What Causes Picky Eating

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.

Awesome.

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.

Awesome.

But then reality hits.

Yuck”.

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”.

More tears.

“Hanger”

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.

Don’t let the behaviour of your kids interfere with the health goals you’ve set for you family.

Here’s what to do instead…

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.

  1. Nutrient deficiencies that interfere with hunger, appetite and satiety
  2. Poor digestive function that results in yeast overgrowth, cravings and food aversions
  3. Social factors like power struggles and anxiety

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.  

In this blog post I want to talk about driving force #1 on the list – nutrient deficiencies that reduce appetite, hunger and influence our senses. 

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.

Here are the most important nutrients that can contribute to picky eating:

Nutrient #1: Zinc

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:

  • low sense of taste and smell
  • acne
  • frequent infections (like lung or ear)
  • white flecks on the fingernails
  • cracking and soft fingernails
  • eyes very sensitive to sunlight
  • highly sensitive to sugar
  • regularly dry, cracked, chapped lips
  • not eating meat or aversion to protein rich foods

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.

Nutrient #2: B vitamins, especially B12 and B1

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...

  • they are vegetarian or vegan,
  • they have had stomach infections like H Pylori,
  • they have celiac disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Autism, pernicious anemia, folate deficiency or yeast overgrowth,
  • they have a high sugar diet,
  • they are under a great deal of stress
  • they have poor or sluggish pancreatic function (get this assessed by your naturopathic doctor)

Some common symptoms of B12 deficiency are:

  • slow growth,
  • numbness and tingling in arms and legs,
  • difficulty walking,
  • disorientation,
  • sore tongue,
  • constipation

Some signs of thiamine deficiency include:

  • Rapid weight loss
  • persistent diarrhea
  • fatigue
  • Irritability
  • apathy
  • depression

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.

Nutrient #3: Vitamin C

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:

  • B12 deficiency,
  • belching,
  • very bad breath,
  • reflux,
  • stinky sweat,
  • feeling sleepy after meals.

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.

Click Here To Download An Infographic That Can Help Get You Started

 

How to assess if nutrient deficiencies might be a contributing factor with your picky eater:

  • Take a look at your child's fingernails. Little white spots can indicate mineral deficiencies. If you see that your picky child has a lot of these, this nutritional support might be the fix you need.
  • Is your child exhausted? This is a common sign of B12 deficiency
  • Is your child a vegetarian or refusing meat? Zinc and B12 might be low. Assess if there are other sources of these nutrients in the diet.
  • Does your child avoid protein such as meat? She might have low stomach acid and therefore has a hard time digesting protein so it makes her feel uncomfortable - try extra vitamin C and zinc which help boost hydrochloric acid secretion. If she has low stomach acid she might also be low in iron and B12 which are prepared for digestion in the stomach.
  • Does your child’s immune system seem sluggish? He gets sick all the time and has a hard time getting over colds? He could need extra C and zinc
  • Has your child been diagnosed anemic? Look at iron, B12 and folic acid levels and also assess stomach acid
  • Was your child breastfed? If so, what was the mother’s mineral status while breastfeeding? If she was depleted, so was her breastmilk
  • Does your child suffer from constipation or diarrhea? Could indicate malabsorption and low B12

So, to summarize...what do you do with your picky eater? 

You address them with compassion and curiosity (I know it can be trying at times, but that's one of the central challenges of parenting!) and you try to figure out what is driving this behaviour. Then you match your resolution strategy to the cause. 

Your child’s picky behaviour might be due to

  1. Nutrient deficiencies that interfere with hunger, appetite and satiety
  2. Poor digestive function that results in yeast overgrowth, cravings, food aversions
  3. Social factors like power struggles and anxiety

 Figuring out the root issue is the key to keeping your sanity intact.

RESOURCES

Get the Picky Eating Infographic Here 

Learn About The Practical Parent's Guide to Feeding Picky Eaters e-course Here

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References:

Brown, K. & Wuehler, S., eds. 2000. Zinc and human health. Ottawa, Micronutrient Initiative.

Preventive effects of zinc sulfate on taste alterations in patients under irradiation for head and neck cancers: A randomized placebo-controlled trial, J Res Med Sci, 2013 

Double-blind, Placebo-controlled Trial of Zinc Picolinate for Taste Disorders, Acta Oto-Laryngologica2002

Neurobiology of Zinc-Influenced Eating Behavior , The American Society for Nutritional Sciences, 2000

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