There are two basic types of hunger: emotional and physical. Emotional hunger means eating to deal with feelings. Physical hunger is the body's signal that it needs energy and nutrients. Do not be afraid to let your child feel either type of hunger once in a while. With hormonal changes and growth spurts children experience greater hunger, too. It’s important for children to listen to their hunger.
You can use a hunger scale to learn about the difference between physical hunger and eating because of emotions.
Using a Hunger Scale
Before eating, decide how hungry you are on a scale of 1 to 10:
- 1 means you are very, very hungry
- 5 means you are neither hungry nor full
- 10 means you feel overly full
After you use a hunger scale for a while, the numbers will have more meaning. It can take a while to know what a 2 or a 7 feels like. You also may ask your child to rate her hunger. The basic idea is to start eating when hunger is at a 2 or 3. At this point, your child is eating because of physical hunger. When physical hunger strikes encourage your child to reach for nourishing foods, such a fruits, vegetables, whole grains, hummus, nuts or yogurt. Ask your child to stop eating when he or she reaches about a 7. At this point, a person feels satisfied but can get up and go for a walk.
Don't let the hunger level drop to a 1. If your child gets this hungry, he or she may overeat.
If people start to eat when their score is above a 5, they are eating for emotional reasons. Take this opportunity to discover which feelings are behind the desire to eat. While it’s not “bad” to eat for emotional reasons, it can become a problem if eating is the only strategy used to deal with emotions.
If your child has this type of hunger, you may help by asking, "How do you feel?" Your child may have trouble naming the feelings. Try suggesting a few: "anxious," "bored," "lonely," "confused," "shy," excited," “overwhelmed."
If your child can tell you about these feelings, this may be a good time to talk. You also can encourage older children to write in a journal about their feelings.
Perhaps you and your child can think of other activities to do besides eating. For example, if a child feels left out, maybe you can talk or play a game together. Or if he or she is angry about something, maybe come up with a way to work on the problem together.