Eat Like a Toddler

The frightening bombshells about our national obesity epidemic just keep coming.

The latest addition to a library of information about the consequences of our unhealthy habits: news that the rate of type 2 diabetes is rising dramatically among overweight teens, pushing the age of onset of this nasty disease steadily downward. While this should come as no surprise, given that 1 in 3 kids in our good ol’ fast food paradise are overweight or obese, it should strike fear in our hearts — whether or not our own offspring are at personal risk.

The impact on our future can no longer be ignored, and it’s not pretty. We face a perfect storm of disability and illness that will touch all our lives and be a crushing burden on our healthcare system. So while the experts appoint one task force after another to propose solutions, here at MOC we have a policy recommendation of our own:

Eat like a toddler.

1. Eat only when you’re hungry. Very young children will refuse food if they’re not feeling hungry. They don’t eat when they’re bored or sad or anxious. They won’t stop what they’re doing if they’re busy learning something new, just because it’s mealtime.  They listen to the signals of their little bodies. If only we could maintain that as we grow up …

2. Stop eating when you’re satisfied. And we don’t mean ‘full’. How many times do you keep going until you start to get that uncomfortable feeling we associate with a full belly. Watch your kiddo at the end of a meal. We’ve never seen a toddler lean back in the high chair as if that last mouthful put him over the edge.

3. Eat sitting down. This sounds like a no-brainer, but it doesn’t come naturally to adults. Most of us are guilty of standing in the kitchen (or at our desk at work) in mid-task while eating a snack. Even a banana should be eaten sitting down, at a table — it makes the act of eating more mindful and deliberate. Grazing on the run encourages forgotten calories and doesn’t send your brain the message that you’ve fueled up.

4. Examine your food before digging in. Have you seen how a toddler responds to food that’s placed in front of him? He’ll look, touch and smell before considering placing it in his mouth. It’s not often we grown-ups really pay attention to what’s on the plate. We’ve lost an appreciation for the sensory mysteries of the food we eat. Not so for our little ones. Every meal is an experience for the senses.

5. Treat food as fuel.  Kiddos under the age of 2 or 3 don’t see food as reward for a job well done, consolation at the end of a bad day, or a way to fill an emotional hole. We teach them to do that, and it starts when we offer sweet treats as incentives, when we pair fast food with media-driven toys, and before you know it it’s a life-long pattern. If we can uncouple food from emotional reward we’ll be way ahead of the game.

6. Chew slowly and deliberately. Watch toddlers eat. They might make a huge mess, but they don’t shovel in the food. And once said food is in their little mouths they chew thoughtfully, slowly, and deliberately before reaching for more. When’s the last time you were aware of chewing your food, or do you just kind of inhale it like we do?

7.  Only eat what is on your plate. Obviously small kiddos can’t go to the fridge for seconds or mindlessly munch after dinner. They eat what’s in front of them, and if they want more they have to let you know. There is no such thing as “think I’ll have just one more cookie” in their world; there doesn’t need to be in ours, either.

8. Eat one kind of food at a time. Research shows that we tend to eat more calories when we have a variety of different flavors stimulating our taste buds at the same meal. Salty foods, sweet foods, and fatty foods eaten together are the most lethal combination of all (note: McDonald’s, anyone?). We’re satisfied with less when a single type of food is served, but multiple flavors excite the pleasure centers in the brain and we beg for more and more. Small fry tend to get fixated on one food at a time, and they eat it until they’re finished. No melding of tastes and flavors for them.

If you’ve been paying attention you may have noticed that these are common tips appearing in those diet books we spend beaucoup bucks on which all claim to have the secret to forever weight control. In fact, they do. It all boils down to one simple rule: Eat like a toddler. Your health and your life (and our national security) may depend on it.


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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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