The Picky Eater Survival Manual

Is your child's picky eating driving you up a wall? It may be related to his ADHD. Read up on simple strategies you can use to get him to eat up.

A child with ADHD who suffers from picky eating, feeding broccoli to the dog


Picky eating can be an aspect of one’s unique wiring, but it may be a part of a larger condition:

> AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDERS: Children on the autistic spectrum often show high levels of sensory defensiveness, problems with oral-motor coordination (which eating can place stress on), and are wedded to stereotyped routines and a need for sameness.

> ANOREXIA NERVOSA: Picky eating can be an early sign of anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder characterized by food restriction, a fear of fatness, or a high need for control.

> OBSESSIVE-COMPULSIVE DISORDER: A child with this condition may avoid certain foods for fear of contamination.

> ANXIETY DISORDERS: Picky eating may be due to phobias or other anxiety disorders. The fear of vomiting or gagging, social anxiety over the thought of a food making one burp or pass gas, or a phobic response to a food that has been linked to a threat can result in idiosyncratic, picky eating.


Does your young child turn up his nose at just about every meal you offer him? Lack of interest in food can turn households into war zones. “Why won’t you eat it? I made it the way you told me you liked it,” says Mom. “I don’t like it,” says the child, as he pushes it away.

Such battles are common in homes where young children have been diagnosed with ADHD. There are several links between attention deficit and picky eating:

> Studies have shown that ADHD children, whose brains show low levels of dopamine activity, are more predisposed to crave sugar, due to the surge of dopamine that sugar delivers to the brain. A child may push away many nutritious foods, such as vegetables and fish, since they do not deliver the sugar that the ADHD brain craves.

> Kids with ADHD can also exhibit sensory defensiveness and/or have some of the motor challenges that are seen in autism spectrum disorders. Picky eaters usually have high levels of sensory defensiveness. A certain taste, smell, or the look of food can make these children feel as if the sensory experience is “hurting” them. The sense can be so overwhelming that they are literally repulsed, panicked, or sickened by exposure to it.

> Researchers at Duke University found a high correlation between selective eating problems and ADHD.

Triggers for Picky Eating

Picky eating is common in younger kids. However, most children outgrow the habit and develop an appetite for a wider range of foods. The children who do not outgrow picky eating, or who start off with limited food options, are worrisome to parents. Research shows that many children who are picky eaters have parents who are, or were, picky eaters, suggesting both genetic and environmental contributors. Lack of experience early on with a variety of tastes, textures, and smells can lead to picky eating later in life.

When your child says that something doesn’t taste “right” or “good,” he may be telling the truth. We are all wired differently in what appeals to our senses and palate. It may be that picky eaters represent a population of children who are hypersensitive to certain aspects of eating. For example, one study found that middle-ear infections (which ADHD children are prone to) make cruciferous vegetables, like cauliflower, cabbage, and broccoli, taste bitter to some children. Such infections can damage the nerve that carries taste information from the tongue to the brain.


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TAGS: ADHD Diet and Nutrition, ADHD-Friendly Meals

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