Some kids are more focused on food than others, even within families. Learn about some of the common food obsession behaviors in children and why they exist.
Can kids really be obsessed with food? Many parents would shout from the rooftops: Yes!
That’s because they witness their child’s eating behavior every day.
As a pediatric dietitian, I’ve had many parents over the years tell me their child’s eating behaviors don’t seem normal.
They report their kid is more focused on food compared to other members of the family. Or, they say their kid overeats at parties, to the point of feeling ill.
They wonder if their child has a food obsession. A sugar addiction.
8 Eating Behaviors that Scare Parents
Kids and their eating behaviors can be hard to figure out. If your child enjoys food, are they obsessed?
If they overeat, are they fixated on food?
If they ask lots of questions about food and eating, are they too focused on it?
Here are 8 eating behaviors in kids that make parents worry, and some reasons why these behaviors may exist.
1. Excited about Sweets and Savory Foods
Most kids I know (even my own) get excited about sweets and treats, but some kids get really excited.
I mean really excited.
This is due to what is called food responsiveness, or a heightened arousal to food cues, like the sight or smell of food.
Food responsiveness, just like satiety responsiveness (the tendency to be more aware of the feeling of fullness), is an appetite trait that is passed down through families.
Simply said, some kids are just naturally more interested and aroused by food.
2. Loses Control of Eating
When presented with food, some kids seem to be missing the fullness signal. In other words, they don’t have a stop button.
They keep eating until they’re quite full. Sometimes overeating until they become sick.
In children, we refer to this as loss of control eating.
This is different from binge eating.
Loss of control eating is based more on a feeling, rather than on a quantity of food consumed or a timeframe within which food is consumed.
3. Poor Decisions with Food and Eating
Related to the above, some parents notice their child doesn’t make good decisions about food or eating, especially if sweets, savory or favorite foods are around.
This may be due to poor executive functioning – those higher order brain skills that include making decisions in the moment, impulse control and inhibition.
If your child just ate and sees something they like and eats it despite a lack of hunger (impulsive), or can’t put off eating until the time is right (inhibition), your child’s eating behavior may be related to challenges with executive functioning skills.
4. Doesn’t Know Fullness (Impaired Satiety Response)
Leptin is the satiety hormone that tells us we’re full after eating.
It triggers us to stop eating.
In some children, especially those who carry excess body fat, the satiety response may not be working properly. The signal to the brain gets muffled.
As a result, a child doesn’t receive the fullness signal, and may seem ‘always hungry.’
5. Hides or Hoards Food
If you’ve found your child has hidden food, or has stockpiled it somewhere, you may be worried your child has a growing food obsession.
In my experience, this happens when kids have been restricted from eating sweets or foods they like.
Food restriction, in this case, causes preoccupation with the food that is being eliminated or tightly controlled.
Also, some kids will hide or hoard food because they fear getting in trouble for eating, or have shame around the foods they enjoy eating.
6. Eats in Secret
Sneak eating is similar to hiding or hoarding food in that it’s often done in response to scarcity of desired or preferred foods.
If your child eats in secret, they may feel shame about eating, or be embarrassed about their food choices.
It may also be a sign of disordered eating, or an eating disorder like binge eating.
7. Grazes All Day Long
If your child eats all day long, it can certainly seem like they’re obsessed with food.
The bigger issue is the impact grazing has on appetite awareness.
When eating occurs frequently throughout the day, it’s possible a child can become unaware of their hunger cues.
Grazing makes it hard to feel true physical hunger, and easy to overeat.
8. Is Preoccupied with Food
If your child is always asking about when meals will be served or what’s on the menu, or seems to think about food all the time, it can be frustrating to repeatedly provide assurances.
The reality is, preoccupation can be related to food scarcity, in which case you will want to reassure your child when food is being offered.
On the other hand, an awareness of food may just be a sign food interest and enjoyment, which isn’t a bad thing.
In fact, enjoying food is a goal we want for all children.
Food Obsession and Eating Behavior is Complex
Of course, there are many reasons why kids eat.
Biology will keep us all eating just to stay alive.
Psychology and emotions can drive eating behaviors, too. Your feeding style plays a role as well.
While there are things you can control, other things you can’t. Read more about how to set up a healthy food system, feeding practices that encourage good eating habits and learn more in our programs and workshops.
Do you worry about food obsession in your child?
What type of eating behaviors worry you the most?