Emotional Hunger: Prevent and Stop Emotional Eating

Emotional Hunger: Prevent and Stop Emotional Eating

Earlier this week, I posted about emotional hunger. Emotional hunger is when we feel hungry because of our emotions, not because we physically need to eat.  This behavior shows up even in very young toddlers. What can we as parents do to prevent it from developing, intervene when it strikes, and prevent it from happening once it has developed?  Below are some of my top ways to deal with emotional hunger in kids.

How Parents Can Stop Emotional Eating from Developing

As parents, we cannot control our kids.  They are independent human beings with their own minds, wills, and desires.  However, we do have an enormous amount of influence on them, much of which they (and us) are not even aware of.   Kids’ relationships with food are often strongly influenced by our behaviors as parents.

One thing that has been observed repeatedly in many studies is that parents who use food to soothe their young children when they are experiencing negative emotions will raise children who experience significantly more emotional eating.*  Let me put this another way: If you use food to soothe your unhappy child, you are teaching your child to eat when they are unhappy.

As a parent, I know how distressing it is to see your child unhappy.  Not only do you not like seeing your precious baby upset, but it can also be embarrassing, frustrating, or annoying to you as a parent.  Trust me, even my little angels have thrown tantrums in the grocery store or dissolved into tears because they want something (usually a trip on an airplane, helicopter, boat, or train) that I just cannot possibly provide them with.

I have seen on so many occasions that parents will break down under such circumstances and distract their child with food.  Heck, even I have done it on occasion (but with dried fruit, not chocolate, as the proffered treat).  I think all parents do this every once in a while.  But when this method of dealing with unhappy children becomes the norm rather than a once off rarity, you are teaching your child to soothe with food.  You are educating your child that if they are unhappy, eating will make them feel better.  And as a result, they are more likely to become obese.

How to Deal With Emotional Hunger

Helping your child recognize emotional hunger is only half of the battle.  Once they understand that their hunger is emotionally motivated rather than physically driven, what should they do?  The first thing you must make clear to kids is that the food is not going to solve their problems.  Ultimately, it is not going to improve their emotional situation.

Tell them to wait

That said, do not forbid kids to eat when their emotions are in turmoil.  Children, like adults, always want what they cannot have.  You certainly cannot expect a child to have more self-control than an adult, and few adults can withstand emotional cravings.  Instead, suggest to your child that if they are in an unhappy mood and that is making them want to eat, that they defer it for five minutes.  Children are often mercurial and in five minutes their emotional state could change completely.  Alternatively, they may find another, more constructive, way of self-soothing, or they might simply forget that they wanted to eat.  Because emotional hunger is not physical, it is not enduring in the same way physical hunger is.

Give kids a toolkit

Another way to break the emotional eating habit is to give kids a set of tools to work with.  Kids have to learn how to self-soothe and need to be taught how to appropriately handle emotions.  Some emotions are uncomfortable and we do not like them.  Sadness, anxiety, or loneliness are not good feelings, but they are instructive.  They help teach us what we need and also help us learn to avoid potentially dangerous or counterproductive situations.  Explaining to kids the positive side of bad emotions can be a good way to start.  Then they can view uncomfortable emotions as their friends rather than enemies to be avoided or ignored at all costs.

Sadness: Help children come up with a list of activities that make them happy.  This could be anything from kicking a ball to finger painting to reading a book.  Certain activities like physical activity or singing actually release endorphins that make kids physically feel happy – and they’re healthy, too.

Loneliness: Most children experience loneliness at some point.  Maybe they’re alone in their room while mom takes a nap, or perhaps they just don’t have any friends who can come over to play.  Kids can also feel lonely in a crowd, especially if they are in a group of which they are not a part (such as a new school), or if they are missing a specific person (like a special friend or grandparent).  Suggest that kids who are lonely call a good friend or trusted adult, play with a pet, or connect with someone they care about by looking at photos or writing a letter/drawing a picture to send that person.

Anxiety: Even kids have things they worry about.  Whether it is schoolwork they don’t feel good at or a friend they’ve bickered with, kids have their own “kid-sized” set of concerns.  Never ever downplay your child’s cares!!! Each of us has our own set of problems that are important to us, regardless of anything else that may be going on in the world.  Do not invalidate your child’s worries.  It is amazing how soothing it can be for a worried child when a parent validates their concerns.  Ask what is bothering your child, listen to your their answer, and repeat it back, along with words of understanding.  (E.g., “I hear that you are nervous because you have a big math test tomorrow.  I know how that feels – it can be pretty scary.”) Sometimes kids are anxious without knowing why or you are not around to talk it through with them.  In those cases, encourage your kids to burn off nervous energy by doing something physical, such as dancing to a favorite song or running a few laps around the playground or schoolyard.

Tiredness: Feeling tired, exhausted, or run down can be the result of too little sleep, broken sleep, or too much activity or stimulation.  Like adults, when kids get tired they can also become cranky and might be tempted to reach for their favorite junk foods.  Tired kids should be encouraged to rest as much as the situation allows.  If they are home and it’s not too early they can simply go to bed a bit earlier than usual.  If it is too early for them to go to sleep, they can lie in the bed or on the couch and “veg out” by reading a book or watching a show (reading a book is better, though, as screens stimulate the brain and can make it harder to get a good night’s sleep).  To calm cravings for food, give kids a warm drink, such as a warm cup of milk (we prefer homemade rice milk). If you want to avoid extra calories, offer kids a warm cup of herbal infusion (some herbs and flowers can even be calming and aid in peaceful sleep – I use linden flower, which has a soft and neutral flavor).  Don’t want to give kids drinks before bed?  Use water in a different way: Give your kids a soothing bubble bath.

