Overeating in Children and Teens

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Sometimes it may seem your child or teen eats all the time. It may seem he or she is eating lots of snacks between meals or overeating at meals. How do you know if this behavior is something to worry about or something normal that will pass? What can you do to help you child keep a healthy weight and avoid overeating?

Path to improved health

A child’s eating habits develop early in life, perhaps between the ages of 1 to 2 years. That’s why it’s important for parents to teach and encourage healthy eating habits. These examples should be started at an early age and continue through the teenage years. Here are some ways you can do that:

  • Be a good role model. Choose healthy foods and snacks for yourself.
  • Have healthy snacks in your home. For example, stock fruits like apples and bananas, raw vegetables like carrots and celery, or low-fat yogurt.
  • Include plenty of low-fat proteins, vegetables, and whole grains in the meals you make.
  • Offer your child healthy food, even if he or she doesn’t want it. Children aren’t always open to new things. But if you continue to offer healthy choices, you’ll improve the chances he or she will develop healthy eating habits.
  • Teach your child how to make healthy choices for school lunches.
  • Avoid fast-food dining. If you do eat at a fast-food or sit-down restaurant, choose the healthiest meals available.
  • Avoid sugary drinks such as sodas and sweet teas. Limit children to no more than one glass of fruit juice each day.
  • Forget the “clean plate rule.” Your child should stop eating when he or she feels full.
  • Don’t use food as a reward. Instead, reward good behaviors with a fun family activity (for example, go bowling rather than have ice cream).

Benefits of physical activity

Encourage your child or teen to be physically active. This offers many health benefits, including:

  • Helps the body burn calories instead of storing them as body fat.
  • Helps keep blood sugar levels more balanced and in a normal range (especially important for children who have, or are at risk for, diabetes).
  • Lowers blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
  • Helps make bones and muscles strong.
  • Builds strength and endurance.
  • Decreases stress and improves sleep and mental well-being.
  • Improves self-esteem by helping children feel better about their bodies and appearance.
  • Prevents serious health problems that can come with being overweight and obesity.

The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) recognizes that regular physical activity is essential for healthy growth and development and encourages that all children and adolescents accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic physical activity every day. The AAFP also encourages parents and schools to make physical activity a priority. Prolonged periods of physical inactivity should also be discouraged both at home and at school.

There are ways you can help your child become physically active:

  • Limit your child’s screen time to no more than 2 hours a day. Screen time includes playing video or computer games, surfing the internet, texting, and watching TV or DVDs. Set a good example by limiting your own screen time, too.
  • Help your child find physical activities he or she enjoys. For example, your child might enjoy participating in team sports, dancing, playing outdoors, or doing volunteer work.
  • Make physical activity part of your whole family’s lifestyle. Take a walk, go for a bike ride, or do chores together. Plan active family outings.

Should I consider a weight-loss diet for my child?

Don’t put your child on a weight-loss diet without talking to your doctor first. Children need a certain number of calories and nutrients to grow, learn, and develop.

When is it normal for my child or teen to eat more than usual?

Sometimes it’s normal for your child or teen to eat more than usual. He or she may do so—and put on some extra weight—right before a growth spurt in height. This type of weight usually passes quickly as your child continues to grow.

Things to consider

For some children and teens, overeating may be a sign of an eating problem. This could include emotional eating or an eating disorder, such as binge eating disorder.

What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is eating for comfort, out of boredom, or in response to emotions rather than eating for nutrition or because you’re hungry. Emotional eating can lead to overeating because it isn’t usually about a need for nutrients or calories. Your child’s body doesn’t need the food. Over time, taking in extra calories may cause your child to gain weight and become overweight or obese. Overeating can also cause your child to feel guilty or embarrassed.

If you notice signs of emotional eating in your child, talk to him or her about your concerns. Help your child develop a healthy response to his or her problems, such as focusing on solutions.

What is binge eating disorder?

Eating disorders usually develop during the teenage years or in early adulthood. Binge eating disorder is an eating disorder in which a person regularly consumes large amounts of food in a short time. People who have binge eating disorder are often embarrassed by the amount of food they eat.

They may hide food for binges. People who have this disorder often try to diet without success, or they promise to stop eating so much. They feel they can’t control the urge to eat large amounts of food. As a result, they tend to become overweight or obese.

If you’re concerned your child may have an eating disorder, watch his or her behavior and talk to your family doctor. Your doctor can evaluate your child and recommend the best way to help.

What are the health risks of overeating?

Overeating can lead to weight gain. Children who are overweight or obese are at risk for serious health problems as they get older, including:

  • Heart disease.
  • Diabetes.
  • High blood pressure.
  • High cholesterol.
  • Asthma.
  • Sleep apnea.
  • Some types of cancer.

Binge eating disorder can also cause stomach problems and is associated with symptoms of depression.

Questions for your doctor

  • What should I do if my child won’t eat anything healthy?
  • My child is hungry between meals. Should he or she be allowed snacks?
  • Is it okay if my child doesn’t eat meat?
  • My teen doesn’t like to eat in front of anyone. Should I worry?
  • My teen is always dieting, and I’m concerned. What can I do?

Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Improving Your Eating Habits