When my son Max (who is now 4) was about 2 years old, he began asking me during mealtime:”can I be done?” At first, I’d just asked him if he’d had enough, and if he said “yes,” I’d let him leave the table. However, he soon began asking “can I be done?” after the first or second bite; and he would get annoyed if I asked him to eat a little more. He later began asking, “how many bites do I have to take before I can be done?” Mealtimes quickly stopped being enjoyable because he only seemed to want to get back to playing instead of taking the time to eat and enjoy his food; and I didn’t feel comfortable insisting that he eat a certain number of bites or offering him more tasty (and usually more unhealthy) food choices as substitutes for what I’d prepared. It didn’t feel natural to me, and went against the philosophy I believed in before he was old enough to eat.
Before I began feeding him solids, I had a picture in my mind of how I wanted him to eat. I wanted him to be able to follow his own hunger and fullness signals, and I wanted to have a relaxed attitude around food – not forcing him to eat things he didn’t like, and also not putting any “unhealthy” foods off limits; but I also wanted to offer him healthy choices for the most part and have structure around his meal and snack times. I quickly learned that teaching a child to rely on his own hunger and fullness signals is more complex than I thought it would be.
When mealtimes became a struggle, I decided to start talking to Max about how to “listen to his body” (my husband jokingly made fun of me for using this phrase, but I thought the phrase brought the concept down to a child’s level). “What is your body telling you, Max?” I would ask when he would ask me how many more bites he had to take. “Does your stomach feel empty, like it has a little food in it, or like it is tight and full?” I tried to teach him to notice sensations that would signal that he still needed to eat more or that he’d had enough, in hopes that he could make a wise choice about how many more bites to take. Quite frankly, this didn’t work, and it became rather comical. Max would say he was full when the foods offered were not his favorites, and he would say he was still hungry even after eating plenty of his favorite foods. A conversation could have gone something like this:
(Max eating soup and crackers)
Max: “How many bites do I have to take before I can be done?”
Me: “Well, Max, why don’t you listen to your body and see what it’s telling you.”
Max: “My body says I’m done.”
Me: “But you’ve only eaten two bites. I think you need to eat some more so that you won’t be hungry at nap time and you will have energy for the rest of the day.”
Max: “My body says ‘stop eating soup! stop eating soup!'”
(Max eating chocolate cake)
Max: “Can I have some more cake?”
Me: “Max, you’ve already had a big piece, why don’t you listen to your body and see what it’s telling you.”
Max: “My body says ‘more cake, more cake!'”
As funny as these statements are coming from a 2-year-old, it actually provides an unfiltered look at our brain’s primitive pleasure center and how it influences food intake.
Palatability usually overrides satiety, so that even if we are physically full, we still want to continue eating a highly pleasurable food (hence, “my body says ‘more cake, more cake!'”). And unless we are famished, lack of palatabilty can override hunger (hence, “my body says ‘stop eating soup!'”) A 2-year-old doesn’t have enough higher brain power to always override these primitive, pleasure-seeking brain signals. Neither does a 5-year-old, a 10-year-old, or a 15-year-old, and even adults with fully developed higher brain centers have trouble resisting tempting food (in the most extreme cases, this takes the form of binge eating).
I think it is highly unfair to kids when their parents keep the house stocked with extremely pleasurable/sugar-laden foods, and let them have free reign of it. They aren’t always going to make a choice to stop when their brains’ say “more sweets, more sweets.” My experience with Max led me to believe that childhood obesity is partially due to parents letting their kids “listen to their bodies” too much in an environment filled with sugary foods. Their bodies are very survival and pleasure oriented, and although they may not binge, they will often reach for the sweets over the healthy choices.
I still want Max to learn to listen to his body, but I also want him to know that he must think too. Now that he is a bit older, I have explained to him that when we eat desert and sugary foods, sometimes our bodies don’t tell us to stop even when we are full (and it’s possible that Max has genes like me that make him susceptible *not destined!* to overeat pleasurable foods). I sometimes set limits on how much desert he can have, and even if he says “my body says more,” I have to tell him no. I try to get him involved in something else so he stops focusing on his desire for more; and sure enough, within a couple minutes he always forgets about the food. I want to teach him that we can’t have everything we desire, and sometimes doing the right thing means temporarily feeling deprived of pleasure (we can’t mistake pleasure for happiness).
One day, when his higher brain centers are developed, I hope this lesson will stick: You don’t always have to listen to your body and brain when you know (with your higher brain centers) that what it’s telling you to do is not right or good for you. This lesson doesn’t only apply to eating pleasurable foods, but to anything that involves a healthy dose of self-control.
On the flip side, I’m also trying to teach him that just because some foods don’t taste great (like vegetables, in his opinion), he still needs to make a good effort to try them. Also, if he is not hungry at a meal, I certainly don’t force him to eat; but I do make sure he eats something to give him energy to last him until the next meal. Food is fuel and even when the appetite is low for one reason or another, that doesn’t mean we can’t put food in our mouths (except, of course, in cases of illness when eating normally would not be advised). I know I tend to lose my appetite in times of stress, but I still eat normally, even though it may not be as enjoyable to do so. Following the appetite is important, but we need to use our higher brains too when making food choices because sometimes the appetite isn’t completely reliable – especially when bombarded with sugary, highly processed, “addicting” foods.
I’m certainly not saying I’m doing everything right in fostering good eating habits in my children, but I do find it interesting how the brain of a child gives us a glimpse into the adult “animal” brain, which I believe plays a huge role in the development and maintenance of binge eating.