Boredom: Kids can get bored no matter how many toys you buy them.  To avoid boredom, try rotating toys.  We keep each set of similar toys in a box and no more than one or two boxes are out at any time.  If our kids get bored, they don’t turn to food – instead, they trade in an existing box for a new box full of toys they haven’t recently played with.  Try also making a list with your kids of projects, games, or activities they’d like to try some time when they are bored.  There are an endless amount of kids activity and craft idea books out there to help you come up with ideas.  Photocopy or scrapbook pages with activity or craft ideas into a “boredom book” your child can pull out when they get bored, rather than reaching for snacks.

Hopefully with a toolkit like this in hand, you will find it easier to determine both what your child’s emotional hunger triggers are and what you can do to fix them – without food.

Preventing and Countering Emotional Hunger

One of the best ways to deal with emotional hunger is to prevent it from arising.  As discussed above, as parents we can do certain things that discourage emotional eating habits from developing, but what do we do if our kids already show signs of emotional eating?  And what do we do if they develop the habit regardless of the way we raised them?  Everyone knows that no matter how good a parent you are, you can do everything right and still your child might do something different! So how can we help our kids to counter emotional hunger in the first place?

The key to stopping emotional hunger from arising in our kids is to set them up for success.  There are four aspects of your child’s daily routine that can go a long way to preventing emotional hunger from developing:

  1. Sleep.  Ensure your child gets enough sleep every night.  Tiredness and lack of sufficient sleep make it difficult for kids to process their emotions.  I know what it is like to have bedtime struggles, so the only advice I have is to set up a bedtime routine that gets your kids to sleep with enough hours left before school for them to get the rest they need.
  2. Exercise.  Too many kids today spend a lot of their day either cooped up at school desks or in front of screens – or both.  Physical activity and movement are scientifically proven to boost mood, so making physical activities and sports a regular part of your child’s routine will also help improve their overall mood.
  3. Connection.  Kids need to connect with others.  Social interaction not only teaches good social skills but it also improves kids’ “emotional quotient” by teaching them how to handle their own (and others’) moods. Close bonds and positive relationships also give a boost to kids’ sense of wellbeing and self esteem.
  4. Relaxation.  These days there is an enormous amount of pressure to fill kids’ every waking moment with activities and stimulation.  I know some kids who are on the go from 7 AM to 10 PM, every day.  This is an overwhelming schedule even for an adult!  Parents do this thinking they are doing the right thing for their kids, by entertaining them without pause.  But all that stimulation can produce stress and kids need a time out sometimes to cool down and relax.  Institute some sort of quiet time in your child’s day.  It may be a nap or it could simply be a peaceful half hour in their day.  Older children can read a book or listen to a book on tape.  If you have the time, reading a book to the family is a great quiet-time bonding opportunity all can enjoy.


Emotional hunger can plague anyone, from very young toddlers through to the elderly.  Eating just because we want to assuage our emotions can lead to overeating, unhealthy eating, and weight gain.  Unfortunately, kids can establish these habits and patterns very young.  Using the tips and advice in this post can help you learn what to do: A) as a parent, in order to prevent habits from developing; B) to help your child avoid eating for emotional reasons; and C) to prevent emotional hunger from arising by changing your child’s daily routines.  With these tips in hand, we can start to say goodbye to emotional hunger!

*Farrow C, Haycraft E, Blissett J. Teaching our children when to eat: how parental feeding practices inform the development of emotional eating—a longitudinal experimental design Am J Clin Nutr May 2015 vol. 101 no. 5 908-913

Emotional Hunger: What Is It?

Emotional Hunger: What Is It?

Earlier this week, I posted about using mindfulness as a tool to teach kids how to take control of their eating habits.  One of the most critical things kids (and all of us) can learn from being more mindful when we eat is to be aware of our hunger.  Some hunger comes because our bodies need fuel, but not all of it.  Some hunger is instead emotional hunger.

What is Emotional Hunger?

Emotional hunger is the hunger we feel when we are experiencing a certain mood or situation.  The emotional triggers are different for each person.  I know a lot of people who eat nonstop when they are stressed.  I, on the other hand, cannot even think about food when I’m stressed.  But stress and anxiety are not the only triggers that make people suddenly want to eat.  Some people eat when they’re happy or when they’re sad.  Some people eat when they’re in a relaxed mood, others when they are under pressure.

Often we eat simply because we are reminded of a food.  No matter what our mood is, we start to salivate when we walk past a chocolate or pizza shop.  Just smelling food can make our bodies respond as if we are about to eat.  Not only smells, but memories or reminders can also spur us to eat.  Thinking fondly of a family member who has just called can bring to mind memories about shared meals.  Remembering with pride a certain achievement can also recall the foods we used to celebrate it.

