Not being fed regularly and adequately is terrifying to anyone, but especially to children. Not surprisingly, hoarding, overeating, and food obsessions in adopted and foster kids are common.

It’s hard to even imagine what it would be like to not know when or if your next meal will come. It’s a sad fact that this was the reality for many adopted and foster kids. And this fear is often expressed in hoarding, gobbling, overeating, and general obsessive behavior around food.

What’s a parent to do? Turn to Dr. Katja Rowell, The Feeding Doctor, of course. She’s agreed to share her very practical advice on how best to handle hoarding, overeating, and food obsessions in adopted and foster kids. We can stop being The Food Cop and stop worrying about obesity or pickiness or food obsessions in general.

Hoarding, Overeating, and Food Obsessions

“She isn’t interested in anything but food. ‘Will I get fed again? Will Mommy be impatient with me? Will she try to distract me with another stupid toy? Why does my brother have a banana?’” ~ Rebecca, mother of Adina, age 2 1/2

For the first months of Adina’s life in Ethiopia, she was below the growth charts and not gaining. When she arrived at the Baby Home, she began to gain weight—a sign that her minimal nutritional and emotional needs were being met.  At her first visit with the pediatrician in the U.S., Rebecca was told that Adina was “almost overweight” and “overfed.” The pediatrician’s solution was strict limits on food intake.

Adina sucked down every bottle and screamed for more. Against her instincts, Rebecca followed the doctor’s recommendations and never allowed more. Eighteen months later, Adina was “obsessed” with food, and Rebecca was exhausted with her role of “food cop.”  Adina’s is a cautionary tale: an all-too-common example of how food insecurity and early hoarding behaviors can become entrenched food obsession. But Adina’s story offers hope…

Overeating and food obsessions in foster kids

Hoarding Food

Adina experienced “food insecurity,” which is not being able to count on being fed either in quantity or in a reliable and responsive manner. Many adopted and foster children with a history of food insecurity are very interested in food when they first arrive home, which presents as a collection of behaviors often referred to as “hoarding.”  Hoarding is a natural reaction to food insecurity and may present as eating quickly, stuffing large amounts of food in their mouths, stealing and sneaking food, and getting upset when food is limited. 

Restricting Food Doesn’t Work

Food obsession, resulting from misdirected attempts to “treat” or “prevent” obesity, is the most common concern I see in the adoptive and fostering families I work with. The national panic around childhood obesity is intersecting with the experiences of food-insecure children with devastating consequences.

Restricting a child’s food continues the food insecurity. It is also not sustainable. It may be possible to lock up food when a child is five or six, but the result may be a twelve-year-old who binges on donuts at the corner store, or eats a bag of Oreos at the neighbor’s house.

Initial hoarding behaviors feel scary for parents, particularly if they don’t understand the effects of food insecurity or if they themselves struggle with food and weight. When the child’s health care provider adds to the worries (often unaware of catch-up growth or ethnic differences in build) it further distorts feeding practices. Parents tell me, “If I don’t limit him, he’ll overeat.” It’s a complete shift in thinking to consider that limiting food fuels the overeating and preoccupation.

Healing the anxiety by feeding him regularly and reliably—and not limiting—is what will allow him to tune in to hunger and fullness cues and establish self-regulation. Many parents share that with reliable meals and snacks, and allowing children to decide how much to eat, the hoarding behaviors simply fade away over several months.

Child food obsession in foster and adoptive families are very common

Tips to Handle Hoarding, Overeating, and Food Obsessions in Adopted and Foster Kids

Here is how you can help children feel secure with food, whether they are in the initial hoarding phase, or with entrenched food obsession.

  • Feed your child every 2-3 hours for younger children, every 3-4 for older children. You may need to offer food more often initially.
  • Let your child decide how much to eat from what you provide.
  • Aim for no eating between meals and snacks.
  • Sit and enjoy meals together. Avoid distractions like screens or arguing. Under stress, food-insecure children often eat more.
  • Reassure him there will always be enough.
  • A food stash may be reassuring (his own drawer in the fridge, pantry shelf, or baggie of food) but is not an out from providing regular meals and snacks. Providing and sharing meals deepens attachment. (The food stash does not work for entrenched food obsession, but may help with initial anxiety.)
  • Offer a variety of tasty foods including fat, protein and carbohydrates—even if she prefers the high fat and high carbohydrate foods initially. This preference is a natural response to food insecurity.
  • Remain calm.
  • Be patient.
  • Model and allow enjoyment of all foods to avoid the lure of the “forbidden.”
  • Work on routines, getting enough sleep, and opportunities to be active in fun ways.

Healing food obsession takes nerves of steel, as your child is likely to eat even more when you first stop restricting.

Over eating can be scary at first, but should resolve over time
 

Happy Ending

Rebecca, who struggled for eighteen months, looks back and guesses if she had better support initially, and trusted her instincts, they may have avoided months of turmoil. Rebecca has hope. “I am beyond thrilled to see the changes, and I feel like I’m probably halfway there. Seeing her play with her food, biting a piece of toast and saying, ‘it looks like a fish—watch him swim!’ There are so many more subtle (but significant) signs that she is finally feeling more secure around food—something I thought I’d never see. We were at a playdate the other day, and she saw the food, had 2 crackers, and GOT BACK DOWN TO PLAY! We will keep working on this, and even though it may take a while longer, we are on the right track now.”

For more of Adina’s story, and more information about transitioning to the Trust Model of feeding, including specifics on dealing with sweets and treats, read Love Me, Feed Me.

**This information is for general educational purposes and is not meant to replace careful evaluation and care by your child’s health care providers.

Thanks, Dr. Rowell for your expertise.

Do you have a child that seems obsessed with food? What has worked for you? What didn’t work?

Other Creating a Family Resources You Will Find Helpful

First published in 2013; Updated in 2018
Image credit: Offutt Air Force BaseAngryJulieMondayDonnie Ray Jones