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In a study in the journal Appetite released in January 2016, out of 120 kids aged three to 11, overall, 39% of children were identified as fussy eaters at some point. The study confirmed what psychologists often proclaim: children enter their pickiest phase of life around age two – the “neophobic” stage. This pickiness generally declines by the time they turn six.
Genetics play a smaller role than we think, it’s more due to individual differences and their experience with food that triggers fussy eating. Kid’s taste preferences begin in utero with the more variety of foods a mum eats in pregnancy, the more likely kids are to accept it later. It’s the same with breast milk as flavours transfer through.
Kids taste foods differently to us, they have higher sensory capacity. Foods taste more intense to them than it does to us. There can be physical, psychological, emotional or social/environmental reasons for fussy eating.
- Overgrowths of pathogenic bacteria in the colon
- Overgrowths of yeasts/fungus in the gut
- Presence of a parasite in the gut
- Gastroparesis – delayed stomach emptying, often due to nervous system irritation (vagus nerve)
- Insufficient digestive enzymes to break down carbohydrates, proteins and fats
- Disaccharide intolerance – lactase, sucrose, maltase deficiencies due to leaky gut
- Heightened sensory activity and high oral sensitivity – they will hate the crunch factor and go for smooth, melt in the mouth textures like bland carbohydrates
- Pyrroles – a genetic disorder that results in an overproduction of HPL. The HPL binds zinc and B6 preventing their use by the body and causing excretion in the urine and hair. This changes the way kids perceived and taste food. We conduct a lot of pyrrole testing in clinic so please contact us to organise it.
- Nutritional deficiencies – zinc and iron are the most common
- Fear – genuinely feel panic with a new food. Food neophobia is made worse as it triggers a heightened state of anxiety, which suppresses appetite.
- Cognitive function improves at around two years of age – they may associate how a food looks with something they find yucky
- Outgoing temperaments are more open to trying new foods
- Shy temperaments are more likely to be wary of new foods
- Lack of family meal times – monkey see monkey do
- Lack of education around why a food is good for you and positive discussion around these benefits e.g. makes you jump higher than an gymnast
- Poor modelling by other family members
Research shows that putting pressure on children to eat has negative outcome. For children who are fussy, ‘repeated exposure’, where you offer the food repeatedly without the pressure to eat it, is really important. Over time, that child will typically begin to accept the food.
SOS therapy starts super slow, e.g. just have the food in the same room as the child, and then over weeks this exposure therapy gradually makes its way on to their plate.
Sensory exposure uses food in an engaging way, other than eating. Get messy with the food, it’s about getting familiar with it e.g. broccoli as a paintbrush
Key Take Away
Research consistently shows the best and most successful combination is frequent exposure in a calm environment. Don’t make a big deal if they refuse, just remove it and try again another time