- Picky eating can happen in children and adults and is defined as a lack of variety in a person’s diet due to rejection of both familiar and new foods.
- In severe cases, picky eating can impact nutritional status, weight, and mental health and may be a sign of something deeper, such as ARFID (avoidant restrictive food intake disorder).
- A registered dietitian nutritionist can help a picky eater by counseling the parent on mealtime strategies, identifying and treating nutritional deficiencies, and assisting with weight gain if necessary.
If you or your child have experienced picky eating, you know how stressful and upsetting meal times can be. Though many children go through a brief picky eating phase, in some cases, it can become severe or extend through adulthood.
There are healthcare professionals who can help people with picky eating, from registered dietitian nutritionists (RDN) to feeding therapists and psychologists.
Continue reading to learn more about how an RDN can help with picky eating and when to seek professional support.
What Is Picky Eating?
Picky eating, also known as selective eating, is a normal phase many children experience in which the child avoids eating both new and favorite foods. Picky eating often resolves on its own without intervention.
However, picky eating can sometimes become severe and begin to impact a person’s nutritional status, body weight, relationships, and quality of life.
Picky eating can also occur in adults who eat a limited variety of foods and struggle to try new foods. This can negatively impact a person’s social interactions and make it challenging to meet their nutritional needs.
Common Symptoms of Picky Eating
While picky eating symptoms are on a spectrum ranging from mild to severe, there are some common signs to be aware of:
- Rejecting familiar or favorite foods.
- Unwilling to try new foods.
- Low variety of foods in the diet.
- Dislike of fruits and vegetables.
- Strong preferences around food texture and preparation methods.
- Not engaged during meal times.
When picky eating becomes severe, it can start to impact physical and mental health. Picky eating has been linked with the following secondary symptoms:
- Inadequate intake of calories and nutrients.
- Slow growth or delayed development in children.
- Weight loss.
- Vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
- Chronic constipation.
- Increased family stress or social anxiety around eating.
Many risk factors can play a role in the development of picky eating. In most cases, a combination of factors leads to a child becoming a picky eater.
Some of these risk factors are “fixed,” meaning they can’t be changed:
- Genetic predisposition.
- Maternal smoking.
- Low birth weight of the infant.
- Sensory sensitivity in the child.
Others have to do with the parent-child interaction at meal times. Often, well-meaning parents pressure their child to eat out of fear they are not eating enough. However, this behavior is linked with increased picky eating.
In addition, waiting until after nine months of age to introduce lumpy foods to an infant is a predictor for picky eating. Prolonged feeding of pureed foods can make a baby more likely to reject foods with texture.
In some cases, picky eating can be caused by an underlying condition, such as:
- Difficulty swallowing or pain while swallowing.
- Gastrointestinal conditions.
- Eating disorders.
- Sensory processing disorder.
How Can A Nutritionist Help a Picky Eater?
There are many ways a registered dietitian nutritionist can help a picky eater. If you have concerns about picky eating in yourself or your child, working with an RDN is a great first step towards improving this behavior.
A dietitian can coach the parent on beneficial mealtime practices and provide ideas for boosting the nutritional content of the child’s diet while decreasing picky eating behaviors.
If you are an adult with picky eating, a dietitian can help you unpack your relationship with food and expand the variety of your diet.
In addition to this, your dietitian can help screen for the presence of an eating disorder. If your child is underweight, your dietitian will provide recommendations and tips for safe weight gain.
Get started with an online consultation with a dietitian through Nourish for support with picky eating in adults and children.
Benefits of Working With a Nutritionist For Picky Eating
Research shows that persistent picky eating as a child can become a concern that extends into adulthood. If you have concerns about your child’s picky eating, getting help from a registered dietitian early on can help improve their relationship with food and dietary variety as they get older.
If picky eating stems from an eating disorder or gastrointestinal condition, working with a dietitian specializing in these areas can help address underlying factors influencing picky eating.
A registered dietitian can also identify and manage nutritional deficiencies. Picky eaters tend to eat less whole grains, vegetables, and meat than other people and, as a result, are more likely to have inadequate intakes of important nutrients, like:
- Vitamin D.
Finding The Right Nutritionist
Finding a nutritionist who can help with picky eating starts with looking for the right credentials.
Registered dietitians (RDs or RDNs) are the most qualified to give nutritional advice due to the education and training required to earn the credential. Keep in mind that there are no standard requirements to become a nutritionist.
Next, consider any specialties you may want your dietitian to have. For example, if you seek help with picky eating for your child, you’ll want to find a pediatric dietitian.
If an eating disorder or gastrointestinal (GI) condition is at play, it can be helpful to see an eating disorder dietitian or GI dietitian, respectively.
Consider booking a consultation with a Nourish registered dietitian for convenient and evidence-based management of picky eating.
Nutrition Tips For Picky Eaters
For parents of picky eaters, the best thing you can do is to take the pressure off mealtimes. It’s your job to decide when and what is served, and it’s your child’s job to decide if and how much they eat.
Consider the following tips as you make changes to your mealtime routine:
- Sit down to eat with your child and model healthy eating.
- Avoid putting pressure on their eating, such as “just one more bite” or “finish your plate”
- Always include a safe food on the plate you know your child will accept.
- Your child may take up to 10 exposures to accept a new food.
For picky eater-friendly meal and snack ideas for adults and children, try our free seven-day picky eater meal plan.
When Is Picky Eating a Sign of Something More?
Picky eating can sometimes indicate an underlying medical condition requiring specific treatment. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns about severe picky eating.
A condition called ARFID (avoidant restrictive food intake disorder) can occur in cases of severe picky eating. Though it’s most common in children, ARFID can also happen in adults. This condition results in:
- Weight loss or lack of normal growth.
- Nutritional deficiencies.
- Dependence on oral nutritional supplements.
- Impaired psychological and social functioning.
Other underlying conditions may include feeding disorders or digestive conditions, like constipation or food intolerances.
Picky eating is common during childhood, but in some cases, it can become severe and carry into adulthood.
It’s characterized by a refusal of familiar and unfamiliar foods, an unwillingness to try new foods, and specific food texture preferences.
Though picky eating may feel challenging to overcome, there are strategies that parents can use to take the pressure off of eating and bring some fun to the table again.
However, in some cases, picky eating stems from an underlying condition such as ARFID, or avoidant restrictive food intake disorder.
How Nourish Can Help
You don’t need to live with picky eating forever.
Professional support from a registered dietitian can help you or your child recover from picky eating and learn to enjoy mealtimes again.
Frequently Asked Questions
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