After all, you want them to eat well. Give them the appropriate amount of food according to their age and eating capacity. A large serving for little children may encourage them to keep eating even when they don’t feel hungry. You can also feel frustrated if you notice they never finish their plate, and that may trigger force-feeding. However, the goal should be to let your child eat till their full. A more appropriate serving will increase the likelihood that they finish their food and reduce the chances of their overeating. If unsure serve a smaller serving, that they can ask for seconds if they want it.
- Have a structured eating plan. There is a need for structure and regulation for dealing with children, so they learn the habit of eating well. Your child should not be given food randomly at any time of day. Instead, they should be offered a meal at regular intervals with snacks in between. If you have toddlers between the ages of 3-7, you can decide to feed them every 3-4 hours (meals or snacks) as they require lots of nutrients and energy at that stage. Having fixed mealtimes doesn’t mean they have to eat every bit of food you give to them at these intervals. Sometimes, they may not even be hungry. That shouldn’t disturb you; it is okay for them to skip a meal. They’ll most likely be ready to eat the next time food shows up. This is no different from how adults eat.
- Avoid teaching your children unhealthy eating habits. When your child is upset we have all said, ‘come on, let’s get a treat’. Although meant with heart this is giving the impression that sugary and unhealthy foods are a solution to being upset. We all know the solution is to talk but this can be difficult and exhausting.
- Allow children to eat by themselves. As babies grow into toddlers, they may show signs of wanting to feed themselves, like wanting to take the spoon from you. Allow them to eat by themselves and watch them if they need your help at some point. Allowing a child eat by themselves will encourage them to identify the point of satiety where they don’t need any more food.
- Table manners. Table manners may seem old fashioned, and in many ways they are. However eating as a family round a table while talking slows down the rate of eating and removes a distraction like TV that means food is eaten without realising.
Final Thoughts About Forcing Your Child to Overeat
Science shows that a poor diet has more of an effect on health than just being ‘chubby.’ It also has long-term effects like diabetes and cancer and our body image and mental well-being. So, as a parent, it is our responsibility not just to provide healthy meals. We must also model good eating patterns and habits and talk about food.
Forcing our children to overeat, however well-intentioned, is one of those habits you may want to change as a parent. It can work against the natural reflex of ‘fullness’ that stops us from overeating. If concerned, it might also help to speak to a dietician, pediatrician, or any other professional who knows about food and a child’s needs.