Q: My 2-year-old is a little overweight for a very active little girl, but she acts like she's starving all the time no matter what we gave her to eat. She eats anything!! If I don't give her food she'll go into meltdown mode.
A: Hunger is a very important survival skill, so it's really a good thing. But if your daughter has eaten a satisfying, nutritious meal or snack and still acts as if she's starving, it can cause problems in terms of her health and happiness.
I think it would be wise to describe your daughter's behavior and eating habits to her pediatrician. The doctor may want to examine her and order some blood work to make sure that her thyroid is functioning properly and that her blood sugar level is normal. If this all checks out, you can get to work on making some changes at home.
First, make sure that your daughter is eating three nutritious meals and two or three nutritious snacks at roughly the same time of day every day. A good breakfast is key, as it sets the stage for the entire day. Establishing a routine is very important, so that your daughter will know when to expect the next meal or snack. A nutritious, satisfying meal will include some type of protein, such as eggs, meat or beans. Protein-rich foods are filling and help keep hunger at bay for several hours. Foods rich in complex carbohydrates such as oatmeal, whole grain bread or pasta are also filling and satisfying. Finally, offer your daughter foods that are rich in fiber, such as raw fruits and vegetables. High-fiber foods require a little extra chewing, which contributes to their satiety value. Fiber helps normalize blood sugar levels, which can, in turn, help normalize appetite. Fiber also tends to swell a little in the stomach, and this also makes high-fiber foods filling.
Make sure your child is getting plenty of water to drink throughout the day, especially between meals. Sometimes, children may feel hungry when they're really just thirsty.
Avoid offering your daughter artificially sweetened or regular sodas, sweets or treat on a regular basis. When children consume very sweet-tasting foods or beverages (even if they're sweetened with artificial sweeteneres), they develop a preference for very sweet tastes. After drinking a soda or eating a couple of super-sweet cookies, it's hard to appreciate the natural, subtle sweetness of a strawberry or a grape. Consuming too many sugary, processed foods or beverages also disrupts blood sugar and insulin levels, which in turn may lead to an increased appetite.
While you're making these changes, your daughter may still go into "meltdown mode" out of habit. If this happens, you don't have to withhold food. Simply offer her a choice between two nutritious items, such as a few apples slices with a bit of peanut butter or a couple of whole-grain crackers with a slice of cheese.
In most cases, following these steps will help satisfy your child's hunger and reduce her frequent requests for food. If they don't, it's time to head back to the pediatricians office. Your pediatrician may refer your daughter to a dietitian to help you make the necessary changes in your daughter's diet and eating behaviors.
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