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Children eat when hungry, stop when full

Posted Aug 07 2009 11:59am

By Alison

I have heard about this concept repeatedly: watch a child at mealtime and you will learn the proper way to eat. Children eat when they are hungry and stop when full. If a child eats only one-fourth or one-half of her plate, mommy may say, “Finish your dinner!” Thus begins the slow road to overeating and joining the clean plate club.

This concept of going back to a child’s way of eating is branded in the nutrition world as intuitive eating or mindful eating. Both concepts involve psychology coupled with nutrition practices to bring people back in touch with true hunger. This means not eating just because the clock says it’s noon and time for lunch, or because a buffet prompts your mind to naturally have seconds, thirds and fourths.

Intuitive eating practices have been the focus of several clinical studies. This very topic was the focus of my nutrition masters thesis. What prompted me to choose this topic was a book titled Intuitive Eating written by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, and Elyse Resch, MS, RD, FADA. The book’s intuitive eating ideas are built around 10 steps, which I will outline below with my added two cents:

  1. Reject the diet mentality – Basically, stop dieting once and for all. Where do you get with diets? Lose weight, gain it back, do it over again. Fun.
  2. Honor Your Hunger – Be sure to eat every 3-4 hours. If you’re belly rumbles, don’t ignore it. This means you need food, whether it’s a meal or small snack. Staying on top of your hunger will help you avoid becoming ravenous and eating four slices of pizza.
  3. Make peace with food – I love ice cream. If I didn’t allow myself to have a couple scoops on a regular basis, I would eventually binge out on a “Gotta Have It” sized Cold Stone. Instead, I eat ice cream about 4x/week. My mother was going to buy an ice cream cake for my birthday and I told her not to bother. I’ve been eating it so often that it’s not that big of a deal to me anymore.
  4. Challenge the food police – Food Police are the voices in your head that say silly things like, “You are ‘good’ if eat 1200 calories or less today.” No, you’re not. You are good if you eat when hungry, choose nutritious foods, workout consistently, and feel energetic and healthy as a result. That is what feeling good is all about.
  5. Respect your fullness – When eating, rather than inhale your food at warp speed, take it slow and check in with yourself. On a level of 1-5, how full are you? Getting there? Almost satisfied? Be like the Okinawans and eat until you are 80% full, then stop. Walk away from the food and wait 15-20 minutes. I bet you won’t need anymore food.
  6. Discover the satisfaction factor- Take pleasure in your eating experience. Don’t shove in lunch while hunched over your computer. Try to step back from work, even if for 15 minutes, and eat with no distractions. Sit down at the dinner table and have conversation with your family rather than eat individual dinners in front of the TV.
  7. Honor your feelings without using food – This is a big one. It’s going to take more than reading a book for some to get over stuffing emotions with food. Recognize when it may be time to consult with a therapist. Many times food issues run deeper than simply knowing the right foods to choose and counting calories.
  8. Respect your body – Respect who you are and understand the body you’ve been given. If you are striving to be a perfect size 4, but your body plateaus at a size 8, this may be where your body is comfortable and happy. Accept it. Don’t fight it.
  9. Exercise, feel the difference – This should be #1. Exercise will have a positive impact on all nine other steps. Exercise will increase metabolism, add or preserve muscle mass, improve your cardiovascular system’s functionality, and increase the “feel good” chemicals bouncing through your brain (less depression). Overall you will make healthier eating decisions because of exercise.
  10. Honor your health – You don’t have to have a picture-perfect diet 100% of the time. I eat French fries, chocolate cake, and pizza. The key is to eat these types of food less often and include healthier, whole foods in your diet more often.

If these steps intrigue you, I urge you to pick up a copy of Intuitive Eating. Here’s a few other places that explore getting back in touch with true hunger:

Mayo Clinic Blog: Children offer lessons in healthy eating

The Center for Mindful Eating (TCME)

Intuitive Eating (website)

Feel free to comment if you practice or would like to try getting back in touch with true hunger!

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