Being in a situation similar to one we’ve experienced many times can also trigger us to want certain foods.  I know a lot of people who insist on having chicken soup the moment they come down with a cold, whether they are hungry or not.  When my stomach is upset, I reach for dry crackers and ginger ale, even if I really don’t want to consume anything.

All of these moods and memories that spark our interest in eating are forms of emotional hunger.  We are hungry not because we need to eat but because something else internal to our mind has made us think we need to eat.  Emotional hunger is hunger driven by our emotions and our psychological needs rather than our physical needs.

Kids Also Experience Emotional Hunger

As adults, we may be tempted to think of emotional hunger as an adult experience.  Kids, who surely have less emotional baggage to carry around, should not be so susceptible, right? Right? Wrong.  In fact, there is an entire emotional eating scale adapted specifically for children and adolescents!*

Emotional Hunger Begins Young

It makes perfect sense that even very young children should associate food with soothing emotions.  Beginning at birth, babies are offered food as a soothing mechanism and feeding times are often an opportunity for intense parent-baby bonding.  Food is immediately associated with being a way to improve mood and overall feeling.  Having had two babies of my own, I can freely admit to many times having offered the breast to my babies to stop them from crying and to soothe their distress – even when I knew they weren’t hungry.

Actively eating as a result of emotional hunger can be observed in children as young as 2 years old.**  It has also been extensively tested in preschool children*** as well as in adolescents.****  There is no doubt that children use food to stimulate or still their emotional states just as adults do.

The Dangers of Emotional Eating and Emotional Hunger

The main danger of emotional eating and emotional hunger in children is that it is clearly associated with obesity.  Emotional eating leads to a greater body mass index (BMI) and a less healthy diet, which results in less healthy kids.***  If we want to inspire healthy kids, we need to deal with emotional hunger in a constructive way.

How to Identify Emotional Hunger

If your child(ren) is/are already displaying emotional eating habits, it is time to teach them how to identify emotional hunger and to separate it from physical hunger.  Mindfulness techniques can really help.  Mindfulness encourages children to assess their emotional state prior to eating.  However, there are some key identifiers that make it easier for a child to answer whether they are experiencing emotional or physical hunger. Use these lists as your guide, from Doris Wild Helmering and Dianne Hales Think Thin, Be Thin (New York: Broadway Books, 2004): 77 and Brian Wansink’s Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (Australia: Hay House, 2010): 153.

Physical Hunger

  • Builds gradually
  • Strikes below the neck (e.g., growling stomach)
  • Occurs several hours after a meal
  • Goes away when full
  • Eating leads to feeling of satisfaction

Emotional Hunger

  • Develops suddenly
  • Above the neck (e.g., a “taste” for ice cream)
  • Unrelated to time
  • Persists despite fullness
  • Eating leads to guilt and shame


Emotional hunger can plague anyone, from very young toddlers through to the elderly.  Eating just because we want to assuage our emotions can lead to overeating, unhealthy eating, and weight gain.  Unfortunately, kids can establish these habits and patterns very young.  Stay tuned for my next post: I will tell you all about how to prevent and counter emotional hunger.

*Tanofsky-Kraff, M., Theim, K. R., Yanovski, S. Z., Bassett, A. M., Burns, N. P., Ranzenhofer, L. M., Glasofer, D. R. and Yanovski, J. A. (2007), Validation of the emotional eating scale adapted for use in children and adolescents (EES-C). Int. J. Eat. Disord., 40: 232–240. doi: 10.1002/eat.20362

**Farrow C, Blissett J, Stability and continuity of parentally reported feeding practices and child eating behaviours from 2-5 years of age. Appetite 2012;58:1516.

***Blissett JHaycraft E, Farrow C. Inducing preschool children’s emotional eating: relations with parental feeding practices. Am J Clin Nutr 2010;92:35965.

****Braet CVan Strien T. Assessment of emotional, externally induced and restrained eating behaviour in nine to twelve-year-old obese and non-obese children. Behav Res Ther 1997;35:86373.

Beyond Carnism by Melanie Joy

Beyond Carnism by Melanie Joy

Carnism TEDx Talk by Melanie Joy

On this blog, I generally focus on health and the science around health and diet for kids.  I believe we can change the world by changing the foods we feed our kids.  Not only can we ensure that the next generation faces lifelong good health, but in doing so we can also help them grow up to face the world with joy.  Part of the joy that comes from eating a healthy diet comes from the attendant good values that come with it.  So it is that I wanted to share with you all this TEDx talk by Melanie Joy.

Melanie Joy, Ph.D., Ed.M. is a Harvard-educated psychologist, professor of psychology and sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, a celebrated speaker, and the author of the award-winning book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows. Melanie is the eighth recipient of the Institute of Jainology’s Ahimsa Award, which was previously awarded to Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. Her work has been featured by numerous national and international media outlets, including the BBC, Germany’s ARD, ABC Australia, the New York Times, and Spiegel Online. Melanie has given her acclaimed carnism presentation on five continents, and she is also the founder and president of the project Karnismus erkennen and of Carnism Awareness & Action Network.


What is Carnism?

Carnism is the name Melanie Joy has given to the belief system that justifies human consumption of animal flesh.  This is the belief system most of us have grown up in, which conditions us to think of it as okay, as “normal, natural, and necessary” behavior.  And yet, most of us think it is perfectly acceptable to eat a pig or a cow but not our pet dog or cat.  So we do not think it is normal to eat any and every animal, just certain ones.  Why?

