As an adult, how do you know when to stop eating? Knowing when to stop is the result of complex psychological and biological processes, which often don’t work quite the way we would like them to. Even with all the experience and resources available to us, we may still be unable to listen to our bodies and avoid overeating.
For children, this process is even more difficult because of their developmental level and their lack of experience interpreting the signals given by their bodies. In fact, studies on food regulation have shown that children have such a hard time “hearing” their bodies that often their eating response is more related to the portions on their plate than to their hunger level. As the adults in their lives, we need to help children hear, and listen to, their bodies.
A good place to start is the food guide pyramid for kids. The pyramid gives ranges of servings for ranges of ages. This puts us in the ballpark for the quantities that children should consume. These are ranges, so the minimum is the least a child should probably be eating at the youngest age in the range, while the maximum may be needed by older and/or more active children. But keep in mind basic good eating habits, as all foods (and quantities) are not equal.
Some basic good eating habits are:
1. Eat a wide variety of foods from all food groups.
2. Eat smaller portions of higher calorie and/or nutritionally empty foods.
3. Try new foods and don’t eat too much of any one food or food group.
4. Get plenty of exercise (yes, exercise is part of your “nutritional” requirement!).
5. And finally, stop eating when full.
This last good eating habit is often very difficult for children, so they need your help to learn how to read their bodies’ hunger scale. Once they know their hunger scale, they will recognize what “comfortably full” actually is. Knowing what this perfect level of “fullness” is will help them to put their eating in synch with their bodies’ actual needs.
First, ask your children to imagine what it feels like to be totally starving. Try to help them with an example of when you knew they were truly extremely hungry (perhaps at dinner time, right after a particularly vigorous class). This would be a “1” on the scale. Next have them remember what it felt like to be extremely full, when they had eaten so much that they didn’t feel good (like after a holiday meal or other eating extravaganza . . . but don’t compare it to Halloween when they ate so much candy that they felt ill). This is a “5” on the scale. A “3” is right in the middle, when they are just right, not too full and not too hungry. A “2” is when their stomachs feel empty and a “4” is just plain feeling too full. Then use this scale to rate their hunger during the day, before, after, and during meals. This will help to teach them not only what the differences are between the different hunger levels, but also to listen to what their bodies are saying.
For a child, an adult, and especially an athlete, the key to appropriate nutrient intake is listening to your body tell you what it needs. So help your children open the lines of communication with their bodies, and lead by example.