How to stop food obsession in children

You may not be familiar with the term “food obsession,” but chances are you might recognize it in your own home. Does your child seem to eat when they’re bored? Does your child eat large portions that are visibly too much for them? These are all signs of food obsession, which can lead to eating disorders.
If you think your child has a compulsive eating habit, learn how to identify it, use at-home methods to stop the food obsession, and when to see a doctor.

Boy eating pizza out of pizza box
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What is food obsession?

Although food obsession can mean a few different things, in general, it equates to compulsive eating, such as eating when you’re not hungry or when you’re bored. This habit can develop as a result of anxiety, depression, or stress.
Sometimes, people eat when they’re bored. Food obsession isn’t just something that happens to kids — it can happen to anyone, including adults.

How do I identify food obsession?

The best way to identify food obsession in your child is to pay closer attention. Signs your child might be a compulsive eater can range from eating giant portions to looking for sweet treats after a particularly stressful day at school. If your child is asking for food an hour or two after they’ve last eaten, they might just be bored.
On the extreme ends of food obsession, there’s both bulimia (purging) and anorexia nervosa (binging).
Although there are many causes for weight gain (and weight loss), food obsession is one of them. As a parent, you’ll need to make sure you’re watching out for the warning signs.

What can I do to stop it?

Luckily, there are things you can do at home to heal an unhealthy relationship with food. Even if your kid doesn’t seem “food-obsessed,” prevention is absolutely crucial.
Here are four ways to prevent food obsession in your children.

Don’t use eating as a reward
A good rule of thumb is to never use food or eating as a reward. For example, have you ever offered your child a dessert for behaving well while you’re out shopping? Or maybe you like to go out for ice cream to celebrate success at school.
While both of these examples come from the heart, they can do more harm than good. If you use food as a reward, your child might start to associate eating with a particular emotion, which is detrimental in the long run.

• Watch your own eating habits
Whether you realize it or not, your kids look up to you as their role model. They’ll emulate your behavior and habits, including your eating habits. If you usually eat a large bowl of ice cream after a long day at work, or if you often find yourself chowing down on a bag of chips during your favorite Monday night TV show, your child will notice and imitate that.

Ditch those sugary sodas
We all know soda isn’t good for us, but how bad is it exactly? It’s chock-full of sugar, has absolutely no nutrition to its name — that means no fiber, no vitamins, and no minerals — and rots the enamel of your teeth to boot.
Although it’s better to ditch them altogether, if you have to, consider only allowing one soda a week. Maybe Friday is the one day of the week your kids are allowed to enjoy a soda.

Don’t ban all sweets
With the issues sugar causes, it may seem best to ban all treats. However, that’s arguably one of the worst things you can do.
Often, banning all sweets only makes your child all the more desperate for a sugary treat — in other words, it has the opposite effect.

Instead of banning desserts, try regulating them. Make sure you’re not feeding your child sweets every day and instead aim for every once in a while. When you do have dessert at your home, watch the portions, too. A little goes a long way, especially when it comes to sweet treats.

Child with plate of sugary treats
Andy Shell/Shutterstock

When to see a doctor

Although there are ways for you as a parent to help stop food obsession, sometimes a doctor needs to get involved.
Usually, it’s not about the food at all. There’s often an emotional trigger — stress, anxiety, depression, or even a grab for attention. Sometimes speaking to a professional can help you get to the bottom of things.
Checking in with your family doctor is never a bad idea. They can offer advice about healthy eating, physical activity, and provide further insight into food obsession. Both psychiatrists and your local pediatrician can help you and your child get back on track.
Of course, if you suspect your child has an eating disorder such as bulimia or anorexia, it’s always best to talk to an expert on those subjects.

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