Carnism and Health

The consumption of animals is incontrovertibly detrimental to our health and wellbeing.  For children, whose bodies are growing at a rapid rate, it is even more important to eat a healthy diet as the foundation for their futures.  Feeding our children meat hurts them.  In the words of Melanie Joy:

We pay for our carnism with our health, as eating an animal based diet can lead to serious disease, while eating a plant-based or vegan diet can optimize health.

It is for this reason that I think you will all benefit from watching this video.  Older children and teenagers can also benefit.  Watch it and then have a discussion about what you have seen – your children may have some very interesting insights!  (Please be advised that there are some graphic images in this video that may be unsuitable for younger viewers.)

Beyond carnism and toward rational, authentic food choices by Melanie Joy at TEDxMünchen

Visit Melanie Joy’s Beyond Carnism website to learn more

Salt: How Much Do Kids Need?

Salt: How Much Do Kids Need?

US Centers for Disease Control Vital Signs Informational on Salt

Salt is an essential mineral for good health, but most kids today eat far more than they should. Eating too much salt is unhealthy and can lead to many different health problems. Most of this comes in the form of processed or restaurant foods, which makes it difficult for people to make good judgments about what foods to avoid.  It makes it challenging to determine just how much sodium is being consumed per day.

Even super sweet rice krispie treats contain a large amount of salt.  Percent daily values are based on the maximum amount an adult should consume.  Children should consume half of that amount as an absolute maximum, and even then the ideal is to consume about one fifth of that.  50mg sodium may be closer to 10% of what a child should be consuming daily in a healthy diet!

Even super sweet rice krispie treats contain a large amount of salt. Percent daily values are based on the maximum amount an adult should consume. Children should consume half of that amount as an absolute maximum, and even then the ideal is to consume about one fifth of that. 50mg sodium may be closer to 10% of what a child should be consuming daily in a healthy diet!

Salt is a preservative and is therefore ubiquitous in processed foods.  Even “sweet” foods generally contain at least a bit of sodium and foods that are really salty contain lots.  A child’s lunch sandwich will contain lots of sodium: in the bread, the mayonnaise, and the cheese (or meat).  There is even sodium in some soft drinks, especially those designed for sports.  They are meant to replace electrolytes, one of which is salt.  But most kids today consume way too much salt and do not need additional salt in their drinks, too!

It is rare to find children (or anyone) suffering from a salt deficiency due to a lack of salt in the diet.  Sometimes adults who are suffering from severe water retention or athletes who are doing intense workouts over long periods of time can end up with a sodium deficiency in their blood.  But this is not due to not consuming enough salt (the notable exception being in users of the drug Ecstacy, but if this is an issue for your child then you have bigger problems than just trying to get them to eat a healthy diet!).  Indeed, even people in those situations might be consuming too much salt on a regular basis.  However, due to other diseases or intense physical exercise for a long period of time, their salt reserves drop down.

This large pinch of salt is 3 grams of salt.  Many people will add this much salt or more to a dish they are cooking!

This large pinch of salt is 3 grams of salt. Many people will add this much salt or more to a dish they are cooking!

Fear of developing hyponatremia (salt deficiency) is not a good reason to load your kids up with salt.  With the amount of dietary sodium readily available in processed foods your child will have a hard time not eating too much salt, but will not have any trouble getting enough to live a healthy life.  In fact, even adults need only 500-2,400 mg or 0.5-2.4 grams daily to be healthy (please note the wide variance of 480%!).  That 2,400 mg or 2.4 g daily dose is the very upper limit of the safe and healthy recommendations out there today.  In fact, most organizations recommend that adults keep their sodium intake below 1,500 mg (1.5 g).

Here is a fact many people do not know: The amount of recommended salt intake and the amount of recommended sodium intake are two different things.  Table salt is only about 40% sodium.  Therefore, you have to be aware of what you are trying to avoid and how much.  For instance, a maximum recommendation of 6 grams of salt is 2.4 grams of sodium.

Here are the recommendations for the maximum amount of salt kids should have in their diets, according to the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, Salt and Health:

Age Maximum Salt Intake
0-6 months <1g / day
6-12 months 1g / day
1-3 years 2g / day
4-6 years 3g / day
7-10 years 5g / day
11 years and above 6g / day

However, these recommendations are for amount of salt.  This is measurable when you are doing absolutely all food preparation at home, using table salt.  However, most of us do buy processed foods and the nutrition labels list only the amount of sodium, not the amount of salt.  To calculate whether our kids are eating too much salt, we need to know the maximum amount of sodium foods contain.  When changed to reflect sodium intake rather than salt, the maximum recommended amount of sodium looks like this:

Age Maximum Sodium Intake
0-6 months <0.4g / day
6-12 months 0.4g / day
1-3 years 0.8g / day
4-6 years 1.2g / day
7-10 years 2g / day
11 years and above 2.4g / day

See the difference?

These maximums are actually on the high end of the spectrum, as many organizations, such as the American Heart Association, recommend that adult intakes stay below 1.5g sodium daily, and, as I mentioned above, the minimum recommended intake is actually 0.5 g sodium daily.

