Children Obsessed with Food: Does My Kid Have a Food Addiction?
Many children even as young as a 3-year-old may show signs that they have an unhealthy relationship with food.
Their mental space may be preoccupied with food. They may only eat certain types of food, always ask to eat, hide food, keep secret stashes of food, and constantly snack or eat until they are overly full and feel sick.
As parents, we wonder whether this obsession is just a phase or whether it will cause issues for their health and social life as they get older. It can be a very sensitive topic to talk about with our children since we are afraid we may shame them and contribute to the development of an eating disorder.
It’s important for parents to understand what food addiction may look like in children, the causes of this behavior, and what long-term strategies can help children develop a healthy relationship with food throughout their life.
How do I know if my child has a food addiction?
Food is comforting and most of us have experienced overindulging on special occasions. If your child wants a bowl of ice cream after a holiday dinner, it most likely doesn’t mean they have a food addiction.
A child with food addiction has a very different relationship with food. They may binge eat, compulsively overeat, or have other disordered eating habits.
According to Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist, Crystal Karges, a child who is food-obsessed may lose control over how much they eat. They keep eating even when they are very full, sick, or may even throw up. Other signs that your child may have a food addiction or obsession include:
- They want to eat instead of doing activities they used to enjoy
- They hoard and keep secret stashes of food
- They hide food wrappers or containers in their room
- They don't like sharing their food and are very greedy and possessive about it
- They frequently make requests for snacks and ask when they will eat again
- They talk incessantly about food and will obsess over recipes, and food content on social media and shows.
- They eat unusually large amounts of food very quickly
- They will regularly use food to deal with emotional stress like family issues, social problems, life changes or school conflict
- They may skip meals, eat at odd times like late at night when there is no one around so they can be alone
- They are worried there may not be enough food for them even though there is plenty
- They cannot focus on anything else except food and it takes over their thoughts
- They may have significant changes in weight
Parents of older kids and teenagers may notice that a huge amount of food goes missing from their kitchen.
A food obsession is similar to a binge eating disorder where the person frequently consumes unusually large amounts of food to cope with upset feelings; however, after binging, they will feel disgusted, guilty, and ashamed about their behavior.
What causes a child to be obsessed with food?
Scientists aren’t completely sure what causes a person to develop a binge eating disorder. However, they theorize it is due to a combination of things such as genetics, family influences, low self-esteem, extreme dieting, stressful events, negative beliefs about body weight, and the availability of food in their home environment.
According to Crystal Karges, there are multiple reasons that can contribute to a child’s obsession with food. These include:
An unpredictable meal schedule
If there is no structure that lets a child know when they will eat, they may begin to lose trust in food and eating. They will worry about when they will have their next meal. The lack of certainty in their meal times can cause the child to constantly think about food.
The belief that food is scarce or limited
This is related to the language around food that is used towards the child. For instance, they are constantly being told “There’s no more left for you”, “I’m not letting you have any more” “You’ve had enough” or “This is all you get”.
These phrases instill a scarcity mindset around food. Kids will obsess over food because they are afraid they won’t get enough of it.
A restricted diet
Putting a child on a diet or restricting them from eating certain foods can have detrimental effects on their relationship with food. Labeling foods like junk food and dessert as “bad” makes them more desirable.
Kids will want what they can’t have and start to associate morality with food choices. Studies have shown that food restriction has a negative impact on a child’s eating habits.
Food is used as a source of emotional comfort
Most of us have reached for snack foods such as a candy bar or a bag of chips when we’re stressed or had a bad day. There is a positive feeling that we experience after eating certain foods, especially those that are high in sugar and fat and lack nutrients.
Some children may use food to help cope with negative feelings, trauma, and major changes such as a divorce or the loss of a loved one.
For many low-income families, food insecurity is a chronic issue they struggle with on a daily basis. If a child’s basic need for proper nutrition isn’t met, they may fear being hungry. They will start to ruminate about food and worry they won’t have enough to eat.
What if my child has a food obsession?
If your child shows signs and symptoms of having a food obsession, don’t panic, confront or accuse them about their behavior. This can cause feelings of guilt, shame, and embarrassment. Here are some strategies to help your child develop a healthy relationship with food for life:
Have an open and honest conversation
Share your concerns in a neutral way. Do not show judgment. Be patient, calm, direct, supportive, compassionate, and empathetic. Let them know you are here to help. Ask questions about how things are going for them. Actively listen to them when they share.
Set regular snack times and a meal schedule
Having a regular schedule of when meals will be served gives children a sense of certainty around food. They are able to build trust with food if they know when the next opportunity to eat will be.
Meal planning can be difficult, especially for busy parents; however, it doesn’t have to be complicated. It could be a simple schedule of when breakfast, lunch, and dinner will be. Avoid skipping meals and aim to have a family meal together once a day.
Be a good role model
Children absorb our behaviors more often than we think. Don’t label foods as good or bad. Avoid talking about dieting or criticizing your body and food choices around your child. If you struggle with unhealthy eating habits, it can be an opportunity to reflect on past experiences, heal body image issues and cultivate a positive relationship with food.
Encourage mindful feeding practices
Help your child understand their hunger and full cues so they can develop healthy eating habits. Mindful eating focuses on our thoughts and feelings about food. Talk about the eating experience and pay attention to the body-related sensations. This helps them slow down during the eating process, and learn to self-regulate as it increases their awareness of when they are satiated.
If you think your child is food obsessed, it’s important to consult with your pediatrician and/or a dietitian. Your healthcare provider can offer specific advice for your child and refer you to a mental health professional who has experience in treating those with childhood eating disorders, food addiction, or obsession.
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