Is it normal for tweens to have an insatiable appetite?

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For breakfast it was four pancakes and two bowls of cereal. Lunch was three sandwiches, a bag of chips, two glasses of milk, two apples and four chocolate chip cookies. Dinner consisted of two heaping plates of spaghetti and meatballs and a huge bowl of ice cream. Now it’s 9 p.m. and your son is staring into the open fridge saying he’s hungry. And you’re thinking to yourself, ‘Is this normal? Where is my 12-year-old putting all this food?’

The answer, according to Dr. Shazhan Amed, a pediatric endocrinologist at BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, is that yes, it’s normal for some kids this age to develop astounding appetites. Girls often begin their pubertic growth spurt around age 10, and boys slightly later, sometime between 12 and 14. “During that growth spurt, the growth rate per year doubles,” she says. “That demand on the body requires additional energy that is derived from food. So it’s not unusual for kids to have a huge increase in appetite. It’s actually expected.”

Luckily, says Dr. Amed, the body is designed in such a way that it generally regulates appetite according to physical need. The metabolic needs of children depend on many things, including how active they are and their genetic profile. Skyrocketing appetites in the tween and teen years seem to be more common in boys, because increased testosterone can significantly enhance the appetite; testosterone creates muscle mass and generating muscle mass requires significant energy. And boys’ bodies are generally bigger, and tend to grow more quickly.

So if they’re hungry, says Dr. Amed, let them eat. Just make sure they’re eating the right foods. “Kids at this age are actually very vulnerable to forming unhealthy eating habits. If they’re choosing foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar, or drinking a lot of calories in pop and other sweetened drinks, that’s when we see obesity becoming an issue.” Parents need to role model healthy choices, says Dr. Amed, so their kids feel inspired to do the same, even when they’re on their own and making their own decisions.

It’s time for tweens to integrate these healthy behaviours into their lives:

  • five to seven fruits and vegetables a day
  • zero sugar-sweetened beverages
  • an hour of physical activity a day
  • no more than two hours of screen time a day

“If these things become part of their daily routine, they will take them right into adulthood,” says Dr. Amed. “We need to set our kids up for success – not just in terms of education, but success in health. We really are facing a huge problem in today’s society; if our kids don’t have success in terms of health, none of their other success will matter.”

How to keep growing boys and girls full – and healthy

When tweens are ravenous, they’re much more likely to reach for something nutritious if it’s right at their fingertips. Try these tips for filling them up right:

  • Have lots of washed and cut up fruits and veggies in resealable containers in the fridge at eye level or sitting out in the fruit bowl so they’re the first thing your child sees when he walks into the kitchen.
  • Make filling, nutritious meals (like soups, chili or pasta) in large quantities, and freeze them in individual portions.
  • Just reheat and eat – as easy as frozen pizza treats, but much healthier.
  • Don’t buy chips, pop, cookies or other pastries. If they’re not in the house, your child will choose something else (at least while he’s at home!).
  • Bake muffins and cookies and keep them in the freezer so you always have something homemade on hand.
  • Let your tween cook. Teach him how to make a few easy, foolproof snacks such as salads, smoothies and grilled sandwiches. Learning his way around a kitchen is a valuable skill that will stand him in good stead when he moves out on his own – it’s only a few years away!
  • Buy things in bulk. Nuts and nut butters, cereal, cheese… these staples are far cheaper when bought in large quantities. Maybe now is the time to buy a membership at that bulk retailer.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, July 2012.

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