That’s part of what makes it so hard to determine how much salt your kids should have – the recommendations are maximum upper limits, not ideal amounts.  You don’t want to actually aim for these amounts – you want to be well below them!  Yet the percent daily values listed on nutrition panels are based on the maximums, so it looks as if there is not as much sodium in the food as there really is.

Sea Salt Kettle Chips

Take a look at the nutrition panel above, which is for sea salt flavor kettle chips.  There are 120 mg of salt in one serving, which is 25 grams.  Most of us will not eat only 25 grams of chips, but suppose you did.  The 120 mg of sodium is listed here as 5% of the daily recommended value, which conveys the sense that it is fine to eat 2,400 mg of sodium daily, far above the upper limit of 1,500 recommended by many organizations – and that is for adults!  If a child ate even a small amount of chips, they would be getting a significant percentage of the healthy daily amount.


Babies do not need any added salt in their diet.  Babies’ kidneys are not yet fully developed and they are too immature to cope with added salt in their diets.  During the important first formative months, it is especially crucial that babies be allowed to grow naturally.  Babies on a breastmilk or formula diet do get just a very tiny amount of sodium in their diet.  Their diet is specially formulated to provide exactly what they need and nothing more.  Too much sodium can be especially harmful for very young babies.


Infants who are being introduced to solids and/or weaned off breast milk and formula should not be given any additional salt in their diet.  Infant foods are specially formulated not to contain added sodium.  It is just not necessary or healthy for babies.  You may taste some baby food and think it tastes bland, but it does not taste bland to babies, whose taste buds have not yet become accustomed to strong flavors.  Just imagine – if you drank nothing but milk, eating plain steamed peas and carrots would taste amazing, interesting, and new.  Babies do not need any added salt, so do not add any to their food.   As babies grow up, you may choose to give them some snacks (for instance, I gave my babies a few Bamba occasionally, which is quite salty).  If you give them snacks every once in a while, they will definitely get plenty of sodium in their diet.  Just be careful not to give them too many processed foods, and avoid using things like commercial sauces and spreads, as they often have a lot of added salt.


Childhood is the best time to inspire healthy kids.  Do this by continuing to avoid adding any salt to meals.  A tiny pinch of salt in a dish can help bring out the inherent flavors in vegetables, but if you can taste the salt in a dish you cook, it is too much salt.  Really, the rule of thumb is that the less salt you add to home cooking, the better – ideally adding no salt at all.  Kids who do not eat salt in food at home are more likely to be getting the right amount of sodium.  There is a lot of sodium in processed foods, so kids get plenty of sodium from the processed or restaurant foods purchased.

Kids who do not develop a taste for salty food when they are young are more likely to eat a healthy amount of salt as adults.  A good example would be my husband and I.  His mother never added salt to everything, whereas my mother added lots of salt to her food.   As a child I developed a taste for salt that has never left me.  After getting married, I began cooking food without adding any salt and slowly I am getting used to it, although I still sometimes find it bland.  My husband, on the other hand, has the ability to detect salt even in foods to which I have not added it!

In my house, we rarely consume any processed foods.  I make almost every meal from scratch.  We eat a lot of salads and most meals are paired with brown rice rather than bread.  Even our ice cream and yogurt are homemade!  We only eat in restaurants a few times a year.  Our kids get most of the sodium in their diets from crackers, which they get to eat a couple times a week, and from Vegemite, which they also get only rarely.


Teens, especially females, have to be very wary of salt intake.  The foods that are marketed to and are popular among teenagers tend to be things like burgers, chicken nuggets, pizzas, chips, cakes, and cookies.  All of these processed foods are high in sodium and teens can easily eat way too much salt.  Girls reach their peak bone mass at puberty and consuming too much salt during this critical time of formation and development can result in girls’ bones not attaining a sufficient thickness.  This can cause osteoporosis later in life.

The amount of salt in potato chips is unsurprisingly very high


The amount of salt kids need is very different from the amount recommended as a percentage daily value.  Percentage daily values are based on a very high adult amount, which is double the safe maximum for children.  The guidelines, even those listed above for children, are based on maximum safe amounts, which are four to five times higher than the amount that is actually healthy.  Experts all agree that too much salt is harmful and dangerous to health – they all consistently recommend reducing salt intake as much as possible to obtain optimum health.  The best thing you can do for your kids is to reduce their salt intake as much as possible!

Teaching Good Nutrition Begins in Infancy

Teaching Good Nutrition Begins in Infancy

We hear the mantra that the very beginning of life is when babies learn the most as the reason why we should focus on their education from the very beginning.  But we all know from personal experience that nobody actually remembers being a baby.  It’s hard to associate a period of our own lives that nobody can even remember with being the most ideal time for learning.  Yet, even nutrition needs to be taught from the earliest stages, even in infancy, before your child even reaches the age of one!

Late last year yet another study was released that confirms this once again.  What babies were fed in infancy directly correlated to what they consumed later in life, at age six.  Babies who were fed unhealthy foods in infancy grew into children who were more than twice as likely to consume unhealthy foods as children – and of course, many other studies confirm that behaviors cemented in childhood are carried through into adulthood.  In essence, what you choose to feed your baby directly impacts how they will choose to eat during the rest of their lives.

