Many children are picky eaters. This is part of normal development and is common around ages 2-3 years. In most cases, by the time the child is 6-7 years old, they naturally begin to expand their diet and eat a greater variety of foods. But sometimes this doesn’t happen, and children remain very picky and over time become even pickier, eliminating additional foods from their diet. when picky eating starts to create stress for your family, the children displaying selective eating habits might suffer from Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID).
Health implications for Picky Eaters
It’s common for children with ARFID to be restrictive in a variety of food, quantity, or both. Eating patterns like these can pose a big problem and may impact their health someday as they get older because they often fail to gain weight, become very thin, eat less than is required by their body’s nutritional needs and many of them don’t consume any nutritious food at all. As they grow into adulthood, psychosocial difficulties such as difficulties with friends, schoolwork, home life, and personal feelings of distress continue to have a negative impact on the mental health of these children.
Restricted eating is not driven by fear of gaining weight or a distorted body image. When children are driven by those notions, different eating disorders should be considered, including anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa.
There are three main ways that ARFID can present itself. The first way is a child becoming selective about what foods they want to eat, which is related to the sensory properties that the food displays based on the five senses. This may lead to a child being anxious about consuming certain foods if they’re concerned about differences in smell, colour or texture upon consumption of them.
Secondly, some children might be afraid that eating might lead to choking, vomiting or pain in their stomachs (which could be due to ulcers); this often leads to anxiety overeating of one type of food and unwillingness to try new foods, especially those that might have similar textures as foods they’ve found hard or even impossible to tolerate in the past.
Finally, some children just seem less interested in food than other kids are and/or lose their appetite because of all this stress. THis also happens when kids have overly busy schedules.
ARFID can lead to serious medical difficulties because the body is denied the essential nutrients it needs to function healthily. Picky eaters often have physical problems such as feeling tired, difficulty concentrating, irritability, constipation, abdominal pain, cold intolerance, sleep problems, or even impaired immune functioning to for example the common cold. In addition, picky eaters often worry throughout the day about what will be available for dinner or supper and often involve their parents long before the next mealtime. Such worrying might impact your child’s mood and cause feelings of anxiety and stress.
Even when a child’s weight and medical condition are not compromised, ARFID can lead to
complications in daily functioning. For example, a child with ARFID may limit their social life to avoid the distress of dealing with food in public. In many families, the ARFID is a constant source of conflict between family members and can lead to avoidance of family activities, trips, and vacations.
One example of a family with a Picky Eater was about the mom calling ahead to a fast-food chain to ensure that they keep a certain item in stock for the next day so that their child would not go into a tantrum once the food item was sold out. Another example was a couple who could not go do fun activities together because the child insisted that one parent make her favourite salad every day in exactly the same way. This child was convinced that nobody else could prepare this salad in the same way and would become hostile if another person even tried.
The STG SPACE-ARFID services for Picky Eaters are evidence-based and delivered through collaboration between an educator/counsellor, speech and language pathologist and registered dietician. The focus is on regulating eating-related stress at home. Learn more about Picky Eating, do a quiz, and download a cheat sheet to start managing your child’s picky eating behaviour.