Selective eating or fussiness is a common phenomenon among toddlers, children and even adults.
This may be a more serious situation than “I just can’t stand spinach”, and this may include toddlers or children who refuse food or meals altogether or limit, restrict or avoid total foods and food groups due to taste preference or anxieties. We explore causes and potential problems as well as some solutions.
WHY SHOULD WE BE CONCERNED ABOUT SELECTIVE EATING AND LIMITED FOOD INTAKE?
The main health concern in people with selective eating is risk of nutrient deficiencies, which happens quicker than we realise. It is very common for fussy eaters to suffer from brittle bones, iron deficiency and a poor immune system or mouth ulcers which can all be signs of nutritional deficiency. Poor dietary intake can also impact on the muscle mass, strength and energy levels of the individual. Furthermore, if it is a childhood problem, and is not dealt with, it can easily translate into an adult condition.
WHEN SHOULD WE GET CONCERNED ABOUT SELECTIVE EATING AND LIMITED FOOD INTAKE?
It is important to distinguish between when it is just a phase that will be overcome and when it is a rather serious situation that may need to be taken seriously and perhaps seek professional help. There are a few red flags to look out for:
- when less than 20 types of food are accepted
- when fear and anxiety is involved during eating or pertaining to food
- when entire food groups are rejected i.e. dairy products or meat or meat alternatives
- when it is causing stress and pressure in social situations
- when there are obvious signs of weight loss or nutritional deficiencies
HOW TO TACKLE SELECTIVE EATING
Put your mind at rest
Anxiety over food intake and health will only make the situation worse so try to avoid it. If you have concerns about your child or loved one’s health, growth or weight due to the selective eating, send them for a health check at your GP or speak to a dietitian. If it is a recent development, be assured that it might be a passing phase. Rely on a good multi-vitamin and mineral supplement that provides 100% of the recommended daily intake of most vitamins and minerals and make sure it is cost effective and age appropriate.
Keep a food diary
To get more information on the quality of the diet, keep a detailed food diary of everything that was consumed for a week. Be specific about quantities, times and brand names of products. Have it analysed by a registered dietitian who often has computer software that can provide a detailed analysis. This will tell you exactly which nutrients are deficient in the diet that may need attention.
Avoid the battles
To fight, argue and nag is going to heighten the anxiety and make the situation worse. Try and avoid confrontation about the issue. In the case of children, they often thrive on attention, even if it is negative attention. Often if the bad behaviour or food refusal is ignored and not acknowledged, they will try something else to gain attention and the phase shall pass. Also be sure to give positive feedback when food was eaten and praise good behaviour.
Avoid overcompensation and never force
Do not fall into the habit of offering anything “as long as they will eat something”. Children especially, will start to accept more food if you rely on their hunger signals and not give any food they might desire. The more it becomes a manipulation tool, the harder it will be. Force feeding is strongly discouraged and will aggravate the situation. Rather remove the offending food, without an issue, and offer it at a later stage, avoiding offering a preferred option. Do not use food as a bribe or reward.
Encourage frequent exposure
Research shows that a food type needs to be offered around 8 to 15 times before it will be accepted. Keep offering a wide variety of food consistently without pressure, but with positive encouragement.
Make meal times fun and relaxed
Sometimes you have to be creative and pull out all the stops to make meal times fun and pleasant. Have a food fight in the garden, involve your child in cooking and baking, and make interesting shapes and fun food presentation. Have meal times together as a family. Set a good example for your children.
About 20 – 30% of children have this issue at some point, so do not feel excluded or isolated if this is what is happening to you. If it becomes unmanageable, seek professional help before it all spirals out of control.