When you eat, how do you know when you’re done? What factors do you use to determine this? The answer can seem straight-forward: When I’m full. But actually, most people don’t use fullness as a cue. Instead, they use external cues to determine when they should stop eating: When is the plate empty? When is the TV-show over? When is the take-out box done?
This is especially a trend in America where we tend to overeat and engage in “mindless eating” – eating as a side activity to something else: watching TV, driving, working, scrolling down your news feed, etc.
But it’s also a consequence of the way our society tells us to handle mealtimes, especially within families: An empty plate is supposedly a “happy plate.” Parents instruct their kids to “just take two more bites” or promise them dessert if they finish their plate.
But what messages are we sending to our children when trying to convince them to eat more? We are telling them to disregard their inner cues on satiety and hunger. We are telling them that they can’t trust their bodies and need external cues to determine how much to eat.
The problem with using external cues to guide our eating is that we tend to disregard our innate ability to self-regulate. Up until age of 2 or 3, we are almost 100% intuitive eaters, but when our children naturally become more selective in their eating, we tend to panic and start controlling their eating. We bribe, reward, manipulate, and threaten our way through mealtimes. We seem to think that it’s a parent’s job to tell kids how much to eat.
So, we train our children to start obeying us and stop listening to their bodies. But when we disrupt our kids’ natural ability to self-regulate their eating, we are putting them at higher risk of eating disorders and weight problems later in life.
Instead, what we need to do is to enable our children (and ourselves) to listen to our bodies. The key word is paying attention and tuning in, and these are tips for exactly that:
• Avoid distractions, like TV, or phones. Focus on eating when you eat.
• Eat at the table, preferably with others. Eating with others is proven to prevent overeating.
• Teach your kids a mealtime vocabulary and the art of “tummy listening.” “Is your tummy full now?” “Do you have more room in your tummy now?” Place the responsibility for eating with them.
• Help them assess how hungry they are when pouring food on to their plate. Make paying attention at meals and listening to inner cues the norm.
• Accept when your child is not hungry (even if he just ate two bites) – don’t force, entice, distract, or pressure him to eat.
• Allow your children to make their own food mistakes, such as eating too much or too little. Let it be a lesson (without shaming or blaming them) and help them verbalize it: “Do you think you ate too much of that cake? Is that why your tummy hurts now?” Or: “Wow, you’re really hungry now. We’re not eating right now, but maybe next time make sure that you do a tummy check and eat enough to last till your next meal.”.
Listening to our bodies and reinventing our inner intuitive eater is the foundation of a healthy long-term relationship with food. So, let’s start listening?
Daniel Island resident Gitte Holm-Moller is a Danish psychologist specializing in families and mealtimes, and with her husband, co-founder of Nordic Family Table and Real Food Hero. Visit nordicfamilytable.com.