If you have a fussy eating child you are probably very familiar with the common advice, much of which I have given myself over the years. You know for example that getting the children involved in cooking is important as is eating together. These are some of the many standard lines of encouragement and advice offered to parents these days. Whilst they are exactly right you may have followed all of the advice offered and yet your child still refuses to consume particular foods.

Have you thought there could be some physical or nutritional explanations for your child’s fussy eating? It’s certainly an area that I look at when child clients come into my nutrition clinic. Here I shall share with you the biochemical and physical explanations that I look for in my fussy eating clients.  

FREQUENT EAR INFECTIONS

It has been found that children who suffer from ear infections on a regular basis can experience damage to the nerve that communicates taste to the brain. This can result in those children preferring more processed foods, particularly those foods higher in trans-fats. Ref: Healthy Hearing ‘Obesity and Ear Infections In Kids: More Proof That We Are What We Eat’. 

As many ear infections appear to be linked to food allergy and intolerance it would be advisable to speak to a nutritional therapist to find out whether these may be causing your child’s recurrent ear infections. The most common allergens implicated in ear infection are cow’s milk and other dairy products, wheat, eggs, chocolate, citrus, corn, soy, peanuts or other nuts, shellfish, sugar, and yeast. Management of this condition may include elimination and rotation diets as well as addressing the underlying cause of the intolerance.

ZINC DEFICIENCY

Lack of zinc is very much linked to a loss of taste, smell and appetite. Therefore fussy eating can become a catch 22. A lack of variety can lead to zinc deficiency which in turn causes children to become more fussy due to a lack of taste, smell and appetite. Ref: Jing M-Y et al (2006) 

In order to address this you can increase the number and amount of zinc-rich foods in your child’s diet including pumpkin and sunflower seeds. Try this pancake recipe for boosting their zinc levels:

Oat and Seed Pancakes
Ingredients:
15g linseeds/flaxseeds
40g pumpkin and sunflower seeds
60g oats (can use gluten free oats)
200g oat milk/almond milk/coconut milk (carton not tin)
2 large eggs
Pinch of salt
Butter (or coconut oil)

Instructions:
Whizz both seeds and oats in your food processor to a powder.
Add the other ingredients and process or stir to combine.
Heat 1 tbsp butter in a frying pan. Once hot pour the excess into a cup.
Place about 2 tbsp of batter into the pan. Tip pan to flatten out.
Once bubbling in the centre turn and cook on the other side.
Use more butter (including excess (poured off) butter as required.
Makes about 8 pancakes.

Beef and seafood are also good sources of zinc so be sure to add these to curries, casseroles, chowders, and soups.

You can also supplement zinc. Most decent multivitamins contain a sufficient level. I recommend a couple of multivitamins:

Dr Mercola Chewable Multivitamin*

Biocare Complete Complex Powder *(for younger children i.e. from 6 months)

*I recommend an online dispensary for supplements called The Natural Dispensary. They are extremely efficient and provide excellent customer service. You do need to set up an account with them but once you’ve done that you can order and reorder supplements at the click of a button.

AUTISTIC SPECTRUM

Many children on the autistic spectrum also suffer from hypersensitivity and food selectivity. This means they prefer certain colours, certain smells or they judge the food simply by the way it looks. Some experience mouth hypersensitivity too. An example of this is chewing their school jumper but this can of course also contribute to food fussiness too. Ref: Cermak SA et al (2009) 

There are multiple dietary interventions that may improve symptoms of autism related to fussy eating in particular. An initial focus on improving digestion can help as autistic children are often found to have bowel irregularities. Furthermore a focus on nutritional status, from essential fats to vitamins and minerals can help as can improving blood sugar balance.

DIGESTION

Physical digestion issues such as colic, reflux and constipation may result in children associating certain foods with pain and discomfort. This, in turn, makes them less likely to go for these foods.

Gut bacteria imbalance – for a multitude of reasons children can be born with or develop imbalances in their gut bacteria that lead them to crave certain foods, in particular sugars and carbohydrate foods. Factors including birth experience (C-section babies tend to have less diverse bacteria), breast feeding and overuse of antibiotics can all affect the bacterial balance of a child’s gut.

Low stomach acid can lead to pain and bloating. Stomach acid helps break down and digest proteins. If stomach acid is low then protein foods may hang around in the gut for too long. Your child may associate this with protein rich food and stop eating it. Protein is essential for maintenance, growth, mood and movement.

Improving digestion means focussing on more suitable (more easily digested) foods. Food intolerance can cause constipation for example though finding out the intolerant food before elimination can be hard. It is probably best achieved with the help of a nutritional therapist. The inclusion of probiotic and prebiotic foods in the diet is for consideration but be careful how many new foods you introduce at a time especially if there are some digestive issues.   Too many prebiotic and probiotic foods at once might cause more digestive issues by encouraging ‘bad’ bacteria to thrive too. You can help low stomach acid by including in the diet some apple cider vinegar* on salad dressings and vegetables. Papaya and pineapple also contain digestive enzymes, which will help breakdown proteins. If your child is not keen on these fruits you can buy concentrated enzyme stickpacks called Caricol* which can be used directly after a meal to aid digestion.

Furthermore whilst staying hydrated throughout the day is very important, especially for children who struggle with this due to lessons and other activities throughout the day, large glasses of water at mealtimes can dilute stomach acid making protein digestion harder for the body.

FOOD INTOLERANCE

If a child is intolerant to a food they may not be digesting it well. The curious thing about food intolerances is that they can become more of a problem as the body craves the intolerant food. When food particles leak out of the digestive tract and into the bloodstream children may experience a positive feeling in the short-term. This is then followed by feeling much worse as the body’s immune system kicks in. However cravings for the intolerant food may lead to overeating that food.

Furthermore, if there’s an overgrowth of yeast (generally discovered via stool testing) that can also lead to craving sweet foods and carbohydrates.

It’s best to work with a professional to identify what the food intolerances are that are causing problems. Once these have been identified then a healthy and nutritionally balanced diet can be created to meet the health demands and fit the taste preferences of the child.

FOOD ADDITIVE ADDICTION

Certain chemicals are added to foods for a variety of reasons from mouthfeel to preservation. Some chemicals like MSG, can become addictive. This is why some children can have very limited choices and often prefer ready meals and fast food to real food.

To try and combat this try making home-made versions of their favourite fast-food, ideally together if possible.

If any of these possible issues has brought up more questions than answers then do email me jenny@lunchboxdoctor.com