If you read a lot online about kids and eating, you know that nearly every parenting website and mommy food blogger is talking about picky eating. We are too. Strategies to get reluctant kids to eat a variety of foods—plenty of vegetables in particular —is a very popular parenting topic among parents and experts these days. It’s more than understandable if your automatically think, ”yep, I’ve a picky eater too” when your kid acts “weird” around food. But not so fast. How would you know it’s not more serious? How do you know when your child needs professional help?
We might be quick to call kids “picky eaters” because they don’t like to try new foods and seemingly survive on little more than chicken nuggets and mac and cheese. True, most kids grow out of the tendency to limit their diet to a few favorite foods. But some don’t. They grow into adults who continue extreme selective eating. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association is proposing a new medical diagnosis for this condition called “Selective Eating Disorder” or SED. The risk in addition to nutritional deficiencies include obesity and high blood pressure, as the foods extreme selective eaters prefer tend to be bland, processed and salty (the “beige” fare). Other abnormal eating habits may involve eating too little (e.g. anorexia nervosa) or eating excessively (e.g. binge eating or bulimia nervosa). The child’s physical and emotional health are in danger.
Where is the line between a picky eater and a child who might be beginning to develop a more serious disorder? We spoke to our nutritionist Lisa Lanzano, MS, RD to learn more. “It’s around the time when children become body conscious that eating behaviors begin to become disordered,” Lisa says. Especially for girls, this can be long before they actually enter puberty and their body is starting to change. “They start to try to control their body and their emotions,” our expert says.
Picky eating is such a common behavior in kids, parents might be slow to catch onto something seriously being wrong. You could miss the subtle symptoms of the early stages of an eating disorder. Lisa agrees. “Many of my clients with eating disorders say they are picky eaters as a way so they don’t have to eat foods they are scared of,” she says. A common symptom of abnormal behavior is the fear of fat. “Is your child fearful of getting fat or gaining weight?” is one of the first questions Lisa would ask. “That’s a classic sign of an eating disorder,” she explains. “Nobody wants to get fat, and nobody wants to gain weight, but it’s this being terrified of it. Having obsessive thoughts about your body and fat and what you are eating, that’s abnormal.”
Lisa says a nutrition or health professional would likely go over a series of questions with you to determine whether your child might be showing signs of an eating disorder. The questions below are just examples to give you an idea of what an expert would be looking for. Something-fishy.org is a great resource for more information and a comprehensive checklist, Lisa recommends. However, if you are alerted even the slightest bit by your child’s eating behavior, please talk to your pediatrician or a nutritionist as soon as possible!
Does your child…
- feel the need to be perfect in school, sports, etc.?
- have a hard time saying “no” to others?
- have trouble concentrating?
- prefer to eat alone (maybe disappears in her room with her plate)?
- sometimes eat large amounts of food in a frenzy of hunger?
- often compare her appearance to others and wishes she would be as pretty or thin as they are?
- insistently say he is fat although everyone tells him he is not?
- starve herself or eat excessively when she is sad or feels under pressure, maybe before a test in school?
- go through bouts of excessive exercise?