Children as Intuitive Eaters: How Parents Unintentionally Sabotage This Innate Cueing System
By: Maria Sorbara Mora, MS, CEDRD, PRYT, RYT
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As a nutritionist who specializes in the care and treatment of individuals with eating disorders, the concept of intuitive eating comes up often. Intuitive eating is a nutrition philosophy based on the premise that becoming more internally attuned to the body’s signals is a more effective way to attain a healthy weight and relationship to food, rather than using external cues to control how much one eats.
I often remind my clients that intuitive eating is the most organic process we have…and the earliest one that we develop. And although I pride myself on an Ivy League education and over fifteen years of experience in the field, my two children have served as better teachers of intuitive eating than both.
We are born intuitive eaters. Newborns instinctively crawl up to their mother’s breast and latch on moments after birth. Children innately self-regulate their food intake, knowing what they want, when they are hungry, and when they have had enough.
Leann L. Birch, a professor of Human Development at Pennsylvania State University, found that children instinctively self-regulate their food when:
a) Given a variety of foods to choose from
b) Given access to foods when they first become hungry
c) Allowed to eat to satisfaction
Although these three tenets may seem basic, many parents unintentionally sabotage intuitive eating cues in their children by asserting or inserting assumptions about feeding. Let’s consider how this happens:
Offering Children a Variety of Foods vs. Only “Healthy Foods”
I once had a mom proudly announce to me that she had never given her child juice…“only water.” I almost fell off my chair at the thought of a child going several years without being offered a cup of juice. I shared, “I give my children what they want.” She looked like she was going to fall off her chair.
The message is as parents, we may unintentionally restrict our children’s intake. In 2000, Carper, Fischer and Birch found that when five-year-old girls were pressured to eat “healthy” foods, they began to restrict certain foods, eat emotionally, and eat with abandon. This is certainly not what a parent is intending to do when he/she innocently says that fruit is more healthy than chips. However, children get the message that their cues and choices are wrong if they want chips.
Within this premise is the practice of seeing all foods as equal. I often remind my clients that foods are inherently neutral. As parents we reflect our own judgments about food onto our children, which ultimately misinforms their intuitive nature. In other words, it’s great to feel proud of our kids when they choose fruit, but is it possible for us to stay neutral when the choice is chips?
Access To Foods When Hungry vs Rigid Meal Times:
I remember feeling inadequate as a new mother when I got into discussions with other moms who put their newborns on rigid feeding schedules. I fed my children on demand and wondered why it was so hard for me to conform to a schedule. I realize now however that it was difficult for me to put them on a feeding schedule because I practice and counsel intuitive eating. I trusted that my children knew better than I when their bodies need nourishment…then and now.
How many parents have at least once hollered at your kids for snacking too close to meal time? I’d be lying to say I haven’t done it myself! It’s an easy pattern to fall into. In our minds, we believe we know when our children need to eat. But, I’m here to tell you that this is a faulty premise to live by!
About a year ago I observed that when my children asked for food it was way earlier than my own meal or snack times. Many nights when I was cooking dinner they were already looking for something to eat. So I began doing something novel…I responded to what I observed. Instead of deciding that their meal times had to coincide with my meal times, I honored what their bodies were telling me about what they needed.
Now, I keep the snack drawer within reach of my 3 and 5 year old so that they can explore what they want WHEN they want. Sometimes my daughter says to me, ‘Mommy, I want a snack’. Other times, I’ll offer and they will check in with themselves. My son has a one liner he always says when he’s not hungry, ‘no thank you, I’m OK’. And you know what? He is!
The other thing I’ve learned from my children is the most fundamental rule of parenting…NOTHING STAYS THE SAME! My daughter was the most enthusiastic early morning eater. Just recently, she has decided that breakfast is not her thing. No matter what I put in front of her she doesn’t feel hungry first in the morning. By late morning however she’s ready to eat.
For those parents who believe in a more strict meal time schedule for your children, I ask you to consider this important fact… Children and teens have higher rates of metabolism than adults due to the massive growth they are undergoing. Bottom line is that our children will get hungry more often than we do and may need less or more in amounts than we think. How can we adjust our understanding of meal and snack times as our children’s bodies grow without letting them feel as though they’ve done something wrong?
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Eating until Satisfaction vs. Portions or Full Plate
Finally, the most impressive characteristic of children as it pertains to their eating habits is their keen sense of self-regulation. We notice our newborns pulling away from the breast or bottle when they’re full. Infants wolf down all their sweet potatoes one day while on other days seal their mouths shut after just a few spoonfuls. Later on in childhood we notice our children losing interest in foods as they near satiation. This skill does NOT go away over time…unless we train our children to do something else.
The typical culprits of this is when parents either 1) impose an allotted amount of a food (pre-portion meals and snacks), 2) unilaterally determine when they’ve had enough (“You can’t be hungry for another yogurt, you just had one”), or 3) demand that they eat all of what was put in front of them (“Eat everything on your plate”). When we impose these rules on our children, we teach them to distrust their hunger and satiety and rely on external cues instead. We know that when individuals use external cues to assess hunger and satiety levels they are at higher risk for eating disorders.
Children come equipped with all the skills necessary to eat intuitively. As parents we can support this innate gift by observing our children’s natural eating habits rather than imposing our own agendas about what is healthy or enough. If we let go of our assumptions, we may just realize how much our kids DO know about how to feed themselves. They may also teach us a thing or two about what unadulterated listening to one’s body really looks like: eating what you want, when you want and eating the amount that your body needs.
1) Carper, J. L., J. Orlet Fischer, and L. L. Birch, “Young Girls’ Emerging Dietary Restraint and Disinhibition Are Related to Parental Control in Child Feeding.” Appetite 2, no. 35 (October 2000): 121–29.
2) Birch, Leann L., et al., “Clean Up Your Plate: The Effects of Child Feeding Practices on the Conditioning f Meal Sizes.” Learning & Motivation no. 18 (1987): 301–7.