It is important to point out, before you read, that whether there is a link between fussy eaters and mental health issues must be considered on a case by case basis. It is not true that picky eating is always indicative of a mental health issue but it is important to try to nip pickiness in the bud early on as selective eating deprives a child of the building blocks of good physical and mental health. A child is more likely to experience calm and rationale feelings if their diet provides suitable amounts of complex carbohydrates, essential fats, amino acids, vitamins and minerals and water (1).
Most children are generally good eaters up until the age of 2. At this point, as if over-night, they may become extremely fearful of foods, and especially trying new types which are treated with the utmost distrust. Evolutionally psychologists have linked this ‘fear of the new’ back to cave-dwelling times when children taking their first steps were faced with the temptation of potentially poisonous berries. Therefore, we can consider this mistrust of food as a protective mechanism. Though this is of little commiseration when your child is refusing the very food that you know to be healthy and nourishing.
So, some level of picky eating is to be expected and a child will often grow out of this. But when children are severely selective around food it may be a problem. A study published in August 2015 in the journal Pediatrics makes links between extreme fussiness and mental health issues (2). The study focused on over 900 children aged 2 to 5 in North Carolina. Researchers did in-home interviews with parents to assess the children’s eating behaviours and any mental health issues. In contrast to children who did not have selective eating tendencies, the study found that depression and social anxiety were at least twice as common in children with extreme pickiness.
Zucker, one of the researchers in this study, suggests that severe fussiness may be the first clue for parents that a child is experiencing anxiety or depression and that, if all other strategies have been tried, they may want to seek help from a mental health specialist.
It is important not to be panicked by such studies as often children use food likes to establish their identity from a young age. But if a child is cutting out major food groups the problem needs addressing carefully as for optimal health we need a wide range of nutrients. Additionally, the creation of strict rules around food may linger into later years (now labelled Selective Eating Disorder) if not addressed early on.
I understand the concern of parents with picky eaters as when my daughter reached her second birthday she decided that the only food type to pass her lips would be plain pasta eaten only using her fingers, and off the floor. As a nutritionist, with the fussiest eater I’d ever encountered I ventured into hours of studies on how to address the problem. With a calm and varied approach, eventually I successfully turned this around to the point where she will order pasta cooked in squid ink and served in a clam shell. Due to my own personal experience and from working on Child Obesity schemes where severe pickiness was rife, I developed my own ‘Taste Explorers’ Programme which aims to allow children to reach a fearless place with food by play, experimentation and peer group inclusion. I’ve taken this to schools and private workshops with plenty of success.
There are a variety of strategies that a parent can bring to the table when experiencing fussy eating. Trial and error is important as there is no one all-encompassing tactic to suit every child. For my daughter, it was a combination of on-going calm and patient exposure to healthy foods that won her over, plus the light-bulb moment when she tasted her first home grown cherry tomato which she’d been tending for weeks. There is something special about allowing a child to find the right moment however frustrated we may feel.
So what tips can I offer? I have lots of strategies up my sleeve. Come along to my Taste Explorers Workshop (see Events page) if you are local to Sussex, or book a 1-1 consultation. If you can’t make the event then call me to book your own.
Overall avoid the battleground. Aim to be a healthy eating role-model but don’t feel pressure to see this in your child immediately. Avoid shouting or getting angry this only leads to an association of ‘meals equal stress’.
Using the terms ‘fussy’ or ‘picky’ when discussing a child can soon lead to an expectation therefore try not to focus on fussiness vocally. Also, consider that exposure to healthy foods doesn’t mean the child has to eat it from the off-set. They may be making fruit kebabs for their Grandma or blitzing up a beetroot hummus for a parent. With no pressure to consume the foods they may well make their own choices and become a varied eater. It certainly worked for my daughter and for many others I have worked with.
Moderate pickiness is less concerning on a mental health level but can create a battleground for families which is frustrating and infectious to other siblings. Overall, remain calm and continue to introduce new foods whilst outwardly enjoying mealtimes yourself. Seeking external help with moderate fussy eaters from an experienced nutritionist can make the process easier and less long-lived. If your child is losing or gaining weight due to selective eating and if you feel you have tried everything but your child’s food repertoire is becoming progressively narrower and anxiety creeps in it’s important to get seek help from a GP who may refer to a Dietician.
2. Zucker et al, Psychological and Psychosocial Impairment in Preschoolers With Selective Eating, 2015, Pediatrics, http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2015/07/28/peds.2014-2386 D