In this, the first installment of a three part series on Winning Over Picky Eaters, Desi Horsman helps us to understand the challenges presented by picky eaters and how to make every bite count.
For many picky eaters, sensory processing plays a big role in their choice of foods and eating habits. Yet for others, it might just be asserting their independence in one of the only ways they have control over their parents. This can be commonly seen when a child eats well with a grandparent or nanny but plays up at mealtimes with their parents. But regardless of why a child is a picky eater, putting pressure on them to eat will backfire and have negative emotional effects all the way into adulthood.
Sensory processing in picky eaters
The most frequently reported oral behaviour problem is the reluctance to try new foods and having a small food repertoire. Food selectivity is influenced by texture, appearance, taste, colour, smell and temperature.
Despite being picky eaters, some children might have a good appetite for the foods they like, which leads to an excessive intake of only one food group. More often than not, it’s the refined and processed carbohydrates that are the favourite. This leads to nutritional inadequacy and weight issues. This may be overlooked by some parents because they are grateful that their child is eating and may appear to be thriving.
On the other hand, children with more severe oral sensitivities will have high food selectivity and little appetite. In this case the deficiency of nutrients will be high.
Nutrition & Supplementation
The most typical deficiencies are iron, zinc, Vit C, Vit B and D. Nutritional inadequacy will have implications on the child’s health. So it’s important to identify whether their nutritional intake is adequate and to find alternative foods, and food preparation strategies, to provide these nutrients. Supplementation is generally necessary, but it’s important that an assessment is performed to identify what is needed. More often than not, a general multi-mineral and vitamin mix is required, and in some cases in the form of a protein shake.
The following supplements will go a long way in calming the nervous system:
- Essential fatty acids (omega 3) have a clear calming effect and are vital for brain function and nerve cell communication.
- Vit B is important for the nervous system and for managing stress and anxiety.
- Magnesium, which helps transmit electrical information in the brain, is also beneficial for stress and anxiety.
Eating the same foods every day may lead to intolerance depending on susceptibility; especially if that particular food is in every meal eaten (e.g. wheat). If a child cannot do without a particular food and has major tantrums about it; or goes to great lengths to consume it, this could be an indicator of an addictive intolerance. Missing this food leads to withdrawal symptoms, feeling bad and experiencing severe mood swings and behavioural changes. Eating the food releases endorphins and opiates which in turn stimulate a craving for that food.
Create Balanced Meals – Choose From a Variety of Wholesome Foods
A variety of wholesome foods are needed to create balanced meals so consider making the following dietary alternations:
- Fresh Fruits: not canned or cooked in any way.
- Fresh Vegetables: raw veggies to snack on through out the day. Steamed and roast veggies are ideal (Avoid creamy sauces over the veggies).
- Complex Carbohydrates: whole grains (brown rice, millet, quinoa, whole wheat, rye, barley, oats), lentils and other legumes. (Avoid refined carbs which include: pastries, pies, biscuits and other white flour products). Fruit and veg are also complex carbs.
- Proteins: eggs, dried beans, fish, skinless poultry, lean meas. Baked, boiled or steamed but never fried. (Avoid processed meats such as: cold meats, burgers, viennas and sausages).
- Fats: avocadoes, olives, olive oil, nuts and seeds, oily fish. (Avoid cooking with animal fats and margarine).
- Fresh Herbs: be adventurous in adding common garden herbs to the meals to change flavours without needing salt and to nourish the body. (Parsley, ginger, dandelion, garlic, horseradish, thyme, peppermint tea and cranberry juice help to stimulate appetite). Replace table salt with a herbal salt/ Himalayan mineral salt/pure sea salt but all in moderation.
- Sugar: replace with a healthier alternative such as xylitol, stevia or a little honey.
Avoid: sugar, artificial sweeteners, caffeine, processed foods, any fried foods, junk food and fast food take outs, fizzy soft drinks, diet drinks, processed juices, canned foods, preservatives and chemical additives (these derange taste buds and affect appetite), ready-made sauces and dressings.
Most picky eaters do not eat any fruit or vegetables but live on a refined carb diet with bread, biscuits and pasta and a high dairy diet with milk, cheese and yoghurt.
Gastrointestinal problems may be common in many kids with a sensory integration disorder. However, probiotics are beneficial in lowering the severity of symptoms. Having a balanced nervous system will mean that digestion takes place effectively without discomfort, which is also a reason why some children do not want to eat.
Make every bite count. This means dietary programmes should rather focus on increasing the variety of healthy foods than on increasing the amount of food eaten.
Expert Contributor: Clinical Nutritionist, speaker and wellness expert – Desi Horsman
Read the rest of this series