Body-Controlled Eating

By Jean Antonello, RN, BSN, obesity and eating disorders specialist and author of The Great Big Diet Lie, How to Become Naturally Thin® by Eating More, Breaking Out of Food Jail and Naturally Thin® Kids,

Help your kids stay tuned in to their bodies

In order for kids to avoid the Feast or Famine Cycle (pattern of under eating and over eating) and all the eating and potential weight struggles it brings, they must stay attuned to their natural eating instincts and remain “body-controlled” in their eating.

Body-controlled eating means that kids trust their bodies’ fuel need signals by:

  1. eating on time and avoiding getting too hungry as much as possible
  2. eating only high-quality food when hunger strikes.

This may sound like a fairly simple formula for such a great reward as natural lifelong eating freedom and weight control, but in our culture it is very challenging to implement. The difficulties mainly lie in the busyness of our lifestyles and the hang-ups we have about weight and eating behavior.

Children and teens who avoid weight and eating problems tend to have natural lower famine sensitivity and keep their bodies in charge of their food needs, relying on their bodies’ signals for eating behavior. They use their intellects (and those of their caregivers) only for anticipating their hunger (preparing for fuel needs in advance so food will be available) and choosing quality foods.

These kids don’t fall prey to the misleading messages of our diet-crazed culture (e. g. you can never be too thin, you must carefully control your diet or you will be fat, looks are everything). And they usually have parents who support their body-led eating behavior. They remain body-controlled in their eating, for the most part, as they were when they were born. Consequently they avoid the quagmire of the Feast or Famine Cycle.

As caregivers of kids, we are entrusted with the task of teaching and reminding kids of the simple principles of body-controlled eating and helping our kids by providing good food whenever it is needed. So, first we must know what these principles are.

Principles of body-controlled eating for kids

  1. Hunger is always a legitimate signal that food/fuel is needed. Satisfy it with quality food as soon as reasonably possible.
  2. Make good quality food—meals or snacks—available at regular intervals (at least every three hours or so—and continuously for kids under five).
  3. Do not make poor quality (low-nutrient) foods regularly available.
  4. Internal cues (fuel-full or satisfaction signals) are the only valid cues to stop eating.
  5. Whenever possible, ignore external cues (time of day, others eating, time limitations) and intellectual cues (I should not eat now because I just ate an hour
    ago) to eat or stop eating. Allow the body to govern eating behavior.
  6. Take into account cravings, aversions, and interest in different types of foods when making choices.

What body-controlled (natural eating) looks like in kids

Now that you’re familiar with the six principles of body-controlled eating, let’s look at some more examples that illustrate these principles.
Sophie and her sister, Sidney, are two-year-old twins. They are fraternal twins so they do not share the same exact genetics that identical twins do. Actually, they are quite different from each other. Though they share the same hair and skin coloring, Sophie is taller and more active. She also weighs three pounds more than her sister, which is quite a lot on such small frames.

The more serious eater of the two girls, Sophie rarely misses a full meal or snack whenever she gets hungry, which is frequently earlier in the day. Sophie has breakfast at home and then another one at day care an hour later. Her sister is more petite and delicate. “Sid,” as her mother calls her, prefers to play quietly while her sister is romping around the yard with the older boys. Sid doesn’t seem as interested in food during meal or snack times and often leaves something on her plate.

The twins’ parents and day-care providers face a classic challenge. They must allow each of these two little girls to be in charge of their own eating, supporting their
individual differences in timing, food type, and quantity. The parents accomplish this by following the six principles of body-controlled eating, paying attention to each individual girl, never comparing, and supporting their unique appetites and preferences.

Isabella, almost nine, lives with her grandmother. This little girl seems interested in everything but eating. She “forgets” to eat breakfast sometimes because, she says, she just “isn’t in the mood to eat.” Isabella usually eats lunch at school, but the important thing about lunch is the social time, not the lunch.

Her grandmother keeps her favorite foods at home, and Isabella simply helps herself at any time of the day. Grandma says, “I don’t hardly notice her eating. She just slips it in and never mentions it. Doesn’t seem important to her, but she eats, that’s for sure.”

Luke, age fourteen, is playing on the football team for his fifth season. He is tall for his age, 5’10”, and very slim at 140 pounds. Luke never misses a meal because he gets ravenous in between them. His parents noticed this about him even before adolescence. When she has time, Luke’s mother fixes him a big breakfast (he is starving in the morning) and buys substantial foods he likes that he can fix himself for breakfast— including his favorite, pizza. He’s hungry again by after-school practice time so Luke’s mom helps him plan for a meal out or packs a nutritious snack so he doesn’t “get weak.” Actually, Luke doesn’t tolerate going hungry very well, so he and his parents make eating quality foods a priority for him.

At eighteen, Gabrielle has settled into an eating pattern that works for her schedule and her body. Her mother has helped her plan for her meals during the day so she doesn’t get stranded without decent food. Because she is in school and works part time as well, she has to prepare for the day with her hunger in mind. Gabrielle packs two lunches every weekday morning. She knows she’ll need them before she gets back home after eight. Occasionally, she eats out, but this is expensive and often too time consuming for her schedule, so she tries to stick to meals from home.

Now that we know the basics of natural or body-controlled eating, and how it can work for various kids, let’s recap some potential problem areas.

Factors that interfere with instinctive (body-controlled) eating

Since the most basic issues in body-controlled eating are eating on time and eating only high-quality foods, problem areas center on these two issues.

Why kids don’t eat on time

  1. kids’ and caregivers’ schedules
  2. poor planning for food availability
  3. focused personality (distracted from food needs)
  4. conscious choice because of anxiety about weight (the kid and/or the adult)
  5. high tolerance of hunger (low incentive)
  6. adult prejudice or ignorance about normal eating

Bear in mind that several factors may influence individual kids’ eating habits, so they may experience famines often, though for various reasons. Chapter 5 deals entirely with these problem areas so you can troubleshoot your kids’ individual vulnerabilities.

Why kids don’t eat high quality foods when they get hungry

1. Caregivers don’t provide high quality foods that are easily accessible.
2. Tasty, convenient, poor-quality foods are easily accessible for kids.
3. Caregivers don’t know the difference between great foods and lousy foods.
4. Adults or kids don’t plan or plan well for kids’ quality food needs away from

We can all relate to these obstacles to optimal eating for our kids, but don’t be discouraged. No matter where you are on the map now, there are definite directions to your goal to ensure your kids’ healthy eating patterns in the future—for life!

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