Post No.: 0573
Fussy eating is quite normal for young children – the peak age is 3 years old but most children will grow out of the neophobia (in this context, the fear of trying new foods) by around 5 or 6.
One hypothesis as to why young children are naturally fussy eaters and will only eat foods that are known to them is because it’s a defence mechanism against poisons. If so, the logical solution is to therefore gradually make more foods known to them.
Vegetables like broccoli and sprouts are bitter tasting, and bitterness is instinctively associated with things that make one’s tummy ill, hence why it tends to be green vegetables that are disliked. These innate instincts are erroneous to assume that all bitter foods are harmful though because science tells us that green leafy vegetables aren’t just safe but are very healthy for us. But we can learn through experience to adapt and refine these crude instincts.
Another similar reason suggested is that it’s not really because of their age as to why young children are fussy – it’s simply because their experiences of reliably tried-and-tested safe foods is too narrow, and this would be true for anyone regardless of their age. In other words, it’s really about the lack of experiences with lots of different foods, for which having a lack of experience is logically more likely the younger someone is.
For an older fussy eater, it can get progressively harder to break out of a food fear or habit that has persisted for some time; as with any other kind of fear or habit. This explains why it’s vital for children to be persistently and gradually exposed to lots of different safe and healthy foods. See Post No.: 0105 – it’s a learning process and it can take 10 or more attempts before a child accepts that something is safe.
And who says that children only want to eat chips, nuggets, burgers or pizzas? Once they’re onto solid foods, they can consume anything that an adult can (except for alcohol and other recreational drugs of course). But especially concentrate on repeatedly serving those bitter but healthy and unprocessed foods and drinks. They don’t need to be constantly given things like sweets to teach them that these things are safe because sweetness is instinctively desired and regarded as safe. This again highlights how crude innate instincts can be because refined sugars (which only existed more commonly in recent human history) aren’t healthy in large amounts yet they’re generally craved. Modern confectionery can also make sweetcorn or peas taste relatively not that sweet and therefore less appealing to children compared to refined sugar products. Sweet, unprocessed vegetables like the above also have different textures, smells, appearances and a bit of bitterness that children need to learn to like. So if you didn’t give your children any sweets at all, they’ll still highly likely grow up to find it no problem eating them, whilst this won’t likely be the case with vegetables.
We’re not talking about things that cause an individual allergies or physical intolerances – although there’s some research that shows that very slowly building up a tolerance is possible against some allergens, like peanuts. But please seek professional medical advice before trying this.
These learning experiences must also be happy and positive – so make sure that mealtimes are situated in a pleasant environment and are positive experiences. Positively reward and reinforce their behaviour roughly every time they take a step closer towards swallowing a piece of vegetable. Certainly don’t make the dinner table a battleground where you’re constantly trying to force food into them or bark at them to get them to eat their greens! That’s where a lot of parents make mistakes when their children aren’t eating what they’re served; and instead of turning them into less fussy eaters, they’re turning them into more fussy eaters in the long run despite their intentions. Those vegetables – and possibly even eating in general – are going to become associated with bad, lasting memories.
Don’t give them any snacks through the day if they repeatedly fail to eat their dinner. And don’t use snacks as a bribe to get them to eat their dinner because they may save their stomachs for those snacks and remain as fussy eaters. They’ll associate those snacks as the ‘prizes’ and the proper meals as the ‘punishments’.
Just one acutely bad experience with a particular foodstuff e.g. due to food poisoning, can also make a person averse to that foodstuff for a very long time. But once more this can be overcome through small but gradually increasing safe exposures to it again under pleasant and positive environments. It’s like getting back on your bicycle again after a hard fall, which is also better to do as soon as you sensibly can.
A minority of fussy eaters, however, have ‘avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder’, or ARFID. These people might wish to avoid certain textures, smells, appearances, temperatures and/or tastes, and worry about the consequences of consuming certain foods. They have a limited number of what they deem as ‘safe foods’, and more specifically they tend to only like, perhaps, one particular kind of crisps, one particular type of pizza topping, or even one particular brand of sausage. They may also have a low interest in eating in general thus restrict the total amount of food they consume.
It’s unknown what causes it – genes, the environment, parenting? It’s also unknown why it’s – not always but commonly – (beige) junk food that’s preferred. (What did a kid with ARFID consider as a ‘safe food’ 2,000 years ago, before modern processed stuff was invented? Or did the condition simply not exist back then?) Scurvy and other conditions related to malnutrition – in terms of not getting enough of the right vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin A (for eyes), C (for gums) and D (for bones), and iron (for blood) – have risen slightly in the ‘developed’ world because some children are exclusively eating junk food.
