How to deal with binge eating among children

Saturday April 25 2020

 

By Carolyne B. Atangaza

Images of food rationing and how much food is being consumed during this lockdown have been making rounds on social media. One particular meme had three bean seeds in whole pan filled with water. Whenever someone posts food with more than one type of sauce, people tend to ask why food is being wasted.

The truth is, those memes are not far from reality. Michael Okoth is a father of four children ranging between 10 and 22 years. The amount of food his children consume everyday is getting him worried.

“Unlike other times when they are on holidays, I have noticed that they eat almost 10 times, what they usually do. Even my 22-year-old daughter, whom we used to force to eat food has had her appetite increasing abnormally. Every hour, there is someone in the kitchen preparing something, someone opening the fridge to eat or taking tea or juice,” the father shares.

Endless hunger

Okoth is not alone. Helen Alupo, a mother of three, also shares her predicament. “Every time I turn around, someone is hungry and asking me to make them an egg or asking for something to eat. The amount of food these three eat in a day is something you have to experience to believe. I have been feeding this family for years, but the last few weeks have shocked me,” Alupo relates.

Dr Edward Mugisha, a paediatrician, says this could be emotional eating caused by the ongoing circumstances.

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“Children experience as much stress as adults, but unlike adults, they might not know they are stressed. Constant hunger is one way to tell that a child is experiencing stress,” he says.

Numbing strategy

Dr Mugisha adds that in times of prolonged stress, which is what we are now experiencing, our bodies release the hormone cortisol, which increases appetite and overindulging. He says while hunger is induced by the increased production of cortisol, more often, children use food as numbing strategy.

However, eating to relieve stress is a temporary solution that might have adverse effects on the children’s lives such as obesity and food addiction. Dr Mugisha recommends dealing with the underlying issues to arrest the problems.

“Parents and care givers need to talk to their children about what is happening and address their fears.
They also need to manage the information their children access. The World Health Organisation recommends getting information from credible sources and limiting information overload,” says Mugisha.

He adds: “Allowing children and young adults unlimited freedom on social media increases their anxiety as they are flooded with rumours and myths that they cannot process appropriately.”

Keep temptations away

To combat her children’s worrying appetite, Alupo has taken pragmatic steps by removing all temptation from sight.

“It is easy for a child to make a sandwich if they can see bread and butter on the table; or get biscuits if they are within reach. I keep all temptations out of sight. I have replaced it with fruits and roasted ground nuts. Although they still eat, they are not binging on unhealthy foods,” she shares.

Similarly, Alupo makes just enough food for that particular meal. “For instance when I make katogo for breakfast, I make sure there are no leftovers. Sometimes there is sauce in the fridge since I cook meat and beans in bulk. So I keep them in the freezer, which makes it less tempting for them to wait for it to defrost and warm. The process becomes too much and they look for an easier option,” she says.

Okoth says he has stopped buying some foods in bulk. “One time I brought home a carton of Nutro biscuits and saw my son eat two packets in 20 minutes alone. I realised he did not feel bad about because it was in plenty. If I had bought less packets, she probably would have eaten half of it and left some for his siblings. I buy what is enough and I tell them to make it last until the next time I go for shopping,” Okoth shares.

Stress-reduction techniques

Dr Mugisha advises parents to experiment with stress-reduction techniques. “Children eat when they are bored. Keeping them busy will help. Create a schedule that incorporates both work and play in equal proportions. Ensure they get adequate sleep and have consistent sleep and wake times. Limit screen time and time spent sitting and avail other fun activities such as dancing, swimming or board games,” he advises.

Sheila Karungi, a nutritionist, recommends encouraging children to drink water. “Sometimes when the body is dehydrated, a child might interpret it as hunger. So when a child says they are hungry, first give them a glass of water. If they still insist they are hungry, give them a snack,” she suggests.

She also suggests including foods that help increase the serotonin levels-a chemical that is responsible for making us feel better. Replace refined carbohydrates with healthy unrefined carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes to your diet.

Unrefined carbohydrates cause a quick spike in blood sugar levels, whereas complex carbs provide vitamins, minerals and fiber.
Other stress busting foods include

Avocados

These are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids that reduce stress and anxiety. They also boost concentration and improve mood. Along with omega-3 acids, avocados are also rich in phytochemicals, fibre and essential nutrients.

Fish

Adding seafood to your diet helps in beating stress and depression, especially fatty fish that is full of heart-healthy omega-3 acids. Tuna, halibut, salmon, sardines are some types of fish types you can add to your diet.

Prolonged stress

“Children experience as much stress as adults, but unlike adults, they might not know they are stressed. Constant hunger is one way to tell that a child is experiencing stress. In times of prolonged stress, which is what we are experiencing now, our bodies release the hormone cortisol, which increases appetite and overindulging. While hunger is induced by the increased production of cortisol, more often, children use food as numbing strategy,” says Dr Edward Mugisha, a Paediatrician.

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