Did you know that over 30% of 6-year-olds consume fruit less than once daily?  Nearly 20% of 6-year-olds consume vegetables less than once daily.  (Personally, I do not even know what these kids could possibly be eating, since fruits and vegetables are virtually all my kids eat!)  Even the US government recommends a minimum five servings a day of fruits and vegetables, so these kids are definitely not meeting nutritional guidelines, not even nutritional guidelines I find sorely lacking.

This study, done by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), found that kids who were fed less than one serving of fruits and vegetables per day in infancy were more than twice as likely to eat less than one serving per day of fruits and vegetables when they were six years old.  No wonder the AAP is getting desperate to get kids to eat their fruits and veggies in any way possible!

Starting babies out eating fruits and vegetables is the easiest thing in the world.  Babies are a captive audience when it comes to food.  They only experience as much variety as you provide them with and their taste buds are uncorrupted by flavors like sugar and salt.  All babies naturally gravitate toward sweet flavors (actually, I think most people do), which makes it even easier to give them fruits and vegetables as kids.  I fed my babies a wide variety of sweet foods when I started them on solids: stewed fruits like apples and pears, mashed soft fruits like bananas (especially delicious mixed with some mashed avocado) and ripe peach flesh, and steamed sweet vegetables like purple and orange sweet potatoes or carrots.

My kids generally had one to two servings of oatmeal (cooked using expressed breast milk for added nutrition), one serving of a sweet fruit or vegetable, and one serving of a savory vegetable (such as pureed spinach or peas) per meal.  I would also mix savory and sweet vegetables together (such as peas and carrots or spinach and butternut squash/pumpkin) and might even add fruit (pears with peas and carrots, for instance).  For ideas, look no further than your local grocery store – what fruit and vegetables combinations are being sold in prepackaged baby foods?  Those foods are tried and tested, so you know the flavors go together well.

I always made all my own baby food, which is easier than it sounds.  I often made extra of whatever I was preparing for dinner and simply set it aside and pureed it.  Other times, I would specifically cook up a batch for the baby but I would freeze the majority of it in quarter-cup ice cube trays.  That way it took maximum a half an hour of time per week to make separate food for the baby.  Of course, you could just buy baby food! Today the range of organic baby food free of added sugar, salt, and preservatives is growing.

Studies like this one show just how important it is to start educating your kids about nutrition from the very beginning.  Their first lessons start when they first start solids!

Why Are so many Kids today Obese? (Part 3)

Why Are so many Kids today Obese? (Part 3)

Genetic predisposition provides a significant challenge to those of us who are trying to raise healthy kids and to feed our kids a healthy diet.  Some of it is our kids’ natural human predisposition to prefer high carbohydrate and high fat foods.  Some of it is our kids’ habituation to excess sugars, fats, and salts in all our processed foods today.  And some of it comes down to societal pressure.

At the core, we are social animals.  Children are fully aware of social pecking orders from a young age.  When a child sees their friends eating unhealthy foods, they want them as well.  At least 90% of teenagers admit to being strongly influenced by peer pressure and the vast majority of kids say that doing something their friends do improves their social standing.

Peer pressure has a huge influence on children, particularly from the time they start school.  If your child consistently has healthy food and knows unhealthy food is discouraged by you, the parents, your efforts to educate your child on good nutrition habits could be drastically undermined if their friends disapprove.  Whether it’s through showing off their own unhealthy choices and your child’s desire to fit in with them, or if friends are making fun of your child, peer pressure can significantly influence your child’s food choices.  This is why obesity has reached epidemic proportions in youthful populations.

Peer pressure is not the only social influence on our kids’ diets.  Children also face obesity problems because of the world they are born into.  Unfortunately, our socio-economic backgrounds influence the likelihood of obesity. There is a reason why obesity is higher in poorer areas and lower in wealthier ones. In the US especially, it is hard to find fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables in poor or rural areas, and those that are found are rarely available as cheaply as unhealthy pre-made processed foods are.* Additionally, poorer people are unlikely to have the leisure time and money to pay for expensive gym memberships, or even to have the social supports or education to exercise on their own.

Furthermore, the relationship between diet and disease may not be as well-known to those in lower income areas, or to people with less access to education on health and diet. People living in poorer socioeconomic areas generally just do not realize that spending a little more on healthy food today will save them a lot of money on health care tomorrow.

Family circumstances also have a significant impact in lower income families where both parents work, or where the single mom is working.  A lot of mothers shopping for food for their children also say that even when they know the food they are buying is unhealthy, they just don’t have the time to prepare healthy meals from scratch.  Even if they have the availability of healthy prepared foods, many of them report they do not have the money to purchase them.**

These, then, are the three significant issues we face when confronting the epidemic of childhood obesity: natural biological inclination, habituation to unhealthy habits, and social pressures.  Now that we know what we are facing we can formulate a plan to deal with them.

* Sarah Treuhaft & Allison Karpyn, “The Grocery Gap: Who Has Access to Healthy Food and Why It Matters.” PolicyLink. Available at http://www.policylink.org/atf/cf/%7B97C6D565-BB43-406D-A6D5-ECA3BBF35AF0%7D/FINALGroceryGap.pdf

** Shelley L. Koch, A Theory of Grocery Shopping: Food, Choice and Conflict Berg Publishers, London 2012.

Why Are so many Kids today Obese? (Part 2)

Why Are so many Kids today Obese? (Part 2)

Yesterday, I explained one way our genetics predispose us toward behaviors that encourage obesity.  But that’s not all.