Now ARFID doesn’t apply to all cases of fussy eating. It’s like thyroid disorders do exist but it doesn’t explain the majority of obesity cases. But the good news for those who do have it is that a diagnosis can lead to receiving the right help, and like other anxieties or phobias, it can be largely overcome with therapy.
And we can see that these therapies emulate the appropriate parenting style for a child regardless of whether they have or develop ARFID or not – such as creating a stress-free, happy, comfortable and positive environment around mealtimes; and slowly, gradually, persistently and patiently exposing children to new foods. However, some with ARFID might additionally need some talking therapies, a focused dietary plan to correct nutritional deficiencies, and help to get them comfortable with eating in front of others.
For many people in the ‘developed’ world, food isn’t just about fuel but involves enormous psychological factors e.g. eating due to boredom, habit when watching TV, a lack of variety, how something looks, tastes and where it comes from. But in the ‘developing’ world, people are less likely to be fussy eaters (except for religious reasons if that’s counted). If one is always hungry, one cannot afford to be fussy, and this even includes for ethical reasons like forgoing meat if available. One can therefore be a fussy or picky eater yet also obese. People need to find alternative psychological pleasures through being grateful for having enough to eat in itself by better understanding and appreciating how their food is grown or produced.
Many kids who are brought up on added-sugar drinks find plain, unflavoured milk boring, for instance, when poor kids around the world would love to be able to drink plain milk every day! We mightn’t think we’re spoilt until we compare ourselves to those who are far less well-off than us. I understand that, if given a choice, flavoured milk may be relatively more appealing than plain milk – but why must we expect to have our favourite every time? If we had Christmas dinner every day then it wouldn’t be special anymore. Poor kids around the world get served lots of stuff that isn’t that delicious – but they must eat it anyway e.g. tarantulas. Rejecting food, when hungry, that’s been properly prepared to be safe and edible is a sign of privilege. We’ve also got to understand or remember that obesity crises are mainly ‘developed’ world problems, and ‘developed’ countries aren’t poor (although poor families can still exist in them).
Having a small comfort zone in any context (so this includes things like only wanting to stay in posh hotels) is a major disadvantage when it comes to surviving in tough environments. Hence being able to survive whilst being picky is arguably an indication of how easy one’s life actually is. But it’s a fragile existence to be only able to cope in the narrowest range of environmental conditions. It’s like exercise – someone who has trained him/herself to be able to cope with lifting 125kg weights is also going to be able to cope with lifting something less; but someone who can only cope with something less isn’t going to be able to cope with something more. And this will reflect in their general self-confidence too.
Parents can sometimes be over-protective to the degree that they won’t allow their children to push themselves or take small, manageable risks too. This will do them no favours. There’s a massive difference between putting a child in harms way and simply challenging them to prove that you believe in them.
Of course, most fussy eaters aren’t proud about being so, and would love to be less fearful of unfamiliar foods. But there are also many who don’t believe they are fussy but are, and they’re bad for the environment because they tend to waste a lot of food – you can take the gherkins out of the burger if you don’t think the flavours are balanced correctly with it, but do eat them up separately afterwards rather than throw them away. (And that’s not just the dog in me saying that – woof woof!) Under critical thinking, if something’s nutritiously healthy and hygienic (what else should we have evolved to eat?) yet we find it disgusting then something’s wrong about us because there’s nothing’s wrong with the food!
There are many adults here who kind of expect a medal for doing something that adults in other parts of the world think ‘so what?’ to e.g. not wasting the offal (if one otherwise eats other parts of that animal), eating a properly prepared insect, or even a mushroom or clove of garlic, or walking for 2 miles. We quickly get used to lower standards, even after just one generation.
Having said that, we shouldn’t be too concerned about what others do – as long as you do your best, and then try to improve on it every next time, then you’ll eventually achieve something great by most people’s standards. Be neither bigheaded towards others nor harsh on yourself.
Any problem, whether the early signs of obesity, anorexia or fussy eating, is easiest and best tackled as early as possible, with the right support and education. (Overweight children who are still growing don’t need to lose weight but should ‘grow into their weight’ – yet this still requires conscientiously managing their diet to change their trajectory and ensure they don’t keep piling on weight at an unhealthy rate i.e. it doesn’t mean ‘carry on obliviously’ and ‘cross your fingers’.) The longer a habit goes on, the more entrenched it becomes and the harder it’ll generally be to modify. It’s another reason why good habits are best instilled from young. The effects of a good/well-informed upbringing, or a bad/ill-informed one, can last for a long time.
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