food

Narrow eating: the eating disorder that affects children as young as 5.

Parents of fussy eaters dream of their children eating mangoes, lasagne, yoghurt, cucumbers and even the occasional caramel donut when the chocolate ones have sold out. Our hearts break every time we prepare a food we think they will try.

Any pressure results in tears and tantrums until we give up. It’s just not worth it to go through all the drama just to try and get them to eat something different for once. So we stock up on all the foods we know they are willing to eat.

I first heard of the term “narrow eating” shortly after my son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Narrow eating is the medical term for those children whose fussy eating habits go beyond the usual assertions of control over their environment, their way of expressing their independence. It’s when a child can’t even bring themselves to try a new food, particularly those with an unfamiliar appearance or texture. It’s not just children with ASD who experience narrow eating, although they are more likely to have sensitivity issues like it.

Child psychologist Ian Wallace describes narrow eating as oral sensitivity or oral defensiveness and suggests it often extends to other sensitivities such as irritation from things like clothing, particular noises or smells.

Narrow eating is more serious than simple fussy eating. It's when a child can't even bring themselves to try a new food.

Children with narrow eating disorders are often incorrectly labelled fussy eaters, leading parents to enforce food rules that leaves children in very real distress at the prospect of having to eat certain types of food.

The cause of narrow eating is thought to be heightened perception through taste buds, or as Wallace explains, "their taste buds send too strong a perceptive message to the sensory processing are of the brain, such that their preceptive system hyper-perceives either the taste or texture of food. Thus, it would be like us eating yoghurt with a grain of sand in it, or us eating excessively over-spiced food and over-sweet food. To a child with ASD, their perception is very real and genuine. In contrast, they may like a really firm bite, e.g. the consistent firm texture of a raw carrot or the feel of white bread."

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I've tried for many years to improve my son's eating habits. As a toddler he ate everything. I remember the day I bought fresh sardines from the Fish Markets and marinaded them in olive oil, lemon, garlic, parsley and salt and then grilled them. He and I ate them all. He would eat peeled apples and chicken soup. As he got older his eating habits worsened. He started rejecting foods. Toasted cheese sandwiches had to be made with the same bread and the same cheese, cut in a certain way.

I can't imagine him eating anything other than toasted cheese sandwiches, plain pasta, meatballs, chocolate donuts, chocolate ice cream with chocolate sprinkles, pretzels, bananas and tuna. Always the same brands, never any variation allowed.

This very real issue of narrow eating affects more children than we realise and can only be diagnosed by a child behavioural psychologist.

Treatment is available for these children through specialised occupational therapists who are trained in sensory processing disorders. We start treatment next month. As part of Giovanni's assessment I had to write down what I want him to achieve and second on the list, after "I want him to have friends" is "I want him to eat different foods".

In the meantime, it's a relief to know there's a medical reason behind it all. I've learned to accept his limitations when he comes to food but remain hopeful that one day he'll manage to try a new food, with minimal distress.

Do you have a child who is a fussy eater?

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