In some situations you eat more than usual and in children boredom significantly increases their appetite. This can have consequences that extend into adulthood.
Bored children eat more, much more, a study shows. Within four minutes, bored children consumed on average about 80% more calories than children in the control group, reports a research team led by Claire Farrow of Aston University in Birmingham in the journal “Food Quality and Preference”. If children consume that many calories during a single four-minute bout of boredom, the risk of excessive calorie intake over a day, week or year is high.
In certain situations, such as long train or car journeys, it is generally right for children to eat more, says Antje Gahl of the German Nutrition Society (DGE). Parents might even take advantage of this by putting healthy things in the box that might not otherwise be so popular. “The children then eat what’s there.” In general, it is advisable to bring healthy things such as fruit and vegetables with you when travelling; a small candy bar or a handful of gummy bears are also fine.
Dangers of emotional eating
Aside from these rare situations, children should not eat out of boredom or for comfort in everyday life, Gahl explained. This can lead to harmful habits that last into adulthood. “Eating behavior is largely shaped during childhood.”
There is a temptation to use food to calm children, explained study leader Farrow. But this behavior, known as emotional eating, could lead children to later respond to negative emotions with food even as adults, he also warned. “It is important for parents and caregivers to understand that this short-term solution could cause problems in the future.”
In the British experiment, around 120 four- and five-year-olds were divided into groups. Everyone was promised that they could do a puzzle and then receive a small gift.
Some children – the bored group – first had to sit at the table and wait a few minutes. Each of these children had to wait another four minutes, but could now help themselves to snacks such as biscuits, crisps and carrot sticks or play with toys. Only then could they do the puzzle.
For the other children – the control group – the waiting times did not cause boredom. They solved the puzzle right away, then had the choice of using the snack bowls or playing for four minutes.
A versatile and varied offer
The children in the “boredom” group consumed an average of 42 kilocalories – almost 80% – more in the four-minute snack period compared to the children in the control group. The effect was especially noticeable when parents regularly used sweets in their daily lives to calm or keep their children occupied.
According to the DGE, children ages four to six need 1,300 to 1,800 kilocalories (kcal) per day. It’s important to have a diverse range of foods, Gahl said. Sweets and snacks should therefore constitute a maximum of one tenth of your daily energy intake. “For children aged four to six, that’s about 150 kilocalories per day. That’s equivalent to about 20 gummy bears, 40 grams.”
Statements such as “Vegetables first, then something sweet” or withdrawing sweets as punishment should be avoided, as should snacking while watching TV, for example. “It’s easy to lose control, and the same goes for an adult watching TV.” “The key is to have lunch together, where cell phones etc. are banned from the table, says Gahl. In this and many other situations, parents should be aware that they are also a role model for their children when it comes to nutrition, for the good and in the bad.