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My daughter is nine, and over the last few months has been frequently stealing sweets from the kitchen (fridge, pantry, or deep freezer) to eat them in her room at night. There are a variety of reasons this is problematic, not least of which is that she has a milk allergy: she tends to be very attentive to what she should or shouldn't eat, but if junk food is available, she's much less sensible.

We have so far tried:

  • asking, ordering, yelling, etc. at her to stop (no obvious effect)
  • pointing out that these are terrible food choices (for example, "the reason you have a stomachache is because you can't digest lactose well, and those cookies had milk in them," or "you're in a really bad mood and it's probably because all that sugar is wearing off")
  • making her pay her brother for what she stole (she ate all of the candy he brought home from a Valentine's party at school)
  • increasing her protein and other-healthy-food intake so she feels more full (this hasn't made a noticeable difference, so I suspect the motivation is more emotional or mental than simply physical hunger)
  • A similar question about controlling junk food intake suggests eliminating opportunity and simply not having it in the house. We've rapidly reached that point as she ate her way through the kitchen, and our foods tend to be on the healthy side anyway. But...

I'd like to come up with a solution that involves helping her self-control, because I still want to be able to have treats (a box of cookies, or a bag of chocolate chips to bake cookies from scratch, or candied fruit for a fruitcake) that everybody can enjoy occasionally -- instead, it ends up vanishing from the pantry and we find the empty container later when cleaning.

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Why do you have them in the house? –  Kevin Apr 8 '13 at 16:43
    
Because sweets are not inherently bad if approached in moderation. I'm not going to ban her younger sibling from bringing home a bag of candy he got at a party just because his sister might steal it from him. She's resorted to eating straight sugar or honey at times. I'll repeat, "I'd like to come up with a solution that involves helping her self-control, because I still want to be able to have treats ... that everybody can enjoy occasionally." –  Erica Apr 8 '13 at 17:13
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I feel like the stealing is much more of an addressable problem than the sugar craving. I was like that when I was a teen, right down to the spoonfuls of sugar and honey. I still frequently crave sugar. It's anecdata, but if she's anything like I was, it won't go away, and it'll be more productive to find equally sweet but slightly healthier alternatives. I ended up resorting to frozen berries with sugar on top, or tea with lots of honey. –  user3946 Apr 19 '13 at 23:55

4 Answers 4

up vote 9 down vote accepted

In a study for the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (Story, et al), researchers looked at the causes of unhealthy adolescent eating behaviors, and they are many! This is some of what you are up against:

  • rapid growth means high caloric and nutritional needs
  • skipping breakfast becomes a common practice
  • many adolescents become less physically active
  • kids eat away from home more
  • there's a need for peer acceptance
  • the family has busy schedules
  • junk food is convenient
  • junk food tastes good
  • junk food is heavily advertised to adolescents
  • adolescents associate junk food with pleasure, being with friends, weight gain, independence, guilt, affordability and convenience - it is seen as normal
  • adolescents associate healthful eating with family meals and eating at home, and liking healthy food is seen as an oddity
  • family dinners decrease in many families to only a few times a week

Your attempts to address the behavior mirror the results of other studies (Scaglioni, et al). Researchers found that restricting what children can eat works in the short term, but in the long term it increases the intake of food, increases eating in the absence of hunger, hampers the ability to self-regulate, causes negative self-evaluation, and contributes to weight gain in 5 to 11-year-olds. Pressuring children to eat was likewise unproductive. Studies where children were rewarded with positive attention for eating healthy foods also resulted in long-term negative effects on the quality of the children's diets and their preference for those foods.

Suggestions that came out of the studies are as you would expect:

  • role model healthy eating
  • eat together
  • don't make kids finish a meal when they say they are full
  • choose food well for the family and make rules about where foods can be eaten - make them rules for the house not rules for the child
  • choose a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods - choice is important - it gives the child control
  • limit TV/ video game time to 2 hours/day
  • make healthy foods convenient - carrot sticks instead of whole carrots, bowl of chopped fruits instead of whole fruits - and let them eat as much as they like
  • remember that they do need to eat a lot, and that will mean a balance of fats, carbs and protein, not just carrot sticks. As you noted, she needs to feel full.

There are other studies that look at the emotional causes of poor eating amongst adolescents. In one study (Snoek, et al), researchers found that "higher levels of emotional eating by parents were related to higher levels of adolescents' emotional eating." High levels of psychological and behavioral control over adolescents were also associated with higher levels of emotional eating. This suggests that it may not be about the food at all, but about the stress the child perceives and possibly about the way stress-handling is modeled in the family. A follow-up to this study (van Strien, et al) looked at emotional eating and depression in adolescents that might be genetic.

So if a smorgasboard of healthy, convenient, unrestricted foods doesn't help, you might want to look at addressing or alleviating the other stresses in your child's life that might be contributing to emotional eating.

Each of these cited studies is set in the context of many other similar studies which are internally cited. They may be available through your local library or through interlibrary loan from a nearby university library.

Citations:

Story, M., Neumark-Sztainer, D., & French, S. (2002). Individual and environmental influences on adolescent eating behaviors. American Dietetic Association.Journal of the American Dietetic Association, S40-51.

Silvia Scaglioni, Michela Salvioni and Cinzia Galimberti (2008). Influence of parental attitudes in the development of children eating behaviour. British Journal of Nutrition, 99, pp S22-S25.

