Appetite Ups and Downs- Nutrition and Growth Spurts

Puberty-related growth spurts can be expected somewhere between ages 10-14 for girls and 10-16 for boys. Growth spurts are a period of rapid gain in height, often accompanied by increased hunger and fatigue, as the body uses more energy to build tissue. It’s common for parents to be surprised at their child’s sudden spike in appetite and wonder “should I let him keep eating?” as the child asks for a bowl of cereal 1 hour after eating 2 large helpings of dinner.

Fluctuations in appetite are normal for all of us, and are especially common in children. Teaching our children to tune into true hunger (comes on gradually, is felt below the neck, and is satisfied by eating), will help them be able to let their body guide them to determine the right amount for their body. It is never too late to practice tuning into body signals for hunger and fullness. If kids feel truly hungry, it is ok to eat, as long as it’s at a time when mom or dad thinks a meal or snack is appropriate.

Following the Ellyn Satter Institute Division of Responsibility, the parents’ job remains to decide when to serve meals and snacks and what food or drink to offer. Offer 3 meals and 2-3 snacks daily. The child’s job is to decide whether to eat, what food to eat, and how much. Offer 2-3 food options for a snack so the child has some choice, and aim to have one of the choices be fruit or vegetable. If a child is truly hungry, she will eat what is offered. For example, for a bedtime snack,  a parent could offer milk and banana. If the child is truly feeling hungry (you can try to determine this by asking “is your tummy hungry, or just your mouth wanting to taste food?”) she might choose to eat ½ a banana, or a small cup of milk, or a large glass of milk and the banana, or nothing if she decides it wasn’t true hunger after all.

MyPlate (www.choosemyplate.gov) is a great tool and guide to building meals. Variety is key to building a healthful balance of foods in your child’s diet. For example, if the child ate mac-n-cheese (grains and fats) and a glass of milk (dairy) and grapes (fruit) for lunch, he has had some but not all of the food groups, so if he is hungry after school, a parent could offer raw carrot and red peppers (vegetable) with some hummus or dip (fats), and a string cheese or handful of nuts (protein). This helps keep balance so the child gets the nutrients he needs and also feels full and satisfied.

If you are ever concerned about your child’s eating or growth, ask your physician to evaluate. If desired, your doctor can also refer you for a visit with a registered dietitian nutritionist at UW Health to assess eating habits for growth and give specific suggestions for your child.

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