“Eat well now because you won’t get anything till lunch time” I overheard a mother tell her 10-year-old who was insisting she was ‘full’ after eating just a little something for breakfast. The little one had been lazing around, not too much of physical activity so clearly, she wasn’t too hungry. I don’t think they had to fear a shortage of food in the near future and the little girl could easily choose to have a snack/ fruit a little later if she was truly hungry. The mother however was concerned that she hadn’t eaten ‘enough’.
These are some of the confusing messages we are inundated with as children. We are told we have to eat, we are told when to eat and often how much to eat. Children are force-fed at an early age. They are often given ‘treats’ to keep them quiet or entertained. As a result – we stop ‘listening’ to our own bodies, disregarding signals of fullness & hunger because we believe we ‘have to eat’ way beyond what we really require. We are taught to disregard such valuable indicators from our body as feelings of fullness, discomfort, thirst as opposed to hunger, fatigue, sleepiness, anxiety and so on. Over time the body stops recognizing these signs for what they are and we struggle with an endless loop of overeating, lack of physical exercise, pills to sort out anything from indigestion to anxiety and a constant struggle with our weight.
‘Listening to our bodies’ is a skill that seems to be lost to us as adults. Our physical and emotional selves are inherently very clever, telling us when we need to stop eating (we feel uncomfortably full), move more (we feel lethargic, full, bloated) or low on energy (we may be eating unhealthy, eating too little, or too much, exercising too much, sleeping too little and so on). This skill needs to be nurtured from an early age.
It’s not easy! Children can be fussy eaters, throw tantrums and so on. It’s a fine line between allowing a child to gauge her own hunger levels and stop eating when she needs to and allowing her to run wild, disregarding food on a whim. I don’t suppose parenting was meant to be easy!
How often have we told our kids, ‘Behave well and you will get a chocolate/ pizza/ burger?’ Food has always been used as a form of emotional blackmail and persuading tactic. The result? As adults we tend to seek comfort in food. We see food as our safety blanket and turn to it in times of stress, boredom, low mood and anxiety. We use it for more than just mitigating hunger.
Take a buffet for instance. How many of us can actually walk away from a buffet table feeling comfortable? How many of us wish later we had stopped just before than last piece of quiche or pudding? Our bodies do indicate to us when we have had enough, but we blithely eat ‘just a little more’, ‘just to taste’ something different or new. Children are encouraged to ‘try everything’ as we pile our plates astonishingly high and totter to and from the buffet table.
Problem occurs when this kind of behavior becomes a habit. When we continue to eat ‘just a little more’ on a regular basis as our senses get blunted to our real needs. When we tell our children that they ‘have to eat now’, almost indicating that food will run out shortly.
Survival strategies –
- Eat mind fully. Be fully aware of what you are putting on your plate and in your mouth.
- One of the ways of preventing weight gain is to stop eating when you are just 80% full and leave the table. You can always snack later if absolutely necessary. You don’t have to undo your jeans button in order to feel you have eaten well.
- Serve yourself on a smaller plate. You will feel like you have a lot more food on it!
- Don’t eat in front of the TV or when distracted. You don’t register what you are eating.
- Make mealtimes pleasant and social with the family/friends when possible and keep it about having interesting conversation just as much as eating.
- If you are done with your meal, get up from the table and walk away. Sitting around will tempt you to serve yourself more.
- Stop telling yourself you are eating to please someone else. Whether it is your host, mother or in-laws, they cannot tell if you are full. Only you can ascertain that.
- You will also need to be educated and teach children about food groups, proteins, carbs fats and micronutrients so you and they can make informed choices about food. That is more important than encouraging children to just ‘eat well’.
- Be careful what you tell your kids. It’s the programming at an early age that leads to difficulties with weight, food & body image later on.
Dr Sheela Nambiar MD, Obgyn
Fitness & Lifestyle Consultant NAFC
Author – “Get Size Wise”