Do you have a really hungry kid who never seems to stop eating or one that you have to remind it’s dinner time? How much is too much and why are some kids more motivated by food than others? Dr Libby talks about the differences between hunger and appetite.
Hunger vs. appetite
Hunger and appetite are two very different things. Hunger is the physical need for food, whereas appetite is the desire for food. Hunger occurs with low levels of glucose in your blood, several hours after eating – it is a protective mechanism that ensures your body is adequately fuelled. Appetite is the conditioned response to food – it is a sensory reaction to the look or smell of food, or the learned habitual response to a particular time of day or situation.
How to tell if your child is hungry
Determining if a child is genuinely hungry rather than craving for a particular food can be tricky at times. Young children might express their hunger through grumpy, grizzly or tired behaviours or being co-operative, as it is uncommon for young children to state that they are actually hungry. They know they’re not happy or don’t feel very good, but can’t articulate why. Most children start to ask for food when they are hungry around the age of 3 or 4 years old.
This is what controls cravings and from a very young age children make connections with food and begin to have an appetite for different foods. They form likes and dislikes, they recognise and relate to different foods in different situations and emotional states, all of which can influence their appetite.
Every child is different
Parents might compare one child to another of the same age and wonder why one child eats vastly different amounts of foods than another. There are many complex reasons for this, but it is important to keep in mind that each child has a different metabolism. Children grow at different rates, so even though two children are the same age, they may be in very different stages of growth, have different amounts of muscle mass, do different amounts of physical activity, and have a digestive system that is still maturing.
What is the metabolism?
Metabolism, put simply, is the rate at which your body converts food to energy. Metabolic rate is governed by the thyroid gland. The thyroid is a gland located just at the base of the neck and the hormones it produces set the resting rate of energy production. Our metabolism is also influenced by muscle mass and hormones. An increased or ‘fast’ metabolism is associated with increased hunger. The higher your muscle mass, the higher your metabolic rate as muscle cells require more energy than fat cells in the body. In theory, children with a higher muscle mass would therefore have a greater level of hunger.
Regulation and self control
Regulation and the ability to self-control appetite has been the subject of much debate over the last decade. The brain receives signals from a number of different hormones that indicate whether food is needed or not. The body signals to the brain when there is a physiological need for food. And satiety signals sent to the brain after the consumption of food signal to the brain that you have eaten.
From about the age of 1, a child’s ability to self-regulate the intake of food starts to diminish and appetite starts to influence food intake. At this stage in life, children start to learn behaviours to obtain favourite foods, they learn to like and dislike certain foods and textures, they start to recognise different situations or times of the day, and expect or desire certain foods for a meal or snack. At this age, children will also do things because they realise that it pleases their parents or caregivers, or because eating all their dinner will get them a reward such as dessert. All of these factors influence what, when and how much a child will eat.
In the past, parents have worried about whether or not their child is eating enough, but more recently, parents have begun to wonder if their child could be eating too much. With the rapid rise in childhood obesity, this is a valid concern.
Here are some simple ways to help ensure your child is eating enough for their optimal development, getting enough nutrients and forming a healthy relationship with food:
Make real food the only choice for your child (within reason)
If your child’s diet is made up of a range of predominantly whole foods, you can be comforted in the fact that they will be filling up on nutrient-dense food. Incorporating a balance of protein, fat and real food carbohydrates will ensure that their body’s natural satiety signals are triggered, leaving your child content. If this sounds like an unrealistic idea right now, rather than feeling overwhelmed, simply decide to include one more real food meal or drink or snack per week for the next three months. Gradual changes can produce big shifts in nourishment.
Realise that your child’s need for food will change often
Their hunger will depend on their level of activity that day and on the amount of growing they are doing. Trust that a young child will eat if they are hungry and will stop eating when they have had enough. A caveat to this however, is if they are zinc and/or iron deficient. Zinc is responsible for the taste and texture of food and a zinc deficiency can lead to food having little or poor taste. Iron is critical for hunger signals and if a child is iron deficient, they may eat very little.
Refrain from using food as a treat
Food should be nourishment, not a reward for good behaviour. Try using their favourite activity or time at the park as a reward, rather than food. When food is used as a reward consistently, it can change a child’s relationship with food, and may lead them to associate food with feelings such as approval and reward. As they grow up, they will continue to crave these feelings from food when they don’t get them elsewhere, sometimes referred to as comfort eating.
“In the past, parents have worried about whether or not their child is eating enough, but more recently, parents have begun to wonder if their child could be eating too much”
By Libby Weaver
Dr. Libby (BHSc (N&D) (Hons) PhD) is Australasia’s superstar of all things health and nutrition, combining many years of experience, learning and clinical practice to her holistic approach to health. For more information and Real Food ideas, visit www.drlibby.com