It’s common for parents to have occasional worries about their children’s eating habits and preferences. Are they eating the right foods, or enough food? Are they having too much sugar? Are they eating too many snacks in a day, or too few snacks?
Enough on their plates?
Advice from the NHS website is that children should have a well-balanced diet containing foods from the following four groups:
- Protein (e.g. meat, fish, beans)
- Carbohydrates (e.g. bread, pasta)
- Dairy products (e.g. milk, cheese) or dairy alternatives
- Fruits and vegetables
Therefore, if children eat a variety of foods from these four groups during the week, have lots of energy and are developing normally, it’s likely their overall nutrition is sufficiently well-balanced. However, even if a child enjoys a varied diet, parents may still be concerned if there is a refusal to eat certain foods, and more so if there is rejection of an entire food group.
Why are some children fussy eaters?
We should first understand some logical reasons why children can be picky about the foods they eat, explains Dr Gwen Dewar in an article on the Parenting Science website (https://www.parentingscience.com/picky-eaters.html).
- Unlike adults, children are naturally sensitive to sour or bitter flavours; consequently, their uninitiated palates may reject certain foods that to an adult, taste delicious. Indeed, bitter flavours (for example, those found in some vegetables like kale and broccoli) may signal toxicity to a child’s developing taste buds even though the rejected foods are nutritious and non-toxic. As Dr Dewar explains, adults will already be familiar with a variety of flavours, whereas children’s taste buds have not yet had time to experience and accept such a range.
- Evolutionary processes may have ensured that children opt for sweet-tasting foods, because these often provide a rich source of energy for little ones who are rapidly developing and always ‘on the go’. And because children have a relatively smaller digestive tract in comparison to that of an adult, they prefer foods that are not only calorie-rich, but also non-bulky and easy to digest.
- Researchers Julia Mennella and her colleagues (2008) found that some children possess an inborn, heightened sensitivity towards bitter-tasting foods (Variety is the spice of life: Strategies for promoting fruit and vegetable acceptance in infants. ). There is also evidence that some children are genetically predisposed to avoid new foods, too.
- Other factors such as prenatal taste experiences (i.e. those experienced by the foetus and defined by a pregnant mum’s food choices) and a newborn’s taste experiences (i.e. those encountered via breastmilk) may affect the infant’s subsequent childhood food preferences.
Should we worry about fussy eating?
Now we are aware that it’s normal for infants and toddlers to be suspicious of unfamiliar tastes, we can feel more relaxed if new foods are initially rejected. As a consequence, we can continue to offer a variety of foods to children without turning mealtimes into a battle or stressful event. As children grow and develop, their tastes change, and one day, the food that was rejected on Monday might then be enjoyed on Thursday! The NHS advice on fussy eating is to offer your child smaller portions of the same food you provide for the rest of the family and to dine together in a calm and enjoyable way (https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/baby/weaning-and-feeding/fussy-eaters/). Further advice is to let children have enough time to eat (they are often slower than adults) and avoid using food as a reward (e.g. avoid coaxes such as ‘if you eat your greens, you can have a chocolate bar’).
What is ‘sensory food aversion’?
While fussy eating is fairly typical among infants, toddlers and young children, a refusal to eat any foods from an entire food group is of greater concern because it risks nutritional deficiency. For example, an aversion to all fruits and vegetables may suggest a diet that is deficient in vitamin C, while an aversion to all dairy produce could lead to calcium deficiency.
Children who have developed sensory food aversions may display severe sensory reactions to certain foods or whole food groups. These reactions can range from scowling when the food is placed in front of them to choking, spitting out the food or vomiting. Children may detest a food and reject it for a number of reasons, including its taste, texture, smell, appearance, or even the temperature at which it is served.
As explained by Dr Irene Chatoor (http://drchatoor.com/sfa), sensory food aversion may develop after a child’s previous traumatic encounter with a particular food which is then generalised to include all foods within that group. For example, if a child has previously gagged when eating some spinach, he or she might fear a repeat of the unpleasant experience, and the subsequent ‘feeling memories’ may provoke a rejection of all green foods.
Dr Chatoor recommends that parents avoid disciplining or trying to persuade children who display symptoms of sensory food aversion. Instead, she recommends that parents model the desired behaviours of exploration and enjoyment of new foods by having meals with their children at a table laid with a variety of different foods throughout the week. Wary children are more likely to try new foods through gradual exposure when they see their parents enjoying them and if they can choose by themselves when and if they wish to taste the food. On the other hand, nagging and cajoling children may provoke them to become more stubborn about their limited food choices.
When to seek help
You should always seek help and advice from a professional such as your GP if your child’s continued fussy eating behaviours are causing you concern. It’s likely that you will receive welcome reassurance that your child is healthy, well-nourished and developing at a rate that is typical for his or her age. However, if your GP suspects that your child’s feeding disorder may require more exploration then you may be referred to a specialist such as a paediatrician or a dietitian who can give you the advice and support you need.
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