We all have taste buds.  Those little bumps on your tongue, those different sections that taste different flavors.  We all have them and they are all unique.  Of course, smell is also a big part of taste, so our individual senses of smell affect our senses of taste.

However, in general, we humans all possess the same basic mechanism for taste.  We may perceive foods slightly differently (a particular gene, for instance, predisposes some people to taste bitter flavors more strongly, in dark leafy greens for example, than other people, who will perceive more of the sweetness present in those vegetables*), but we are all generally drawn toward the same basic elements, as discussed yesterday.

However, there is another factor at play here: habituation.  It is said that a person can get used to anything.  In my experience, I think that saying is mostly true, at least in regards to flavors.  When we eat the same sort of food over and over, we can come to like and even prefer it, even if initially we did not like it much.  A lot of this can be seen culturally, as different cultures across the world have come to really enjoy foods that actually induce vomit in visitors from other cultures.  (Nattō being the one that springs to mind most readily.)

This habituation also applies to the potency of certain flavors in food.  If you consume a lot of salt in your diet, for instance, you need more salt to taste it.  Yes, some peoples’ taste receptors and individual, unique, biology do contribute to the starting point, but any person who starts eating very salty food will soon become accustomed to it and will need more salt in their food to taste the salt than someone who eats food with very little salt.  The same principle applies to any flavor.  Bitter? Think about people who enjoy drinking black coffee. Spicy? Just try eating Indian food the way the native Indians do! Sweet? Just look at most kids these days, who need sugar added to their fruit juice for it to taste sweet.

The companies who produce our foods know this principle well and capitalize on it.  They know their customers can become used to just about anything, and indeed, come to prefer it.  In fact, we were just discussing this with someone today!  As my husband pointed out, look at certain fast food establishments.  They cannot use the highest quality products because they cannot consistently provide them.  They can guarantee they can consistently provide lower quality products, on the other hand.  Therefore, if the potatoes they receive are of a superior quality, they cannot use them to make fries.  If the meat they receive is of the highest quality, they have to reject it.  Just think about it: Imagine going to McDonald’s one day and getting a burger made from kobe beef, then going back the next day and getting their usual cheap meat.  Would you be disappointed? I bet!  Consistency is the name of the game in fast food and “quality control” means controlling the quality so it is consistent, not so it is of the best quality possible.

My point is that the family we were speaking with was giving their son a burger he didn’t want to eat because it wasn’t a McDonald’s burger.  The parents were trying to explain to the son that this burger was handmade from high quality beef and tasted much, much better than a McDonald’s burger, but the kid wasn’t buying it.  He was so accustomed to the low quality McDonald’s burgers he was used to that he actually preferred it.

This helps explain a lot about the obesity epidemic today.  When paired with our preference for sweets and fats, a tendency to need more and more of a flavor in order to taste it contributes significantly to obesity, especially in children, who are highly susceptible to both of these things.

Remember that as adults we tend to exercise more control over our natural inclinations.  If we get a craving for sugar we can recognize it for what it is and choose to ignore it (or not).  But a child who gets a craving for sugar generally just pursues it.  It tastes good and feels good (at least in the short term) so that is what kids will want.

Our own natural biology is a huge contributor to obesity in children.  Understanding and being aware of those natural urges and those natural human inclinations is the first step in conquering childhood obesity or stopping it before it starts.

*Inoue H, Yamakawa-Kobayashi K, Suzuki Y, Nakano T, Hayashi H, Kuwano T. “A case study on the association of variation of bitter-taste receptor gene TAS2R38 with the height, weight and energy intake in Japanese female college students” J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 2013;59(1):16-21.

Why Are so many Kids today Obese? (Part 1)

Why Are so many Kids today Obese? (Part 1)

Today, obesity is being called an epidemic, as if it is some sort of communicable disease.  And in some sense, it really is.  It is spreading rapidly across the entire world.  However, unlike diseases carried by other animals, human or not, obesity seems to be spread by the corporations who sell us unhealthy food and the societies we live in that teach us it is okay to eat them.

For those of us who want to raise healthy kids, we are the guardians of their dietary educations.  But if we are going to educate our kids to be healthy, we have to understand the adversary we are fighting.  What is causing so many children today to become obese?

The greatest cause of obesity is our own natural biology. That’s right, any human being on this earth who is overweight can blame it on their genes and be completely truthful! We as humans have evolved with the ability to store fat as a survival mechanism. Traditionally, humans faced intermittent periods of feast and famine. There may have been a few years of massive abundance, followed by several years during which humans may barely have scraped by. Weather, animal migration patterns, crop failures or booms, or (in later years) governmental policies or mismanagement could all cause the patterns of food abundance to vary. In order to survive the years of famine, human bodies developed the ability to store fat for future use.

Human tastes also developed with the goal of taking in as much fuel as possible whenever possible. The more calories a food has, the greater our preference for it will become.[i] Our bodies naturally want to take in as much as possible in order to store as much as possible against future possible (and likely) famine. We naturally crave high-energy foods. Few people find the thought of a simple salad makes their mouth water, but the idea of a juicy steak has them salivating.

