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Picky Eating and Eating Behavior

- by Holly Larson, RD

For most children, picky eating is a frustrating phase and a challenge to parents’ patience that will eventually resolve. For some children, the mealtime battle for control of the fork is an indicator of deeper issues. One recent study illuminated a connection between picky eating and depression.

What behavior is normal, and what may be an indicator of a an issue requiring an intervention? It is normal for children to choose fewer foods around the ages of two to three. Their taste buds are changing and they are expressing their independence. It is also normal for a child’s appetite to change throughout the day and week. Inconsistent eating is a common concern for parents because it is drastically different from predictable adult eating patterns. Keeping track of the child’s consumption over the course of the week will give parents a better sense of how the child is doing, as well as their growth trajectory as monitored by their pediatrician.

Causes for further investigation may include children who accept very few foods, such as only eating chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes, anxiety or tantrums when presented with any new foods or wanting a bottle or baby foods well beyond the usual limit. Note that “new” is a subjective concept: kids may need 10, 20 or even 50 exposures to a food before they no longer consider it new - long past the patience of many parents.

Eating and socialization are highly connected; problems at mealtime can inhibit a child’s sense of belonging. Issues in one area may inhibit development of the other. Correlation does not imply causation though and it may be impossible to know which came first: their anxiety and/or depression or their selective eating behavior.

A few points about the study are worth reviewing. Kids with autism were excluded from this study. The majority of children with autism have selective eating patterns including sensitivities to certain textures and limited foods or food groups.

We are, including our brain, body and neurotransmitters and microbiome, what we eat. With a limited diet, we are greater risk for nutrient deficiencies. Are the picky eaters not having diverse foods/microbiota and so at greater risk of depression/anxiety? This is an area that warrants further study.

Some children with selective eating will outgrow it. But for many, an intervention is necessary for that change to arrive. If you are concerned about your child’s eating, please make an appointment with your pediatrician and consider visiting your local Brain Balance Achievement Center.

As part of The Brain Balance Program, we offer our Balance 360 System, a proprietary, self-guided comprehensive nutrition program for students under the guidance the Brain Balance team of Nutrition Coaches. The Balance 360 System is a clean eating program that empowers families to nourish their child’s brain and body, to have their best experience at Brain Balance, and to tackle eating issues, including picky eating. 

For further reading:
Fearless Feeding by Jill Castle and Maryann Jacobsen
Just Take A Bite by Lori Ernsperger and Tania Stegen-Hanson
French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billion
Bringing up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman

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