So you’ve decided that now is the time to take control of your family’s health. You’ve decided to make more time to try new foods and prepare family meals. You’re ready for some change and excited to make it happen.
You cook a fantastic meal with new foods from the market, excited to share in a culinary adventure with your family and nourish their little bodies.
But then reality hits.
“I don’t like this”
Maybe there are tears. Full plates go into the compost (or on the floor). Pouts. Sneers.
Thirty minutes later it’s, “Mama, I’m hungry”.
You’re certainly not alone if you have a child who is a picky eater. But here’s the thing. You are trying to do the right thing. You are trying your darndest to feed your kids healthy, nourishing food. And I want to motivate you to keep on doing that.
Instead of caving and cracking out the kids meal because "my gosh they have to eat something", let me help you do what parents in our community are learning to do every day – apply an understanding of the body to look under the hood and see what the problem actually is.
I want you to take a deep breath, look at your child with curiosity and compassion and let’s discover what is driving this picky eating behaviour in order to uproot it from the inside.
When I help families shift picky eating behaviour I focus them in on three potential driving forces.
In some cases there is a fourth factor that has to do with oral motor control or phobias but those things often get a heck of a lot better once the three factors I listed are addressed.
Most of what you'll read about resolving picky eating focuses in on driving force #3. Your child is trying to assert some control, gain some power, engage in a battle that they can, honestly, usually win (unless you're ready to pin them down and force feed them, which most of us will stop short of!)
True, this can be part of the picture for some kids. And if that's the case, the "just keep offering, they'll eat when they're full" approach that is often recommended is likely to work just fine within a few weeks (or months) of you holding your ground.
But if you've given that approach a good solid try (and I mean you've really stuck to it and have been consistent, the way I talk about doing in my Practical Parent's Guide For Feeding Picky Eaters e-course and in my book) and if that's still not working, there might be something else going on.
The other two driving forces in that list above are potential biological contributors to your child's behaviour... things going on deep inside that make them behave the way they're behaving.
You can learn about the other two in this handy-dandy info graphic. Put it on your fridge to remind yourself that your kids are not, in fact, trying to drive you around the bend. They are reacting to something.
But back to driving force #1 - nutrient deficiencies that can contribute to picky eating behaviour.
Zinc is involved in over 300 chemical reactions in the body. It is involved in immune function, cell synthesis, skin and wound healing, enzyme production, and, most significantly to this discussion, taste and digestion.
Studies have shown a relationship between low zinc status and reduced sense of taste and smell. This is probably because zinc is needed for the production of salivary enzymes and is also needed to maintain healthy taste buds.
What do unhealthy taste buds, low salivary enzymes, and poor sense of taste and smell look like? Selective eating behaviour.
Zinc is also needed for the proper secretion of stomach acid, low levels of which can reduce appetite and interfere with protein digestion specifically.
Long term zinc deficiency can also affect the central nervous system so profoundly that perception is completely altered. In this respect high dose zinc supplementation has even been used in the treatment of anorexia nervosa, when a person’s perception of their body and its nutritional requirements does not match the actual reality.
Here are some other signs of zinc deficiency. If your picky eater has any of these as well, consider a low dose zinc supplement as part of your picky eating strategic plan:
Short term supplementation with a low dose of zinc is generally quite safe if your child is otherwise healthy, though as always you’ll want to consult with your health team to make sure it’s appropriate.
If you have not yet tested your child’s serum or plasma zinc status, try a low dose of 5-15mg of zinc for one month to see if it helps. You can get this in a liquid solution or in the form of a lozenge (see my recommendations here if you are in Canada).
Larger doses and extended supplementation can disrupt iron and copper levels so you don’t want to go overboard without getting tests done.
B12 and B1 (also called Cobalamin and Thiamin, respectively) are both involved in metabolism and nervous system function and, as such, can influence appetite and satiety.
The use of B vitamins to regulate appetite is somewhat controversial. Whereas older studies suggest there is a link, more recent studies have failed to isolate them as significant factors.
I have, however, seen significant improvements in children’s appetites when we supplement with B vitamins. I suspect this is because of their widespread effect on body function, particularly on nervous system and metabolism regulation.
As you increase metabolic rate you burn more energy and this can result in increased appetite. Interestingly, thiamin deficiency can cause both reduced appetite and increased appetite because of its effect on the satiety centre of the brain.
Your child might be deficient in Bs if...
Some common symptoms of B12 deficiency are:
Some signs of thiamine deficiency include:
If your child’s picky eating includes any of these symptoms and you can not get enough B vitamins in them via whole foods like whole grains, beans, nuts, and meat, you can try a low dose supplement to see if it helps resolve their picky behaviour.
As with zinc, a short trial of B vitamins is quite safe though you don’t want to do it for too long without consulting your health care team. Excessive Bs can cause symptoms like irritability, nervousness, and anxiety so if you see that, stop the supplementation.
If your picky eater is particularly avoiding meat or have any of the symptoms listed below, low stomach acid might be part of the picture. Vitamin C in the form of ascorbic acid can help maintain sufficient acidity in the stomach and help resolve the picky eating.
Other signs that stomach acid might be low are:
As with the others listed here, supplementing with a bit of vitamin C is quite safe, as it is a water soluble vitamin. If using a vitamin C supplement to improve stomach acid level choose an ascorbic acid that is not buffered as this buffering negates the acidifying effects in the stomach. 15-25mg a day of vitamin C is plenty for a trial. If it causes any discomfort or diarrhea, stop.
Picky eating can throw kids into a vicious cycle of nutrient deficiency. They don’t eat, they become nutrient deficient, their appetite is reduced, they become more deficient, so they are not hungry (or maybe they are but they just don't want to eat)... on and on it goes.
It can be extremely confusing and frustrating to you, it can be extremely frustrating and confusing to your child. There are likely to be tears all around!
If these suggestions don’t help, you might need to explore whether one of the other factors mentioned at the top of this article is a big player in your case.
Your child’s picky behaviour might be due to
Figuring out the root issue is the key to keeping your sanity intact.
Neurobiology of Zinc-Influenced Eating Behavior , The American Society for Nutritional Sciences, 2000
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Jess is a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition® Practitioner, Registered Holistic Nutritionist™ and Family Health Educator specializing in brain health & resilience for kids. She is the author of Raising Resilience: Take the stress out of feeding your family & love your life, and the creator of The Resilience Roadmap™ - a systematic process to help parents help their kids feel and function better. Her book and online resources have helped families in 44 countries improve the lives of their children with learning differences, anxiety, ADHD, autism and mood disorders by helping them find hidden stressors and fit the food and feeding piece into their health puzzles. She is the 2019 recipient of the CSNNAA award for Clinical Excellence for her work helping families get healthier, and she continues to bring an understanding of the power of good nutrition to the mainstream conversation about children’s mental health, learning, and overall resilience through her blog, courses and as a contributor to print and online magazines. You can reach Jess at www.jesssherman.com
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