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Why “Overweight” Children May Feel Hungry All the Time

“My child is always hungry and overweight.” Learn why and my tips to help children with larger bodies feel satisfied and better regulate their eating.

Parents who have children with larger bodies (or “overweight”) feel more pressure to feed their children right. Part of this comes from our societal standards about what a healthy child should look like and what they should be eating. 

If your child is growing up with a larger body, you may have more worry about whether your child is healthy or not, and whether you’re doing everything you can to support them. 

One of the things that can cause worry is the child who is hungry all the time, especially if they carry extra body fat or experience weight gain

Withholding food or ignoring their real hunger doesn’t feel right, but you also don’t want to overfeed them when they really don’t need it.

Plus, you don’t want to make your child feel bad for asking for food. So what can you do?

In this article, I’m exploring why larger-bodied children may be constantly hungry. I’ll walk you through the common reasons and give you a few tips to manage this without creating more problems.

my child is always hungry and overweight

Understand Your Child’s Appetite and Hunger

What causes your child to be hungry? Appetite is controlled by hormones and these help your child’s body regulate its need for energy. Appetite increases when kids get the signal from their tummy and brain that more energy is needed. This causes an increase in the amount of food they eat.

Appetite helps the body get the energy it needs to function properly, and maintains energy equilibrium, or homeostasis. 

Related: Child Appetite Traits: From Avid Eater to Fussy with Food

Reasons Why Overweight Children May be Hungrier 

Although there are several reasons for increased hunger, these are some of the common ones I see in older children as a pediatric dietitian: 

Growth Spurt

An uptick in appetite can happen when children are in a growth spurt, like during adolescence. Energy needs for growth are high. As such, appetite increases when kids are in a growth spurt.

Infancy and adolescence are the two biggest growth spurts during childhood. Children of all sizes experience growth during childhood, and increased hunger is expected. 

Food Intake (Quantity and Quality)

What kids eat plays a role in whether or not they are hungry.  Although, the genetics of size and a child’s food intake interact, there are many more factors that contribute to a child’s weight.

But the type, amount and timing of eating may cause erratic spikes in hunger.

Lack of a Regular Meal

Regular meals and snacks tend to fend off excess hunger while irregular eating patterns may cause more hunger or extreme swings in appetite.

Based on biology and physiology, children tend to get hungry every three to four hours (and every two to three hours if younger in age). When meal or snack times are too far apart (ie, every four to five hours), children can get over-hungry and overeat.

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Snack Times

Eliminating snacks in the hopes this will reduce body weight or shrink your child’s size may contribute to becoming extra hungry, which may encourage overeating.

Lack of Variety in Food and Food Choices

Repetitive foods, such as the same snack every day or the same lunch, can bore some kids. When kids are bored, they may seek out more exciting food like snacks and sweets. 

Likewise, a lack of fiber-rich and protein-based foods may cause children to get hungrier more frequently. Protein and fiber-filled foods are naturally filling and help children stay satisfied for longer periods.

A Restrictive Diet

Some children with larger bodies may experience food restriction, like not being allowed to have treats, snack foods, or sweets. This may cause a child to feel that these foods are “scarce” or forbidden. When foods are forbidden or off-limits, children may seek them out and eat them in secret.

Scarcity increases demand.

Too Many Minimally Nutritious Foods (Fast Food/”Junk Food”)

Minimally nutritious foods are those foods that have few nutrients, like protein or fiber, or vitamins and minerals. Think soda and candy, or fried foods. When minimally nutritious foods are prevalent in a child’s diet, they crowd out decently and highly nutritious foods (e.g. the food groups), working against your child’s health.

This isn’t to say your child can’t have fast food, “junk food” or sweets like ice cream. It’s more about a balanced diet favoring highly and decently nutritious foods over minimally nutritious ones. 

Large Portions

Do you ever eat and just not feel satisfied or full? How much a child eats in one sitting or cumulatively throughout the day, especially when eating foods that aren’t filling or nutritious, can contribute to their lack of satisfaction. Being unsatisfied, even when portion sizes are big, may drive more eating. 

Emotional Reasons and Using Food as a Coping Mechanism 

When children feel emotional, like feeling sad or lonely, they may turn to food to seek comfort and soothing, also called emotional eating

Negative emotions can be difficult to deal with, especially in children who may not have learned yet how to cope with them in healthy ways. Food is often quick relief, and although it may serve a purpose in the moment, coping with food can become an unhealthy habit.

Food naturally makes many of us feel good, firing off the “feel good” hormone in our brain, dopamine. Dopamine keeps us doing what feels good, and that’s how eating in response to negative emotions can take root.

Mental Health Concerns (Anxiety and Depression)

Children who are anxious or experiencing symptoms of depression may be at greater risk for emotional eating, or using food as a coping mechanism to soothe those uncomfortable feelings.

Children with larger bodies have more symptoms of anxiety and depression than their peers with mid-sized bodies. I believe a child’s weight and how they are treated in the world contributes to these concerns.

