Food Addiction In Children: When It Happens In Your Home
I started putting on weight at a fairly young age. Six, to be exact. It didn't dawn on me until much later in life that this was when my food addiction reared its ugly head - full force. Carbs, sugar, fat ... They all became a staple in my life. I ate three or more servings of favorite foods like pizza, pasta, rice and more. After school, my "snacks" would include two packages of ramen, a full box of mac and cheese, or two min-pizzas. Both parents worked from home, so I had no one home to monitor what I was eating. By the time I was in high school, I was close to 200 lbs. I reached 220 just before I graduated.
There is no doubt in my mind that I had a severe food addiction. There is a reason I was so obese I had to resort to weight loss surgery.
I see the same addiction rearing it's ugly head in my daughter. And even though WLS has saved my life, I don't want to see her have to go through it herself as an adult.
My Food Addicted Child
At 10 years old, my daughter is sitting at 117 lbs at 4'6". Right now her BMI is 28. It wouldn't be a concern, except for the fact that my daughter has a food addiction. Every day, I see her peruse the refrigerator and cabinets looking for snacks, and crying - actually being visibly upset - when something she craves is not there. I remember exhibiting the exact behaviors well into adulthood. Even now, I will want something I'm not supposed to eat and not find it in the house - and get very upset over it, being brought to tears.
Watching my daughter struggle through this addiction as I have (and still am) is heartbreaking, to say the least. But I also know that we are not alone. Millions of children in the US live with food addiction and obesity. I see it every day in my daughter's friends and classmates. Even my son (6), who is not overweight, has a severe addiction to sugar and carbs. It's a strong addiction, to say the least.
Why Are We Addicted
Why are we addicted to these things? Well, studies have shown that sugar and carbs (even the complex kind!) have endorphin-causing chemicals in them. We emotionally feel better when we eat these things, sometimes euphoric. This also explains why we often experience withdraw-like symptoms when we stop eating carbs (Atkins, anyone?). This addiction can be stronger in children than in adults. According to Dr. Lisa Merlo, PhD compulsive eating and lack of control when eating are the two most common signs of childhood food addiction. Her article, Exploration of food addiction in pediatric patients: A preliminary investigation, also suggests the link between childhood food addiction and their parents.
Which makes perfect sense. My mother is food addicted. I am food addicted, therefore my children are food addicted.
How Do We Help Our Kids
This has been the biggest struggle for me. Right now, my daughter is on a very strict diet. She feels isolated from her friends, in a way. And it is the hardest thing in the world to watch my child struggle with anything. But it's important in these cases to remember that we are the parents in this situation.
1) The simplest solution, and in some ways the hardest, is just don't not buy the "crap". It's so easy for us to say we're buying chips, crackers, candy and treats "for the kids" and think that our children "need them", when the reality of it is that NO ONE "needs" them. My kids don't like it, but I no longer buy it, unless it's a special occasion - and even then, I try to make it myself rather than buying it packaged.
2) Raise the level of fruits and vegetables in our children's diets. This is SO hard in many ways, especially for those of us with picky eaters. My daughter used to eat salad, carrots, sugar snap peas, broccoli, celery ... Just about any raw veggie she could get her hands on. Now, she won't touch them. In fact, she won't eat anything that comes from the ground unless it's a potato or a banana. So getting the "green stuff" into her is next to impossible. But it can be done. There are some great cookbooks on the market about being sneaky parents and putting veggies in their food where they might not notice it.
3) Be more aware of our kids eating habits. Do they eat when they're hungry? How about when they're bored? Sad? Happy? If they are not only eating when they're hungry, but also eating at other times, there might be a food addiction. Try to help your kids find other outlets when their bored and figure out ways to celebrate successes - and mourn losses - without food.
4) Make rules regarding food. This sounds absolutely ridiculous in many ways, but it is VITAL that a child with a food addiction has rules that they have to adhere to. For example: "The refrigerator is closed after 8 pm", "healthy snacks only between meals", "one dessert per day" etc. These are rules we've implemented in our home, and they work well for us. To us, it is just the same as having rules for video games, playing outside, and homework.
5) Be supportive! Children need a support network just like adults do. We need someone to talk to about our joys and concerns, struggles and successes. So do kids! Even if it's just a bad day at school or a good grade on a test, they deserve to be heard. They also need encouragement now and again. Telling your child, "Hey, I'm proud of the food choice you just made!" can speak volumes!
Food addiction is a problem that millions of people live with across the globe. Adults and children alike share this problem and often times it results in severe obesity leading to health problems. In severe cases, weight loss surgery is necessary. But it is possible to help our children beat the food addiction monster and to prevent them from having to deal with the same issues we have as adults. Just remember that love, acceptance, and support are key components to helping our children be successful!