Harriëtte M. Snoek, Rutger C.M.E. Engels, Jan M.A.M. Janssens, Tatjana van Strien, Parental behaviour and adolescents’ emotional eating, Appetite, Volume 49, Issue 1, July 2007, Pages 223-230, ISSN 0195-6663, 10.1016/j.appet.2007.02.004.

Tatjana van Strien, Carmen S. van der Zwaluw, Rutger C.M.E. Engels, Emotional eating in adolescents: A gene (SLC6A4/5-HTT) – Depressive feelings interaction analysis, Journal of Psychiatric Research, Volume 44, Issue 15, November 2010, Pages 1035-1042, ISSN 0022-3956, 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2010.03.012.

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This is a wonderfully thorough answer, and I appreciate the time and references you've put into it. Thank you! –  Erica Apr 8 '13 at 3:06
    
Great answer! Thanks. –  TheIndependentAquarius Apr 8 '13 at 3:56

Rather than not making sweets available and offering only healthful foods instead, my gut instinct tells me that it would make more sense to create some structure in sweets consumption. Your daughter is big enough that she will soon be able to buy junk food on her own, and presumably she can already binge eat at a friend's place if the opportunity comes along. Sugar is not unhealthy in itself, especially in children who burn off a lot of energy, but it can be consumed in unhealthy amounts, so it's the amount you need to control. I would actually introduce a sweet snack during the day, such as a couple of cookies with milk. Always have a given small amount of sweets (and if you make them yourself, they can be more healthful), always have it at the same time of day, and make no exceptions. That way, she knows that she will get the sweets that she craves, while it will not be in amounts that are unreasonable. And I would keep the cabinet with sweets locked until she gets into this rhythm. If it works. Maybe I'm completely wrong, it's really a gut level response and I don't know your daughter.

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especially in children who burn off a lot of energy .. be careful when you say that! They only "burn off a lot of energy" when they are doing something physically active. You're kind of assuming all kids are the same there. –  bobobobo Apr 8 '13 at 15:59
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Here's a good article that supports your hypothesis. –  Karl Bielefeldt Apr 8 '13 at 16:24
    
@bobobobo - I'm assuming that, unlike adults, all kids grow taller. This process uses a lot of energy. –  Ana Apr 8 '13 at 17:04
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@KarlBielefeldt, I think I've seen this article, perhaps you posted it before? I also saw some news from the UK that the number of malnourished babies is on the rise, because adults mistakenly think that kids' nutritional needs are like an adult's needs but scaled down. Both of these pieces of information were inspiration for my post... as well as the fact that the main question is how to teach the girl to control her binge eating behavior. –  Ana Apr 8 '13 at 18:59
    
I appreciate these ideas and the linked article. Thanks :-) –  Erica Apr 8 '13 at 19:01

She's old enough that she may begin to understand the health implications of sugary food.

While great as a treat, when eating too much of it can cause

  • weight gain
  • diabetes
  • poor nutrition (because sugar is eaten instead of foods with vitamins and minerals)

You should educate yourself first on why specifically junk food needs to be limited. Then start preaching, honey.

In case she is overweight:

Be careful of the weight issue. If she already is a little bit overweight, she is likely already sensitive to the problem. The other kids may have already made fun of her. If she is not aware that she is overweight, be very careful with this. What I'm saying is don't call her fat.

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She's actually borderline underweight, so I try to emphasize internal health rather than weight gain when discussing food choices. But, speaking more broadly, this is a terrific point to make :-) –  Erica Apr 8 '13 at 17:20
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Ok. All the more reason to not let her think she's fat, because of concern of developing an eating disorder down the road. I think the point of this answer is that she's old enough to start making wise choices (with your help). Could emphasize the "diabetes epidemic" ("Sedentary lifestyles and the modern banquet of food laced with sugar and fat are said to be fuelling the explosion of Type 2 diabetes, which is now the most common form of the disease, affecting nine out of 10 Canadian diabetics.") –  bobobobo Apr 8 '13 at 17:46
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@Erica There are studies linking type 1 diabetes in adolescents with binge eating. Since you are going to the doctor soon, it is worth asking the question. –  MJ6 Apr 8 '13 at 22:31

You have some pretty good answers already, but as someone who struggles with similar cravings, I wanted to answer from the perspective that it might not be strictly a matter of self-control and discipline.

There are several other cravings bodies have that can be mistaken for food cravings. Having low energy can cause a craving for energy-dense foods. You can get low energy from thyroid conditions, clinical depression, asthma, not eating enough calories during the day, sleeping disorders, and a ton of other medical conditions. It happening mostly at night is what made me think about sleeping disorders. If she is craving sleep and not able to get it, that can feel a lot like a sugar craving. It would be worthwhile to discuss your concerns with her pediatrician. A doctor might ask you about other symptoms you haven't even realized are a concern.

It could also be emotional eating. Adults seek comfort food and children do too. It helps you feel better. You might think about emotions she's dealing with and try to address those, especially if she had a large change in her life a few months ago.

On the other hand, it could just be a kid behaving badly. I just didn't want you to neglect possible deeper concerns.

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She's got an annual checkup coming up next month and I plan to bring it up then. (And she knows that I'm seeking professional help for answers -- I've been honest that I don't know how to get her to stop.) –  Erica Apr 8 '13 at 17:37

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