Today, those of us living in Western, first world countries have likely never known hunger or want from lack of availability. With 50% of food in the US being wasted, even the poor or homeless in America need not know want, so long as they are willing to dumpster dive a bit to feed themselves.[ii] In the affluent West, there is no reason why any person should know famine in the way our ancestors did. There is no excuse for children to die of hunger as they do in the third world.

But this bounty is both a blessing and a curse. Today we have access to a greater variety of foods than ever before in history. We can buy mangos in Alaska and watermelon in the dead of winter. We can also buy more high-energy foods than our bodies know what to do with. We eat pizza and cheeseburgers, chocolate and potato chips, deep fried foods and sugarcoated cereals. And not only do we eat these things, but we crave them, in massive quantities.

It’s hard to fight against our own biology. Our bodies tell us we want foods high in fats and sugars. Our taste buds tell us a Big Mac tastes better than a spinach salad, that an ice cream cone tastes better than a bowl of plain oatmeal. If all that’s available is a healthy steamed veggies, we can eat it and be satisfied, but the instant we smell our neighbor grilling fatty pork chops, our stomachs instinctively begin to rumble. If this is happening constantly, how can we possibly resist?

At the same time as our biology is telling us to consume as many calories as possible, it is also telling us to use as few as possible.  Conservation of energy is the flip-side of the fat storage coin. It would not matter if we ate massive quantities of energy-rich foods, if we were burning all that energy up. But our bodies, in their drive to store as much fat as possible in case of future famine, also urge us to use as little of our energy up as possible, leaving more left over for storage.

Unfortunately, our society enables this behavior. More and more jobs are becoming sedentary or require less and less physical exertion. We go from our beds to our kitchen tables. Our cars are parked in front of our homes and deliver us to the front of our offices, where we sit all day in a chair. Children ride to school in busses and cars, rather than walking.  They sit at desks all day and physical education, when it is even offered, is almost always too brief or infrequent to be sufficient.  We drive home only to plant ourselves on the couch in front of the television. In an entire day we need take no more than a few hundred steps, most of them either to the bathroom (where we sit instead of squat) or to the kitchen (where we take in more calories). Today, it is a common sight to see people riding motorized chairs through shopping malls, grocery stores, or even parks, if they have not ordered their goods to be delivered from the Internet!

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post for more on this subject!

[i] Ronald Mehiel, Robert C. Bolles. Learned flavor preferences based on caloric outcome. Animal Learning & Behavior, December 1984, Volume 12, Issue 4, pp 421-427.

[ii] Timothy W. Jones. Using Contemporary Archaeology and Applied Anthropology to Understand Food Loss in the American Food System. Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, University of Arizona, available at http://www.ce.cmu.edu/~gdrg/readings/2006/12/19/Jones_UsingContemporaryArchaeologyAndAppliedAnthropologyToUnderstandFoodLossInAmericanFoodSystem.pdf

You Are What You Eat: Food Affects Behavior

You Are What You Eat: Food Affects Behavior

First comes the big Thanksgiving dinner...

First comes the big Thanksgiving dinner…

Think about your last Thanksgiving dinner. After you stuffed yourself full of mashed potatoes, turkey, and rolls, how did you feel? Heavy, sluggish, and tired, no doubt. And how did you act? You probably collapsed on the sofa to watch the ball game or to take a nap.

Now, think about your last Halloween. Perhaps you pigged out on candy and sodas. After all that sugar and caffeine, you felt jittery and hyper. Maybe you bounced around, maybe you rushed from one place to another. Maybe you felt just a little bit out of control.

...Then comes the crash onto the couch, when everyone is too tired to move.

…Then comes the crash onto the couch, when everyone is too tired to move.

As adults, we are often insensitive to these effects. We have been living for so long with these results coming from the food we eat that we hardly notice them anymore. We overlook the fact that our hands shake just that tiny bit on our keyboards after we’ve downed an extra cup of coffee; we ignore the telltale buzzing in our heads. After we have a big lunch of meat and bread, we believe we are tired just because it is “the afternoon” and our work is “boring.” We hardly even notice it. And if we do, we blame it on something else. We don’t stop to think that it could be the food we ate.

In other words, we are unaware of what is going on in our bodies. We have disconnected from ourselves. The food we eat really does affect our behavior, but much of the time we don’t make the connection.

Children are different. Children are intimately aware of what goes on in their bodies.  They know, instinctively and intuitively, what effects food is having on them.  If they are honest, they will admit, “I know eating too much candy will make me feel sick, but right now I am eating it because it tastes good.”  Their judgment abilities are not fully developed.  As adults, our judgment abilities should be better – but how can we exercise good judgment without being fully informed?

How can we as adults guide children as to the effects of food on their behavior if we do not even know how food is affecting our own behavior? We do not want to be “the blind leading the blind.”  We need to develop an awareness of the ways different foods change and alter our own behaviors in order to recognize the patterns of behavior in our children that are impacted by food.  Only then can we guide them to make good nutritional decisions so that their behavior will correspondingly improve.

Over the next few days try to cultivate an awareness of how food is affecting you. How does it make you feel? Notice what is going on in your body. Stop a few times a day and really ask yourself how you feel: tired and sluggish, energized, bloated, cramped, gassy, etc. Then examine how that state of being is affecting your behaviors. Feel free to share what you’ve observed in the comments section!