Why is my child a fussy eater?
Updated: Feb 23
Do you have a fussy eater in your household? Or may be even two or three?
Like many parents, in similar situations I imagine you’ve probably searched the internet widely for tips and inspiration on how to get your child to eat their veggies, or their meat…. or, for some, simply to eat something other than just white bread. It’s difficult at the end of a busy day to motivate yourself to cook a nutritious meal, knowing that the food will only get pushed around the plate, discarded on the side and knowing a battle will begin.
Many children go through phases of fluctuating eating habits. It is normal too for us all to have times when we are feeling hungry and times when we have little appetite. Often, this is dependent upon how we feel, our energy levels and the activities we have been doing. We should be encouraged to listen to our appetites and sense of satiety as this is the way our bodies have been made to balance weight for example. It is fairly common for children to reduce their appetites around the age of two years, simply because their nutritional need has decreased following the early years rapid growth and development. You may find your child eats a lot more during growth spurts and then again as they hit puberty. This is a perfectly normal pattern.
About 25% of healthy children are picky eaters and if your child has ASD, this increases to 80%. These are the children who continually refuse to eat certain food groups or even multiple food groups. They have become increasingly fussy for no apparent reason or perhaps they’ve always been picky.
Did you know that there may actually be an underlying reason for their fussiness?
For your child, it may not be so simple as just not wanting to eat or being difficult or awkward. There may well be underlying reasons.
1. Nutritional Deficiency
This is a tricky one as it’s like a catch-22. You may be concerned that your child’s fussy eating may lead to a nutritional deficiency (and yes, this could be possible), however, did you know that sub-optimal levels in certain nutrients, such as Zinc, Iron, Vitamin B1 and B12, even Vitamin C to some extent, may also be an underlying contributor to your child’s picky eating? These nutrients are involved in a number of processes throughout the body, including the creation of salivary and gut enzymes and hydrochloric acid needed to break down food.Zinc is a key nutrient affecting taste, smell and appetite, whereas the B-vitamins may affect the brain’s sense of hunger.
2. Gut Health
Our gut is full of bacteria (our microbiome) – in fact there are trillions of microscopic living organisms inside us and they are not all exactly the same type. Each species, each strain has a different purpose within our gut. As with all communities, there are the good guys and the bad guys.Some of the ‘good’ ones optimise our digestive function by aiding nutrient absorption and gut motility whilst the ‘bad’ can cause us problems.To optimise our digestive system, we need our microbiome to be in balance - even the ‘good’ guys can sometimes get out of control! Your child’s microbiome diversity and balance can be affected by infections, antibiotic use, food intake, and even linking back to the way they were born and fed in the first few months. A child with a disrupted gut function may become a fussy eater which in turn doesn’t help provide the pre and probiotics and nutrients required to keep the microbiome balanced and optimise the gut function.Another vicious circle!
3. Food Intolerance
In most cases, you’ll know if your child has a food allergy almost immediately, however, you may not know if your child has an intolerance or a sensitivity; these are more difficult to identify as the reaction is usually slower, may not happen every time, may only happen if a certain amount of the food is eaten or may simply be difficult to pinpoint.Symptoms of food intolerance or sensitivity can range from gut issues like constipation or diarrhoea, but can also include fatigue, lowered immunity, difficulty concentrating and so on. Inside the body, the accumulation of this food or the inability of the body to digest this food may lead to gut inflammation, increased gut permeability and unexplained discomfort, which then may lead to the fussy eating exhibited by your child. They may not understand or be able to explain the reason why they don’t want to eat this food; it’s just a ‘gut feeling’!
4. Sensory Processing Disorder
Eating involves all our senses. When we see a food e.g. a banana, we know how it will taste, we know how it feels in our fingers and in our mouth, we know how it smells, we even know if it’s likely to make a noise as we bite and crunch it.All these sensory experiences we have learned from experience new foods through our childhood years. Occasionally, as an adult we might be given a food we’ve never tried before…. how do you feel? Are you excited to try it or are you anxious? Do you make up your mind that you don’t like it before you’ve even tried it based on its colour, its smell or its texture? For some children, especially those with sensory processing difficulties or ASD, this sensory extravaganza associated with eating is just simply too much resulting in a picky eater.
High levels of anxiety have been shown to increase fussy eating.Whether it’s linked in with the sensory overload, a past negative eating experience or for other reasons, your child may be anxious at meal times. When we are anxious, the nervous system activates stress hormones to help us deal with the situation we are in. In turn, the “rest, digest, and grow” hormones are not released affecting our digestive function. Prolonged release of stress hormones may also increase gut inflammation, increase gut permeability and even impact on the gut microbiome. Consequently, gut function is poor and fussy eating more likely. ‘Letting off steam’, like active play in the garden before dinner, and creating a calm environment for meal times can help.
If your child is a fussy eater, it is important that you seek professional advice before attempting to resolve the issues yourself. A nutritionist can help you to identify your child’s unique underlying reasons and develop an individualised plan to nourish your child and reduce their fussy eating. For a booking with me, please go to https://www.julielandonnutrition.com/services
I strongly advise against you giving your child any of the supplements mentioned in this article before speaking to a qualified professional as you may cause harm with incorrect nutrients or dosages.