Simple fitness that works, from pregnancy to seasoned athlete.

Kids & Food: Intuitive Eating

by Stephanie Margolis, R.D.

Did you know we are born eating intuitively? We follow our body’s hunger and satiety cues naturally and grow as our body is meant to grow. You know what I mean, especially if you’ve ever tried to calm a hungry baby, or feed a full one. We’ve been talking about listening to your body, eating wholesome foods, and not living restrictively (see the non-diet diet). We’ve even talked about the impact of our actions on our kids’ body image and food choices. But now we bring it all together.

As parents we want happy, healthy eaters. We want it for them today and for their future. Unfortunately, even with the best of intentions, parents many times feel they must control their child’s nutrition and weight to achieve health. This may come from the fear that our child will become overweight, or that our child isn’t eating enough, or eating too much. This may come from our own upbringing and the messaging we received about food. Instead when we approach food in a flexible way that focuses on trusting physical hunger and satiety cues (aka: intuitive eating) we open ourselves to a healthier and happier way of being. And guess what? Kids are amazing at this! It isn’t until a child stops listening to those cues do we start to see issues.

Pros and Cons of Intuitive Eating

With many things in nutrition there is an asterisk (*) – here when we talk about self-regulating hunger and satiety cues we are talking about something the majority of kids have the ability to do. However, there are certain conditions that may inhibit your child’s ability to self-regulate and if that is the case you may not be able to implement all the ideas and suggestions here. If your child does not have an underlying condition, you may still feel nervous to allow them to follow their hunger and satiety cues. However, many studies have shown when we allow previously restricted foods back into the diet, there is a short-term increase in intake of those foods. But don’t panic, it was found that if parents don’t intervene, the cravings and weight stabilize on their own (whew!).

Moreover, research has shown there are several cons to over-controlling your child’s intake. Strict parental controls on eating can contribute to preference of energy dense foods (likely the exact thing you were trying to prevent!). It may also limit the acceptance of other foods and alter your kid’s ability to respond correctly to hunger and satiety cues. We also find the encouraging, bribing, and tricking kids into eating certain foods actually increases picky eating.

However, when food and feeding is approached in a flexible way, when parents lead by example, and helping your child identify real hunger by its physical cues (instead of head hunger because they saw their siblings eating) we see a much more peaceful and balanced approach to food.

Um, yes, I want that. How Do I Start?

So maybe you’ve been following along, and really desire to change you and your child’s way of eating, what’s the first step?

Step #1: Don’t say anything.

Seriously, for one week, do not say anything about what your child is or isn’t eating. You can give a few tidbits:

— While I’m getting your snack ready remember this is the only thing we have to eat until dinner, so make sure you eat what your body is telling you is enough.

— When you are eating you can make comments like, my body is telling me I’m full, I’m going to wait to enjoy my food later.

— In general, talking with your child about how foods help our bodies do the things we want to do like read, and run, and play (or pick their favorite activities to make it more relevant).

Make sure the comments are not judgemental and not delivered during a meal time. You provide the food choices and then… zip the lips! And while you struggle on the inside, just think about what you’ve read in this series and know you are doing the right thing by doing absolutely nothing. You may be amazed at what happens when you stop talking and let your child listen to their body.

And After I Complete This Trust Fall?

Healthy habits are all about consistency over time and this can be the starting blocks to change the conversation your family is having around food. This is something I’ve been passionate about since I took my Lifestyle Nutrition course in college, so it’s been consistent messaging for my three kids. I will warn you it’s not always perfect. For example, two days ago my daughter made a peach pie with a friend. Right before dinner my 4-year-old had a total meltdown because he wanted some and was screaming “my body is telling me I need PIE!”. Welp, at least he has the language down! And no, he didn’t get pie. Instead, I took him out of the kitchen, gave him some water and helped him calm his body. Then we talked about having dinner and that after we clean up from dinner I’m happy to cut him a piece of pie and that I understood how hard it was to wait when something looked so yummy. That seemed to do it, and we moved on.

It’s going to take practice and it’s not always going to be easy. But the research, the World Health Organization, and the American Academy of Pediatrics all agree… teaching your kids intuitive eating is the way to go.