Dr. Leah Alexander, M.D., F.A.A.P. began practicing pediatrics at Elizabeth Pediatric Group of New Jersey in 2000. She has been an independently contracted pediatrician with Medical Doctors Associates at Pediatricare Associates of New Jersey since 2005. After graduating from Kalamazoo College and Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, she completed her pediatric residency at Overlook and Morristown Memorial Hospitals. She is board certified in General Pediatrics. Outside of the field of medicine, she has an interest in culinary arts.
Mealtime is a way for families to connect via food and conversation. For some parents, however, thoughts of it are associated with a feeling of dread. Despite efforts to purchase or prepare a nutritious meal, their children are less than thrilled about the food on their plates. This can cause both angst for kids and frustration for parents. What is supposed to be a calm, enjoyable meal turns into an unwanted conflict: parental coaxing versus child food refusal. The end result is that the child is labeled a “picky eater.”
What Is A Picky Eater?
Because there are many types of picky eating behaviors, the concept has not been given a specific definition. Some children prefer a select group of foods, and reject others that were happily eaten during infancy. Other children will agree to eat a some options from each food group, but will refuse anything new that is introduced into the diet (source). Another subset of children dislike certain food textures, and, therefore, avoid such textured foods. In other cases, it may simply be the food’s appearance that is offensive, causing kids to avoid it or “pick it away” from other foods on the plate. The common factor, however, in all of these scenarios is parental concern about nutrient deficiencies and overall health. Despite this, many parents resort to a variety of tactics just to “get their child to eat something.” This may include preparing separate meals of what the child prefers, giving additional cups of milk, or offering one of the nutritional supplements currently available on the market.
The Causes of Picky Eating
Most parents begin to notice a change in their child’s eating habits during the toddler years. Discomfort from teething, testing of parental boundaries, and a desire to play instead of eat all have a role. Usually, this phase is temporary, and most children outgrow it by age three or four.
A few factors can contribute to persistent picky eating behaviors. When food type and variety are limited due to either household eating habits or food access issues, the child’s food palate develops in a limited way. This is particularly seen when sugary, high sodium, and high fat foods are regular components of the child’s diet (source). Peer group eating habits have an influence; if classmates are eating lots of chicken nuggets, pizza, and macaroni with cheese, these foods become more readily accepted. Parental reactions to picky eating also contribute to a child’s emotional response the food on his or her plate. Research has shown that negative pressure to eat undesired foods and the use of food rewards can exacerbate this problem (source).
What Effect Does Picky Eating Have On Overall Health?
When children have a limited diet, the total amount of food consumed is often below optimal. This has the potential to affect a child’s ultimate weight and height, such as what is seen in situations of food insecurity (source). The scientific data on the health effects of picky eating, however, has been inconsistent. One study that followed the growth parameters of children from the age of three to 17 concluded that, while growth remained above the 50th percentile, some of the study participants were underweight (source). Other children, however, were classified as overweight. Another study found that its cohort of children maintained normal weights despite their picky eating habits (source). More concerning health trends are noted, however, when evaluating the nutritional quality of the foods these kids select. In general, picky eater diets are low in protein and fiber. Avoidance of fruits, vegetables, and meats are common which contributes to deficiencies in micronutrients such as iron, zinc, selenium, and beta-carotene (source). Instead, low nutrient foods that are high in sugar, sodium, and unhealthy fats are the bulk of what is consumed. All of these factors can cause lower lean muscle mass, constipation, and an increased risk of adult chronic diseases.
While the picky eating problem cannot be solved with a simple solution, parents can still support their kids’ nutritional needs. Positive encouragement rather than negative consequences at mealtime can reduce the child’s emotionality when refusing foods (source). Continuing to offer a large variety of foods can make new foods seem “normal,” and increase their acceptance over time. Taking advantage of the “peer pressure” aspect of meals is helpful when other children at the table are eating the same healthy foods. Awareness of the times of day when a child is most hungry can promote more success in the acceptance of previously refused foods.
A Novel Way To Provide Nutrients
While working through the arduous process of encouraging better food choices, there is another way to help replace those missing micronutrients. Although some parents resort to giving a glass of cow’s milk when their children refuse to eat what is served, this is not the best remedy (source). Too much milk can exacerbate constipation and cause intestinal irritation, resulting in iron deficiency anemia (source). Other parents replace the uneaten meal with a sugary kid’s beverage. Fortunately, there is another, more nutrient dense option: ELSE.
ELSE is a unique nutritional beverage with protein sourced from almond butter and buckwheat. It contains a variety of vitamins and minerals that may be lacking in the diets of kids who are picky eaters. ELSE stands apart in that it is plant-based, non-GMO, and free of dairy, soy, and gluten. Unlike many of its competitors, it is high in fiber, something greatly lacking in the diets of picky eaters. Most importantly, ELSE is lower in sugar than other available options. As parents face the tough task of expanding limited palates, ELSE can help ensure that the right nutrients are provided along the way.The content and advice provided in this article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical diagnosis, treatment, advice for specific medical conditions. Always consult a pediatrician to understand the individual needs of your child.