Do you have a picky eater on your hands? Chances are if you are a parent of a young or neurodivergent child, the answer to that question is a resounding YES! Picky eating can seem like it simply boils down to a child’s likes and dislikes. However, there can be a number of underlying reasons for picky eating. Picky eating could in fact be a feeding disorder. Research demonstrates that 25% of children have some sort of feeding disorder. When a child experiences developmental delays, this can increase to upwards of 80% of kids. I’ll preface that I am not a feeding specialist. This information is based on my years of experience in working with this special population as well as what the current scientific literature states. It is always a good idea to consult with feeding specialists and/or other medical professionals to ensure that more serious issues can be ruled out. 

You’ve heard me talk at length about the importance of making sure that kids are getting a well rounded, nutrient dense diet. Without this, they run the risk of cognitive and physiological issues with development. Picky eating is a normal developmental phase that kids go through between the ages of 2-4, known as “food neophobia.” However, if this is severe or persists beyond age 5, here are some underlying causes of picky eating to consider:

  1. Oral-Motor Problems
    • A child may experience difficulty chewing, swallowing, moving their tongue side to side, coughing, gagging, choking, or drooling. It is important to rule out structural reasons for this, such as tongue tie. Think of the oral-motor effort it takes to chew tough meat, or raw carrots. A child may also have a hard time sitting for the duration of a meal, or muscle tone may be low. If oral-motor factors are left unaddressed, this can lead to long term food/food group avoidance. It is always a good idea to get checked out by a provider that can assess these issues. 
  1. Fear of New Foods/Anxiety
    • Often times, anxiety is conditioned as a result of some of the issues previously mentioned. If a child has a history of gagging or choking or is unsure of how a food might feel in their mouth, then anxieties about trying new foods is reinforced by avoidance. When parents remove a food that is rejected by the child, this can also further reinforce the child’s fear. Exposure to a variety of new foods on a regular basis can help the child to move through phases of picky eating, rather than becoming a lifelong habit. Research actually shows that it can take upwards of eight to 15 exposures of a food before a child accepts it. 
  1. Trauma
    • Choking or gagging may indeed be traumatic for some kids. Additionally, gastrointestinal pain or GERD may prevent them from wanting to eat certain foods for fear of the sensations they may experience. Furthermore, there is a likelihood that children who have feeding difficulties may have been force fed in the past. Making exposure to new foods fun (for example making things visually appealing or using food to do art projects), involving kids in meal preparation, and maintaining a calm and flexible environment around the dinner table can be helpful. 
  1. Medical Reasons
    • If a child experiences significant difficulty swallowing food or drinks, there may be something more concerning going on such as Dysphagia. Normally, food passes from the mouth and throat into the esophagus, eventually finding its way to the stomach. In individuals with dysphagia, this normal process is disrupted. Food or drinks may go into the windpipe or lungs instead of the stomach, which can lead to serious problems such as aspiration, respiratory problems, malnutrition, weight loss, and dehydration.
  1. Parental influence
    • You are the best role model for your child. If they see you eating a variety of balanced, healthy, whole foods, they will begin to see the presentation of these foods as “normal.” Food neophobia is in fact inherited in 2/3 of kids. So, it can be helpful for parents to work on their own picky eating habits. Mealtimes can also often become a place for power struggles and lost trust around feeding. Encouraging and reinforcing baby steps toward an end goal, rather than forcing a child to eat is most helpful. And keep in mind, the whole family should participate. Did you also know that the eating habits of mom during pregnancy and breastfeeding can positively influence the variety of foods accepted by the child? Research shows that mom’s healthy diet helps to set the stage for later healthy food preferences. So cool!!
  1. Sensory sensitivities
    • Research clearly notes there is an association between sensory processing problems and eating problems in children with ASD. There are five areas of sensory processing problems that need to be considered: tactile, smell, taste, visual and auditory. Distorted sensory processing can make certain textures or temperatures offensive, thus leading to restriction of certain foods. Food that have strong smells can overwhelm the eating experience. A child may be hyper- or hypo-sensitive to tastes, leaving them wanting to only eat bland foods, or cover everything in seasoning/sauce. Foods of certain colors can be off putting (e.g., all green foods). Food that may be loud when chewed, or stimulation from the environment (e.g., other people’s chewing, the TV on) can be overstimulating. These are all important factors to consider when putting meals together. Making food visually appealing and incorporating new foods into already accepted foods is a good place to start. 
  1. Biochemical Reasons
    • Did you know that when gluten and dairy are not digested properly and enter the bloodstream as partial proteins, they mimic the effects of morphine? They fit in opioid receptors in the brain and drive opiate cravings/addictions for these same foods. Preferences for food additives can cause strong addictions/cravings for processed foods. For example, MSG is known to create “excitement” in the brain by stimulating the glutamate (excitatory) receptor, making food seem to taste much better. Deficiency in zinc can make foods taste bland or uninviting. When zinc is deficient, one’s sense of smell is reduced and food tastes uninteresting or unappetizing. Yeast, viral, and microbial overgrowth may cause hyper focus on eating mainly high carbohydrate and sugar rich foods. These microbes feast on carbohydrates and sugar. They can actually get their “host” to crave the food that feeds them by giving off chemical signals. This can create self-limitation to only these foods. Addressing food allergies/intolerances and underlying gut dysfunction is a crucial step in overcoming picky eating. If this is something that you and your loved ones are interested in help with, you can request a FREE discovery call here. I can’t wait to help!

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