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Ask the Doctor: Understanding Hunger and Fullness Cues to Achieve a Healthy Weight

September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, a time to educate families on what causes childhood obesity and how to prevent it.

The Healthy Weight Initiative team at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital shares tips on how families can understand hunger and fullness cues to obtain and maintain a healthy weight and prevent obesity.

What are hunger and fullness cues?

These are daily cues that serve as a way to evaluate when it’s time to eat and time to stop. Infants and young children are the best at determining their cues.

They might reach for food or cry as a sign to inform everyone, “It’s time for me to eat!”, or they will start to turn their head and reject any additional bites you serve them when they’re full.

As we age, we start to lose those “skills” related to hunger and fullness cues that we previously had as infants or toddlers due to hectic schedules, tempting food advertisements or predetermined lunch times.

How can listening to our hunger cues help children and families reach and maintain a healthy weight?

When we don’t listen to our hunger and fullness cues, it can cause us to sometimes over- or under-eat. When we get too hungry, we tend to overeat.

Our body works extremely hard to make sure that we do not run out of energy and it will start to crave foods that are guaranteed to give you loads of energy, which tend to be calorie-dense foods.

What about the “clean plate club,” or having children sit at the table until they finish all their food?

This can force children to eat past comfortable fullness levels and lead to excess calories consumed. Many parents struggle with mealtime “battles” focused around finishing or not wasting food.

Though this is well-intended, allowing children and teens to eat when they are hungry and until they feel full is the best practice.

What are some tips to help children and teens recognize hunger and fullness cues?

  • Check in before and after meals as a family to report hunger/fullness
  • For older children, start to associate hunger/fullness with values 1-10
  • Become aware of hunger/fullness cues in your own life to help model them to children

How can I better understand my infant’s hunger and fullness cues?

Many parents find it challenging to know when infants are full since we want them to finish their bottle or serving to assure they are getting enough nutrition.

Increasing evidence shows that overfeeding in the infant period can be a risk factor for developing obesity in later childhood. For more information on some of the visible cues parents can look for in infants, visit this Healthy Eating Habits page.

Presented by Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.

More from Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital:

Samantha Toffoli, R.D.N.
Samantha Toffoli is a registered dietitian with Johns Hopkins All Children’s Healthy Weight Initiative. She joined the hospital staff in 2021. Samantha received her bachelor’s degree in Dietetics at the University of Florida, followed by a master’s degree from Arizona State University, where she completed a year-long traineeship funded by the Maternal and Child Health Bureau. This program focuses on developing skills to increase knowledge and leadership in the field of public health nutrition related to maternal and child health.

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