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Sunday, May 22, 2016

Distracted eating

We all do it sometimes. We grab a snack and plop down on the couch to watch a movie. Before we know it the whole thing is gone. We only meant to eat some of it, but downed it in one sitting.

That is distracted eating at it's finest. It exemplifies the problem of eating without intention. Not because of hunger. Not even healthy foods typically. Just eating because it's there.

What happened to sitting around the table and eating as a family without the tv or cell phones?

Photo source: Wikimedia


I see many kids who always have distracted eating.

The youngest might fit into another category all together, but they certainly aren't intentionally eating. These are the babies who parents "dream feed" - basically feed them while they're sleeping. This can be because they don't eat as parents think they should when they're awake or because parents want to get one more feed in before they go to bed so baby will let them sleep. I know many parents rely on it, but I will never recommend it for many reasons. It can disrupt their normal sleep cycles if you feed during periods of deep sleep.  Dream feeds also feed a baby who might not be hungry or need to eat, and it is hard to know when to stop. After the first few months most babies don't need to eat at night, but they are trained to eat at that time. Once they get teeth it can increase the risk of cavities if they eat without brushing teeth before returning to sleep. There are also risks of choking. And again, I firmly believe that we all need to eat when hungry and not just because there's food offered.

As kids move into the toddler years, they often become picky with foods and eat small volumes. This is normal. Parents need to offer healthy foods and feed small frequent meals. Think of snacks as mini meals so you will offer healthy foods - and no, goldfish crackers are not healthy foods. Young children tend to eat about six small meals a day. Each meal offer either a fruit or a vegetable and a protein to help insure your child gets enough of these food groups daily.

Unfortunately, some parents solve the "problem" of kids not eating a lot at meal times by allowing them to carry around food all hours of the day. This might be cereal, crackers, milk, or whatever the favorite food of the week is. This allows the child to snack all day, which means they are never hungry, so they don't eat at meal times. Parents will think it's better than eating nothing, and even think that since it's cereal or milk it's healthy. But it's not. These foods are usually highly processed and have little nutrition. Constantly nibbling doesn't allow the body to learn hunger cues. It also doesn't allow saliva to clean teeth between feedings, which increases the risk of cavities. If kids drink excessive milk they are at risk of severe malnutrition. Parents argue that milk is healthy, but they are thinking of mother's milk or formula for infants. Cow's milk has protein, calcium, and other nutrients, but it is not a complete meal substitute. I have seen children need blood transfusions due to severe iron deficiency anemia from excessive milk intake. Blood transfusions. It can be that bad. Yes, your child might like milk. And he might refuse to eat at meal time. But if you keep giving milk he will never get hungry enough to eat the food offered.

Other parents realize that kids will eat more if they feed the child, especially if the child is watching tv. This is wrong on many levels.

  • Once kids are able to feed themselves, it is a great skill to use. They work on fine motor skills when self feeding. 
  • Kids need to learn to pick (from healthy choices hopefully) which food they will eat next and to stop when full. When parents do the feeding, they keep pushing foods until the plate is empty. Many parents have an unrealistic appreciation of how much food a child should eat. 
  • If a child is watching tv while eating, the focus is on the screen, not the food. Again, the child then doesn't listen to hunger and satiety cues.
I see several kids each year who will be going to full day school (kindergarten or 1st grade depending on the child) and parents worry that they won't be able to eat lunch because they never self feed. Many of these kids are overweight because they've been overfed for years but the parents often think the child doesn't eat enough.

If families eat while watching television or playing on smart phones or tablets, no one is connecting during the meal. No one is really enjoying the food or the conversation. There are many studies that show the more often families eat together (really together, not sitting at a table connected to a screen) the less likely kids will develop obesity, get depressed, do drugs, smoke, and consider suicide. Kids who eat with their families are more likely to eat healthy foods, do well in school, delay having sex, and have stronger family ties.

Help stop the habit of mindless eating. Encourage eating at the table as a family as much as possible. Offer healthy food choices and let everyone decide how much of each thing to eat. If you worry that your child isn't eating adequately, talk to your pediatrician.

For more, see my related blogs:


Resources:

MyPlate offers portion sizes for children, tips on healthy foods, activities for kids to learn about nutrition, and more.

If you're a Pinterest fan, check out my Nutritional Sites and Getting Kids to Eat Vegetables and Other Healthy Stuff