By John Salak –
Even though just about everyone has seen it, there is no medical definition for “picky eating” among children and adolescents. But that doesn’t mean problem eaters aren’t at risk of suffering real physical and social development issues as a result of their eating issues. They are. Their parents and siblings can also face stressful consequences.
Of course, not everyone who is a picky eater as a child is likely to face a lifetime of related health issues, which is a good thing since some studies indicate that up to 60 percent of preschool children are picky eaters and perhaps 40 percent of children up to 11 or 12 years old remain so.
But some picky eaters may generate serious health issues that can have long-term effects on their wellbeing, according to the Pediatric Therapy Network.
Problem eaters usually have limited diets, which undercuts their ability to meet their nutritional needs. This can result in iron, calcium, zinc, and vitamin deficiencies that may open the sluices to later-life issues.
Near-term impacts can be serious as well. The network reports these eating problems can decrease and child’s energy and attention levels, undermine cognitive functions, weaken immune systems and increase the risk of weight struggles. If excessive amounts of bribes or reward foods, usually desserts and candy, are introduced to encourage eating, an abnormal number of dental issues may surface.
Stress also comes into play for the parents involved and their children. Two Australian universities recently stepped in to get a handle on the issue and how best to tackle the picky eating syndrome. Their basic conclusions: pressure, rewards and strict parenting tend to negatively influence fussy eaters. Conversely, a more relaxed parenting style, eating together as a family and getting young children involved in making meals are effective strategies to limit fussy eating.
Researchers from the University of South Australia and the University of Queensland identified a number of reasons children become fussy eaters. Stress or irregular eating routines contribute to the problem. In addition to taste issues, young children can also react negatively to certain food colors, smells and textures.
The problems are acerbated when there is more than one picky eater in a family, which means more mealtime juggling and stress.
“Some families have kids who turn their noses up at any vegetable. Others are dealing with kids who dislike certain textures or colors of food,” explained lead researcher Laine Chilman, a Ph.D. student at the University of South Australia. “Some of these preferences relate to a child’s characteristics or personality, which are difficult to change, if at all. But others are external factors that could help reduce fussy eating in kids.”
Stress can also contribute to fussy eating, according to researcher Dr. Ann Kennedy-Behr.
“When you have a child who is a picky eater, it’s very stressful for a parent or caregiver—they’re forever questioning whether their child is getting enough nutrients, enough food, and often enough weight gain,” she said. “Yet it’s important to understand that being overly anxious or worried can actually contribute to increased picky eating. Avoiding getting cross and limiting any negativity around mealtime will be benefit everyone.”
The Australian research team came up with its own way to battle picky eating, which besides reducing stress, eating together and getting children involved in meal making, includes setting regular mealtimes, turning off outside distractions such as TVs and cell phones during meals, and avoiding the use of rewards or bribes to encourage fussy eaters to munch what’s good for them.
Other groups and organizations offer other tactics as well, but they all note the need to keep mealtime a low-stress situation. Some also explained that as long as picky eaters are consuming some food from the four main food groups, which includes fruit and vegetables; potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and other starchy carbohydrates; dairy or dairy alternatives; and beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins, the chances of long-term health issues are minimal.
Other specific tactics from Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) include gradually introducing new foods to children while circling back to foods a child rejected earlier because their tastes change over time. Serve small portions and verbally praise children for eating new foods, even if it is only small amounts. Limit healthy snacks to twice daily so they are ready to eat at mealtime. Invite children who are healthy eaters or share a meal with picky eaters and change the way rejected foods are served. If cooked carrots are no good. Try shredded raw carrots.
“If your child rejects the food, do not force them to eat it. Just take the food away without saying anything. Try to stay calm, even if it’s very frustrating,” the NHS advised.