Today’s blog is a bit of a rant. Again and again, in special needs parenting groups, I have seen parents complaining that their healthy-weight children are eating too much. This complaint makes me crazy because it usually isn’t true. Healthy children with appropriate access to healthy foods, rarely overeat and need their intake monitored.
In a country with an obesity epidemic, how can I make that claim? And what do I think is happening? Let’s get into it!
First of all, if your child has healthy, appropriate hunger cues, you need to be grateful. There are a lot of parents with children who struggle to eat enough to be healthy. But that isn’t today’s rant. Your body is supposed to create hunger cues to remind you to eat. That is part of our biology. And unless your child has a health condition like Prader-Willi Syndrome, they will feel full when their body has had what they need.
So, why is your seven-year-old now eating so much? The most likely culprit is a growth spurt. Your child’s body actually needs more calories to keep them running around, playing, climbing, and jumping while also growing 3 inches taller and making new teeth. Do you have any idea how many calories it takes to make a tooth? Well, honestly I’m not sure, but the body has to have not only calories, but the right nutrients to make those permanent teeth.
How Much Do They Need to Eat?
And that brings me to my next point, your child might be so hungry because their body is asking for all the right nutrients, and until they get what they need, it will keep asking. Have you looked at the My Plate website to see what your child’s plate should look like at each meal? A serving of protein (beans or meat), a serving of whole grains, a serving of fruit, and one of vegetables, plus a serving of dairy. All that makes up one meal. And your child is supposed to eat that 3 times a day with snacks in between! Those snacks should include even more fruits and vegetables and healthy fats. Because fruits and vegetables are rather low calorie, a healthy diet can generally include an unlimited amount of them. I also think their plate should include a glass of water, and children who aren’t drinking enough fluids can confuse hunger and thirst. So, be sure your child has plenty of water each day, too.
And, an active child may need just as many calories per day as an adult. So, if you are assuming your child is eating too much because they are eating an adult-sized portion, they may still just be eating what they need. The NHS has a breakdown of how many calories you can expect a healthy person to eat in a day, based on activity levels. This list is pretty shocking when you think about how an active 9-year-old may need more calories than a grown adult who isn’t very active.
Nutrients are essential
To grow muscles, your child needs protein. To grow healthy bones and make those new teeth they need calcium, magnesium, and vitamins like K and D. To have a healthy immune system they need to be eating all of that plus plenty of vitamins A, B, and C. To eat all of those each day, you have to eat a wide range of foods through out the day.
If, for example, your child isn’t eating enough foods with calcium, their body will keep sending hunger signals. Those signals are in hopes that if your child eats enough, they will eat what they really need. If you keep offering the same 3 snacks, your child may eat all of those, and still not be getting the vitamin or mineral their body is seeking. Thus, their body keeps sending hunger cues.
Even if you offer variety, you may see that your child seems to “binge eat” certain foods. There is a biological reason for this. Throughout most of human history, we didn’t have refrigeration, and eating foods out of season was not possible like it is today. When fruits and berries came into season, children would eat their fill off the trees and plants, because there was no way to preserve them. The best biological choice was to eat all you could while it was available.
This trait is super helpful if you are foraging for your food, but not so great now that we have grocery stores. It is also something to keep in mind when your child is seeking sweet foods. Their biology thinks the sweet foods they are going to find are fruits. Fruits are full of nutrients and the truth is that most kids today aren’t eating enough of them. So, eating the entire package of blueberries you just bought, is biologically normal, if annoying.
Too much sugar
Unfortunately, most of us have sweets in our homes that aren’t fruit and your child’s cravings don’t know the difference. Those cues can get crossed and lead to kids eating too many cookies, candy, or other foods that are best to limit. If your child can’t seem to manage to eat those in moderation, it may be best to just stop buying/making them for now, and keep healthier choices in your home.
Unless you have consulted with a doctor and/or nutritionist and they have recommended limiting your child’s food intake, please don’t do it. If your child is eating more than seems reasonable, make sure they are drinking enough water and eating a wide variety of foods. Let your child learn to trust their own body’s cues about hunger and thirst so that they can grow up to be adults with a healthy relationship to food.
About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.