Well, let start with the question, “Why do you eat?” The simplest answer to that question is… because I’m hungry. Why do you stop eating? Because I’m full? If only the act of eating and stop eating were so simple as being hungry and full. For the newborn infant and growing toddler, it really is that simple. They eat when they are hungry and stopped when they are full. The typical two-year-old grazes throughout the day: A cheese stick here, a piece of apple there. When it’s time to sit down for a meal, they may not eat more than a bite or two.
Young children have an amazing ability to self-regulate energy intake. In research studies where children were allowed to eat as much or as little as they wanted, preschool-age children had the ability to eat just the right amount. They did not necessarily choose the healthiest food but they did choose the right amount of food. Healthy food options are where mom and dad step in to provide the veggies, fruits and protein some kids stay away from. Any comments from the Pediatricians in the audience would be appreciated here.
Recall back to the last toddler birthday party you went to. When my daughter, Tallulah, turned 4 years old this year she obsessed about the cake. It had to be just right. A chocolate cake with mint frosting in the shape of a butterfly with plenty of pink icing flower decorations. I had to keep the cake on the top shelf of the refrigerator way in the back out of reach of little fingers ready to poke into the pink frosting. Yet, despite the anticipation, after the candles were blown out and the cake cut, little Tallulah ate about 2 bites of frosting and 1 bite of chocolate cake. And she LOVED the cake. She was not alone. The table was littered with plates of half-eaten mounds of chocolate cake and pink frosting. Minus the amount of frosting that landed on chins, shirts and the floor, the amount of cake consumed averaged to about 1 oz. per child. A perfect toddler sized palm of the hand bit of cake. The parents, meanwhile, where eating their plates clean and taking a bite or two of their child’s leftovers.
Think about all of the triggers out there that result in the action of eating.
Time – When the clock ticks closer to 12:00 pm and 6:00 pm the visual cue that it is getting closer to meal time is a powerful trigger to eating. It’s dinner time and you may still be full from happy hour snacks, but the time on the clock triggers the action of sitting down to a full dinner.
The sight of food – Have you ever felt a little rumble in your stomach after seeing a fast food restaurant burger commercial with a 40 inch sized (or formatted to fit your TV screen) visual of a juicy grilled burger with fresh fixings. The sight of food is a powerful trigger to eat.
Someone else is eating – the social triggers to eating are plenty powerful. A good example is when you meet someone at a café or restaurant and you’ve already eaten. It is hard not to order a small something to join them while they eat.
The smell of food – I fall for this one all of the time. My partner and I share an office. We both have the habit of eating a hurried lunch hunched in front of our computers trying to eat and get some paper work done at the same time. She loves “Lean Pockets”. They are a quick and convenient. Well, those Lean Pockets smell sooooo good. Like a hot baked pizza straight from a wood burning stove. Too bad they don’t taste that good. But the smell wafts through our office and instantly triggers an urge to dive. Excellent marketing for Lean Pockets.
Stress – If you have never had the urge to sooth a day of hardship with comfort foods like Mac and Cheese or a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Double Fudge Crunch, then all power to you. When our willpower has been depleted to near zero, resisting these temptations can be difficult. In addition, stress may add a craving in addition to being a trigger, resulting in the urge to indulge as a potential solution to the stress our body feels. Sure, back in the caveman days, stress was caused by the saber tooth tiger you just outran. A few comfort calories after a sprint for one’s life were well deserved. Today’s stressors are unlikely to involve physically running away (however we may wish that to be the contrary). They are more likely to come from the mental stress of too much work and so little time, relationships gone awry, and bosses demanding more. The extra calories do little more then add expanding waist lines and clothes that no longer fit to the list of modern day stressors. Stress eating can get ugly quickly. If you are a stress eater, then the next post in this series is especially for you.
Boredom – Do you every find yourself rummaging through the refrigerator on a Saturday night. Nothing better to do then to curl up to a late night movie and a tub of popcorn, extra butter, please.
Hunger – Do you eat like a toddler? Only when you are hungry and stop when you are full? If so, I congratulate you and your ability to avoid the food triggers that have become habit for most of us. We have been exposed to a lifetime of training, soothing, cajoling, and socializing that these other triggers to eat