What Food Sensitivities Might Mean in the Grand Scheme of Things

This morning, I saw a post in my Facebook feed about yesterday’s article by Rachel Rabkin Peachman in Motherlode (NY Times) titled “Picky Eating in Children Linked to Anxiety, Depression and A.D.H.D.”  This was not the only article that was motivated by yesterday’s Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics article titled “Psychological and Psychosocial Impairment in Preschoolers With Selective Eating” in which Nancy Zucker, Ph.D., eating disorders specialist, and associate professor, psychology and neuroscience, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, N.C. shares her findings.  There was also a Medline Plus article yesterday titled “Severe ‘Picky Eating’ May Point to Mental health Issues in Kids” and Wall Street Journal article by Sumanthi Reddy titled “What Picky Eating Might Mean for Children Later.” I know this isn’t about postpartum depression (PPD), but as I’ve said before, PPD has its roots earlier in life, which is why I choose to blog about and spread awareness about those roots.  I also want to tackle feelings of guilt and shame felt by mothers over things like picky eaters and food sensitivities. For example, a kid may have food sensitivities that are biological in nature, so there is absolutely zero reason for a mother to feel guilt/shame over the situation.  Sure, you should do what you can to introduce new foods slowly over time (remember, do all things in moderation and you can’t go wrong), but forcing a child to eat something when he is hell bent against it will not help matters one bit.  The approach of “If a child refuses to eat, don’t give him anything to eat and send him to his room; he’ll eat whatever you give him if he is hungry enough” is not the way to go at all, IMO. Dr. Zucker has also indicated that having kids eat processed foods (like chicken nuggets….either the frozen variety or the McDonald’s variety) should not alarm or cause parents to feel guilt/shame, since consistency in texture and taste is important to a child who might be tentative/uncertain overall and especially when it comes to eating.  Some experience sensory overload and become overwhelmed easily when it comes to taking in everything via their senses of smell, vision, hearing….and taste.   These kids have difficulty processing all the stimuli around them and go on sensory overload.  Chicken nuggets aren’t like broccoli.  They’re not bitter little tree lookalikes with little “leaves” and mushy in some cases, hard to chew in other cases, depending on how they are cooked or how fresh they are. In the Medline article, Dr. Zucker states:

They have a stronger sensitivity to the world outside and to how their body feels. That sets them up to have more vivid experiences — more intense food experiences, more intense emotional experiences. None of that is pathological, but it could be a vulnerability for later problems.

You may want to ask yourself whether you are a picky eater (and if so, whether you are also hypersensitive to smell, noise, visual cues and oral textures).  Here are the results of my self examination:

  • Picky eater?  check (for my daughter, not sure if I was once a picky eater, but I don’t believe I am that picky.  I won’t eat everything, and I think that’s absolutely normal)
  • Hypersensitive to smell? check for me (I can smell things that have caused people to liken me to a canine)
  • Hypersensitive to noise? check (I can hear things that have caused people to liken me to a canine; high-pitched grinding of subways to a halt, subtle background noises at work that all my co-workers don’t hear/tune out yet are highly distracting and irritating to me)
  • Hypersensitive to visual cues? check (for my daughter; whereas, I have extremely myopic vision, so I can’t say this applies to me; my sense of smell and hearing more than make up my lack of vision)
  • Hypersensitive to oral textures? check (for my daughter; I’m not sure if I was like this as a kid)

While a distaste for broccoli is not indicative of an issue since it’s fairly common for kids to refuse to eat it (it’s like beer and some other drinks and foods that take a few tries before you acquire a taste for it), when food aversions and smells becomes too overwhelming for a child as to prevent him from being able to tolerate eating out altogether, that’s when you know you have a case of extreme sensitivity for which parents should seek professional help (as the study has found a greater likelihood of depression or social anxiety later in life).  When a child has a limited number of foods he/she likes and can tolerate being exposed to other foods without any issues, that’s when there is a moderate sensitivity to food.  Moderately picky eaters usually broaden their palate over time, much like my daughter is doing slowly but surely, much to my relief!  Some children have a limited diet due to physical reasons such as acid reflux, which is not easy to figure out when a baby experiences this (from drinking milk and then after an intro to solid foods).  It’s not like the baby can tell you that she has acid reflux or feels sick drinking or eating certain things.  Hence, the trial and error and much anxiety and concern that ensue….not fun in the least! From the Motherlode article:

[Picky] eaters are not simply stubborn or tyrannical children whose parents have given in to their culinary whims. Rather, the research reveals that picky eaters have a heightened sensitivity to the world that is innate. “Their sensory experience is more intense in the areas of taste, texture and visual cues. And their internal experience may be more intense, so they have stronger feelings,” said Dr. Zucker, who is also director of the Duke Center for Eating Disorders. “They’re sensitive kids who may be anxious or a little depressed; so cutting up fruits into funny shapes is not going to do the trick for these kids.”

Also:

“It is a reminder that food is not a stand-alone issue and that it plays a role in the big picture of development,” said Dr. Laura Jana, pediatrician at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and co-author of “Food Fights: Winning the nutritional challenges of parenthood armed with insight, humor, and a bottle of ketchup.” “How kids behave around food relates to how they interact with the world in general. It doesn’t surprise me that some kids who are really tentative around food might be really tentative in life.”

I am so glad the research was performed and results shared across major news outlets like the NY Times, Wall Street Journal, etc. and subsequently shared all over social media.  The information is very critical and can make a hugely beneficial impact to parents struggling with their kids’ tastes for food know when to get help versus when to chalk up as something kids will grow out of as their palates broaden and become “more sophisticated.”  Per the Motherlode article, approximately 20% of children are picky eaters, so you can see it’s a fairly common challenge faced by parents.  And per Dr. Zucker, there is a correlation between picky eating and mental health challenges down the road, like depression and/or anxiety.

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