I’m often asked by parents why I recommend their adolescents eat on a (loose) schedule, when Intuitive Eating seems to recommend listening to one’s body and eating in response to hunger levels. It seems like I’ve forcing teens to eat!
While I generally recommend parents and teens to rely on their feelings of hunger and fullness to know when to eat (see this post on The Hunger Fullness Scale), there are many times this is not appropriate.
Mechanical Eating or Practical Eating is the process of eating absent of physical hunger signs, usually based on timing and activity.
This is very necessary for many kids and teens who CAN NOT rely on their physical hunger to inform them when to eat. These kids and teens need external reminders – like times- to know when to eat.
When is Mechanical or Practical Eating Necessary?
Eating Disorder Recovery
In eating disorder recovery, it’s crucial for adolescents to increase their caloric intake quickly to support their growth and development. We can’t depend on hunger signals, because they’ve been ignored and silenced over time from the disorder. Creating an eating schedule, regardless of hunger, allows adolescents to renourish their body, and rebuild that trust around reliably eating. Once this trust is established, hunger signs will likely return, and feelings of hunger and fullness can be relied upon to nourishing the body.
Many medications affect hunger. With adolescents, it’s most commonly stimulant medications. We’ll often see adolescents on these medications losing weight unintentionally as a result of not feeling hungry and thus forgetting to eat. Eating in the absence of hunger, while difficult, may often be necessary to support proper growth and development.
Neurodivergence/ Interoceptive Unawareness
Many kids and teens are not in tune with their bodies, and just don’t experience physical hunger. This may come from neurodivergence and personal body experiences, or from restrictive eating and learning to ignore these feelings. That doesn’t mean teens shouldn’t eat! They may need to rely on outside cues- like timing- to ensure they’re eating enough.
Adolescents have busy schedules that often don’t make time for eating. School starts often too early to eat breakfast, breaks are too short or timed weirdly to accommodate hunger, and after school jobs and commitments may make it hard to find any time to eat. Practical eating encourages eating when there is time to do so even if not fully hungry. This ensures your adolescent is eating enough to sustain themselves and fuel their growth.
How Does This Fit with Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive Eating is not the hunger fullness diet. It’s rather an approach to neutralizing food and nourishing our bodies in a way that respects our body’s needs and removes negative emotions from eating. We’re not training kids to approach food as fuel or their body as a machine.
Embracing practical/mechanical eating outside of hunger solidifies this understanding. Eating outside of hunger can easily cause shameful feelings, until we recognize that you’re honoring your FUTURE hunger when you’re able to. You’re showing your body respect by feeding it at an earlier stage before you’re super hungry, and would likely eat haphazardly- whatever’s available, and/or well past fullness.
How to Eat When it May be Challenging
It can be difficult both physically and emotionally to eat when not hungry. Here are some things you can do to make it more manageable.
Distractions While Eating
Despite popular messaging, eating while distracted can be a really useful tool to help adolescents eat. When eating is distressing or causing negative thoughts and feelings, yet is necessary, using distractions at a meal can help with meal completion.
Distractions could be watching a movie, TV show, or funny clip, talking with someone about non-food topics, reading a book, petting or holding a pet, or whatever helps your adolescent.
Distractions After Eating
When eating without physical hunger, it can be an uncomfortable physical sensation of having “too much” food in ones body. That feeling will pass as food is digested.
It can be helpful to plan activities to distract from that feeling, so adolescents are able to more easily move past that feeling.
Distractions may be playing a game, watching funny videos, talking with friends, working on a hobby, etc.
Mantras or Phrases
Some adolescents find it helpful to have a mantra or phrase to keep in mind while doing something difficult.
These are personal to what resonates with each individual, but here are some to get your adolescent started:
- I am giving my body the tools it needs to feel good and thrive
- My body knows what to do with this food I’m eating
- I may not feel good right now, but this feeling will pass
- I can do hard things
Eating outside of hunger is often a necessary tool to help adolescents eat enough for their growing needs.
Whether for an eating disorder, because of medications or neurodivergence, or due to scheduling, many adolescents are unable to rely on their hunger to know when to eat.
Creating a schedule to eat every two to four hours can ensure your adolescent is eating frequently throughout the day, and more likely meeting her nutritional needs.
Because it can be difficult to eat when not feeling physically hungry, support your adolescent in finding ways to minimize their distress.