What your kid is really saying when she says "I'm hungry"

Kids eat when they’re hungry, bored or just craving something sweet. Teaching them the difference can promote a healthier relationship with food.

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You’ve been there: Your six-year-old enjoyed a satisfying dinner, but half an hour later, he’s hungry for a cupcake. What gives? Is he really physically hungry or is it just a craving?

You probably know that we eat for reasons beyond rumbling tummies. Sometimes we crave foods that look or smell good, and other times we eat because we’re bored or sad. These different kinds of hunger are experienced by children and adults alike, and are all normal.

Being aware of why we eat can help us build a better relationship with food. And it turns out, the best time to start developing this awareness is in childhood.

Teaching your kids the three types of hunger
There are three kinds of hunger, and anytime your family is eating, you can take advantage of the opportunity to teach the different types to your kids. You don’t need to use the terms at every meal—just occasionally so kids get a sense of why they eat and learn to use these labels themselves.

The three types of hunger are:

  • Stomach hunger: When hunger peaks—maybe at breakfast or after school—explain to your child that their rumbling tummy is a sign of stomach hunger, which is when their body tells them they need to eat food for energy and nutrients.
  • Mouth hunger: If a TV commercial, billboard or wafting scent makes your kid crave food, use it as an opportunity to explain that it’s their taste buds asking for something delicious, even if their body doesn’t need the food for energy.
  • Heart hunger: When your child is crying and wants something sweet to feel better, or asks for a treat because he’s bored, explain that it’s more about the way he’s feeling and not about stomach hunger.

Need some help getting the conversation started? Dietitian Wendy Shah’s children’s book “Is This Stomach, Mouth or Heart Hunger?” is a helpful teaching tool.

Is there a right kind of hunger?
So what if your child labels that post-dinner cupcake as stomach hunger when you know it’s mouth hunger? “You could offer the child a different food, such as a piece of fruit,” says Shah. “If they really have stomach hunger, they may accept the alternative to the cupcake. If they say that they only want the cupcake, suggest that it may be their mouth that’s hungry for the sweet taste of the cake.”

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It’s not about judgment, though. Mouth hunger is OK too, and it’s fine to enjoy an occasional cupcake. “It’s important to avoid labelling a kind of hunger as bad or undesirable. This is about self-awareness, not judgment or right versus wrong,” says Shah. “When kids learn to identify the different kinds of hunger, they are practicing self-awareness, which is a helpful life skill.”

Avoiding a life of emotional eating
If a child grows up being mindful of their eating habits, they’ll be better equipped to avoid a vicious cycle of emotional eating later in life.

There’s nothing wrong with providing food for emotional hunger or heart hunger once in a while, but it’s important that’s not the only response in a child’s toolkit. “Parents are in an ideal position to model a different way to respond when their children are seeking comfort,” explains Vancouver-based psychologist Colleen Cannon, who specializes in cognitive behaviour intervention for problematic eating.

Sure, sometimes only ice cream will do. But hugging, sharing a warm blanket, or going for a walk together can also help your kid deal with what they’re feeling and help them avoid emotional eating. Having these alternatives will help build healthy coping skills and a better relationship with food.

Read more:
5 tips to help your child reach and maintain a healthy weight
My family quit sugar: How we survived cutting out the sweet stuff

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