Eating Habits and Eating in the Absence of Hunger

How your child eats – when, how much, where – has just as much to do with their health as the foods they put into their bodies. In other words, the habits your child establishes with eating can positively or negatively influence their health.

Eating in the absence of hunger (EAH) is a research term for eating when bored or emotional. Basically, it refers to any eating that is not based in physical hunger, or a biological need to eat.

Boredom strikes all kids, regardless of their size.  In my experience, I’ve noticed that many kids interpret boredom as hunger.

When they don’t have something to do, or they’re not at school, or in a structured environment, they want to eat. Boredom may lead children to think that they’re hungry when they’re not.

Screen Time and Eating

Kids who game, watch a lot of television, scroll social media, or use other screens with regularity tend to eat more than they need. Because they are distracted, they may be unable to recognize their fullness cues telling them to stop eating.

An Uptick in Physical Activity 

If your child has started being more active, it’s natural for the body to up-regulate appetite as a response to the greater energy demand associated with regular physical activity, especially sports. 

A Medical Condition

Some health conditions, like prader-willi syndrome, cause children to have a voracious appetite and a weight problem. Endocrine problems, like hypothyroidism, can also cause changes in metabolism and favor extra weight.

An eating disorder like binge eating disorder may underlie a child’s constant hunger. In my experience, health problems are less likely the cause of excess hunger in children.

Protein is a filling nutrient. Foods with a good source of protein.

6 Tips For Helping the Child Who is Always Hungry and Overweight

When a child is always hungry there are a few food tips and interventions that can help improve appetite control.

Focus on Filling Nutrients 

The nutrients in food that are most satiating are protein and fiber, and fat when combined with protein and fiber.

Protein foods like eggs, dairy products, all kinds of meat, fish, beans, and tofu are satiating because they make your child feel fuller earlier and longer.

Fiber is also a very filling nutrient. You can find fiber in whole grains like whole wheat bread, brown rice, or whole wheat pasta. You can also find it in fruits and vegetables. When you include fiber-containing foods as part of a meal or snack, your child will fill up faster and that’s going to last a little bit longer because fiber takes longer to digest.

When fat is partnered with fiber and protein, studies show it helps keep blood sugar levels steady and curb food cravings. When present in food together, they increase fullness and satisfaction, and curb hunger. 

Make Meals and Snacks Predictable

Make sure the timing of breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and any snacks your child is having throughout the day occur at a regular time each day. This helps your child manage his appetite.

Plus, psychologically, your child will know when to expect to eat throughout the day, and can feel comfortable knowing they’re going to get food at specific intervals during the day. 

Close the Kitchen Between Meals and Snacks

When it’s not time for a meal or snack, close the kitchen. This means food is not available. Children will learn to adapt and understand that eating at regular intervals during the day is the norm, and between meals or snacks there’s no eating.

This also helps children regulate their appetite and eat mostly for physical hunger instead of boredom or emotions.

Teach Your Child the Difference Between Physical and Psychological Need 

What are your child’s signs of physical hunger? A growling tummy, a feeling of thirst, a headache, nausea, or general crankiness? Every child is different in their symptoms of hunger but helping them interpret these can be super helpful.

Related: Teach Kids to Recognize True Hunger, At Any Age. (A Guide for Helping Children Self-Regulate their Eating)

Alternatively, help them understand psychological need such as feelings of sadness, loneliness, or celebration, and how those may be tied to a desire to eat. 

If your child is truly, physically hungry, they will eat an apple, carrot sticks, or another nutritious food. If they are bored, or emotional, or just asking out of habit, they may be unhappy with this option, wanting something more enticing. 

And that’s when it’s clear that hunger is not physical, but psychological.

In this case, you can say something like, “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to wait until snack time at 3 pm.” (or whatever the next time for eating is on the agenda.)

Role Model Mindful Eating and Other Positive Lifestyle Habits

You can help your child adopt healthful behaviors by being a role model with eating, language, and food choices. 

Mindful eating increases the awareness of the senses which slows down eating. It focuses on internal sensations and needs, and downplays external cues for eating.

The goal is to help your child be better able to manage their appetite and eating, and engage in daily habits that support their health. You can do that by showing them how you do it everyday.

Final Thoughts for Parents of Kids Who are Always Hungry and Overweight

Children who are growing up with a larger body are facing more stigma, more bias, more bullying, and more self-doubt than children who aren’t.

They need more consideration, more caring, more acceptance, and more unconditional love from us.

They don’t need to be “fixed,” but they may need more support to achieve a healthy weight (a place where their bodies are functional and healthy, regardless of their size). You can do this in a loving, kind way so your child feels good about themselves and the body they are in. 

In the meantime, you can set up a varied, nutritious food environment at home, use nurturing, positive feeding practices, nix the weight talk, and help your child build healthy habits that will help them for a lifetime.

If you want more help making small changes, come on my podcast for a one-time counseling session, or check out my private counseling options.

Take my Healthy Habits Quiz and find out how where you are on the path of helping your child develop healthy habits!


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