With many parents experiencing the frustration of a child who simply won’t eat a variety of nutritious foods it’s time to talk about the reasons why and to find solutions.
In this blog I will be bringing together my nutrition knowledge and my experiences within my nutrition clinic to help you find some answers and some solutions to your child’s fussy eating.
It is possible that your child may be more fussy around food if there is a nutrient deficiency. Commonly, the two deficiencies most associated with food fussiness are Zinc and Iron. Low levels of zinc are associated with poorer taste and smell. If a child struggles to smell food they’re unlikely to find it appetising. In this situation you may find your child looking for food with stronger or more pronounced flavours and this could include more processed food and ready meals. If low iron levels are at play then you’d expect your child to be lacklustre, and pale. They might be less energetic than their peers and this might not be explained simply by insufficient sleep.
PROBLEM: Zinc or Iron Deficiency
SOLUTION: Foods rich in zinc include: fish, shellfish, meat, dark green leafy vegetables, mushrooms, eggs, seeds (especially pumpkin seeds), nuts and blackstrap molasses which is a useful sweetener for home-baked goods. Foods rich in iron include eggs, meat, poultry, legumes, dried fruit and dark green leafy vegetables. Don’t forget though that iron absorption can also be increased by combining foods rich in vitamin C with iron. A classic combination would be boiled eggs with soldiers then a tangerine.
If your child has a food intolerance you may be surprised to find out that whilst some food intolerances show up as an immediate reaction, most are delayed. This makes it hard to ascertain what the food intolerance may be. It is also important to note that whilst you may think a child with an intolerance would avoid the food to which they’re intolerant, in fact they may want and crave more of it. The intolerant food can have an almost opioid like effect on the brain making them want more of it even though it may be harming them to consume that ingredient.
PROBLEM: Possible food intolerance
SOLUTION: Work with a professional to review your child’s food diary and work out what foods are likely to be causing problems. If you cannot afford to do this then at the very least keep a food diary for your child and look for patterns of consumption relating to reactions and any particular cravings.
As we come to understand more about the gut we also understand how important the balance of bacteria in the gut is linked to overall health and wellbeing. A child with a microbial imbalance may, for example, crave yeast and sugar. An imbalance of bacteria in the gut can allow damage to the gut to occur which is also linked to food intolerance but can also be linked to both food intolerance and atopic disease such as asthma or eczema. Those born via c-section, those who were not exclusively breast-fed for the first 6 months and those who have been exposed to lots of antibiotics are all more likely to experience an imbalance of bacteria which can lead to food fusiness.
PROBLEM: Imbalanced gut bacteria
SOLUTION: Try to introduce some fermented foods to your child’s diet. Do this slowly as the new foods may overwhelm their system. Try Greek yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, unpasteurised cheeses. Also ensure your child is eating sufficient fibre so ensure they’re getting a range of fruit and vegetables in their diet as well as wholegrains. These help the balance of bacteria by providing fuel to the “good” bacteria. You may also want to look at probiotic supplementation using an age-appropriate brand and dosage.
Being unable to properly get rid of waste i.e. not being able to poo properly can not only cause distress to your child it can cause them to be hesitant to want to eat. More food could simply leave them feeling blocked up and uncomfortable.
SOLUTION: Get things moving by ensuring your child is drinking sufficient water. Of course food intolerances can also lead to constipation but we have addressed that above. Exercise can help get things moving too as can an appropriately named “flaxative” which is a combination of ground flaxseeds (approx 1 tbsp) and prune juice (4 tbsp) left to soak overnight and then consumed in one or two sittings the following day.
Try to make sure that your child is truly hungry and that they only eat when they are truly hungry rather than snack on foods that provide short term pleasure and serve the purpose of addressing mouth hunger only. The difference between tummy/stomach hunger (i.e. true hunger) and mouth hunger is that tummy/stomach hunger means your child is genuinely in nutritional need of food. Stomach hunger tends to be an instant craving for something sweet or crunchy i.e. a biscuit or crisps and is simply about seeking-pleasure from that food rather than nutritional need. Furthermore, true hunger may be rarely reached if a child has access to snacks close to meal times and/or drinks too much milk close to meal times.
PROBLEM: Child not truly hungry
SOLUTION: Help your child to recognise the difference between tummy hunger and mouth hunger. Try not to allow them to snack or drink too much milk close to meals.