One of my clients joked that it sometimes feels as if a 2-year-old is in charge of her eating. A highly competent teacher, she also does an excellent job taking care of her elderly parents. She’s a can-do person and a great problem-solver like many of the dysregulated eaters I treat. With all her maturity and capability, why, then, would she hand over the reins of her eating to a toddler?
Think of 2-year-olds you know. Maybe you’re trying to tame one right now. Or have heard tales of how you ran your parents ragged at that age or remember what it was like raising your little hellion. You know enough to recognize that you don’t want to put a 2-year-old in charge of anything, never mind your eating. Would you let one drive your car, pay your bills, or pick out your clothes? Of course not. A child at that age does not have the brain capacity to do these jobs—not even close.
Let’s look at the milestones of a 2-year old and you’ll understand what’s wrong with putting one in charge of making your food decisions. Here are a few of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say are our characteristics at this age (CDC, https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/milestones/index.html, accessed 10/14/19): Gets excited when with other children, shows defiant behavior (doing what he has been told not to), says sentences with 2 to 4 words, plays simple make-believe games, builds towers of 4 or more blocks. This is who you want in charge of nourishing yourself?
Here’s what Anna Waismeyer, a researcher at the University of Washington Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, says about 2-year-olds “It is a year of uninhibited exploration.” And this is what is happening when you surrender adult brainpower and put your 2-year-old mind in charge: uninhibited exploration. You think, “Hmm, I wonder what this tastes like” and “Gee, how ‘bout a little more of that.” You’re thinking 100% in the now because, in your view of life, there is no tomorrow land.
The prefrontal cortex is the last brain structure to mature, and that’s the one you always want to use when you’re around food because its function is complex thinking, planning, and decision-making. It’s the part of your brain that you want to use for problem-solving and it’s nowhere near to being completely developed in your brain until your late 20s!
The next time you’re debating whether to go for that second helping of moo shi shrimp or key lime pie although you’re stuffed to the gills, consider who you want in charge in making the decision: your inner 2-year-old or your older, wiser self.