What we can learn from how we ate as infants

What we can learn from how we ate as infants

Whilst developing Appetite Retraining, I was on a huge learning curve. Despite decades of training and experience in providing psychological therapy, I was having to go back to first principles in order to think about eating and appetite in a way that could help me lose weight.

One of my early realisations was that although I myself could carry on eating a lot of something I was enjoying, when my children were babies they wouldn’t do that. Quite the opposite. When they’d had a certain amount, they’d lose interest and refuse any more. And when I tried to cajole them into finishing what I’d cooked for them, it got messy – they would clamp their mouths shut and make angry noises and the food would end up all over the place.

This got me thinking about how we ate as infants, and what we could learn from this as adults.

Click this link to see the video of how adorable one-year old Annie’s lunchtime is a reminder of how we once ate

Some of us carry on eating like this

For some people, this is how they carry on eating as kids, teenagers and then into adulthood. Although they enjoy food it’s just food.

But many of us start to acquire habits around eating which aren’t about using our natural hunger and fullness signals to guide our eating. We start eating when we’re not hungry and eat beyond the point of being just full, as we use food for purposes other than satisfying our appetite.

We can develop these habits at any point, and this will depend on our environment and our life experiences as well as our individual biology.

The sorts of habits I’m thinking of include:

  • Being rewarded or rewarding yourself with chocolate or crisps
  • Finishing what’s on your plate regardless of whether you’re full
  • Dealing with stress, boredom or anxiety by eating
  • Eating to keep someone else happy, perhaps because they cooked it for you
  • Eating as a way of rebelling against someone who tells you not to
  • Eating biscuits with coffee out of habit, whether or not you’re hungry
  • And many, many more

None of these things will cause weight gain if you do it only occasionally. It’s the way we eat day-in, day-out that influences what we weigh. And if like me, you gained several unhelpful eating habits over time, the weight will stick.

A new way to approach losing weight

Appetite Retraining is all about re-learning to eat in tune with our bodies, so that we eat what and how much our bodies need. I called it Appetite Re-training because it is in effect re-learning to eat more like we did as infants.

Put simply this is:

  • Start each meal when you are definitely hungry (-3 on the Appetite Pendulum)
  • Notice your hunger level reducing as you eat successive mouthfuls and notice how full you’re feeling
  • Stop eating when you feel just full, not overly full (+3 on the Appetite Pendulum)

And although you couldn’t do this as a baby,

  • Space your meals so that they suit your lifestyle
  • Work out by trial and error what quantity of food gets you to the “just full” point
  • Work out by trial and error what types of food keep you going for how long, so that you can choose what to eat based on how long it will be until your next meal
  • Bear in mind that taste-specific satiety means that the more different tastes you have in your meal, the more you’re likely to eat. Variety is a good thing, but you need to work out what trade-off (variety versus appetite-refreshing) works for you

Work towards this new way of eating step by step

Eating in tune with your body may be so far from how you currently eat that you’re not sure you can do this. Don’t worry – it’s not an overnight fix – it’s not about changing everything at once. In fact, it’s important not to change those things about how you eat that are positive. I’ve seen numerous people who eat very healthily, but they eat far too much for their energy and nutritional needs, so they’ve gained weight and kept it on. For those clients, there was no need to change what they were eating – it was a case of adjusting how much, one step at a time.

By letting go of the unhelpful eating habits we’ve acquired over the years, we can change our eating habits for good. And when we do that, the weight stays off.

Appetite Retraining is explained in my book “How to Retrain Your Appetite: Lose weight eating everything you love” which guides you step-by-step through changing how you eat. It explains how basic features of our biology and psychology make conventional dieting nigh-impossible to stick to. It shows you how working with rather than againstyour body leads to more pleasure from food than ever before, whilst you shed the pounds. My book also describes the four types of self-sabotage I’ve seen over and again with clients (lack of motivation, lack of willpower, lack of self-belief, pressure from others) and shows how you can overcome them.

And if you’re a professional working with people who want to lose weight or change how they eat, check out my training events for professionals through my website https://www.theappetitedoctor.co.uk/

Taking the first step to Retraining your Appetite

Perhaps the most important thing to realise is that changing your eating habits is best done one step at a time, which means working out what habits you want to change. My Unhelpful Eating Habits Checklist is a list of the habits my clients have reported most often, and you can use it as a prompt to think about what specific habits you want to change, and in what order.

As I said earlier, there is no need to change how you eat completely, which is a good thing, because changing the eating habits of a lifetime overnight is just about as hard as you can get, as I explain in this video.

More information and articles

You can read more articles on all aspects of the psychology of eating and appetite in my blog which is on my website and see more videos on my youtube channel.

You can get my monthly blog articles on all aspects of the psychology of eating and appetite by signing up for my newsletter.

* Actually it’s more complex than this. Not all sucking in newborns is to do with nutrition (swallowing milk). “Non-nutritive sucking” is seen in very young babies and may be to do with comfort and with strengthening the baby-parent bond. But that will be the subject of a future blog article





  1. Elaine

    I just had to thank you so much for helping me loose weight easily. I have never lost weight so easily and quickly. When going to different slimming clubs I only lost 1/4 to 1/2 a pound in 2 weeks. After reading your book and following your suggestions I lost at least 1 pound every week! Obviously there were a few odd weeks where my weight stayed the same but over the last 4 months I have lost 16 pounds and now it’s just going slower. Despite being 60 and still going through the menopause it proves it can be done.

    • DD

      So pleased to hear this Elaine and thank you for posting! best wishes Helen McCarthy


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