Picky eating starts in most preschoolers as they learn that they don’t always agree with their parents. Picky eating almost always starts as a combination of asserting independence and ‘picky eating gut flora’.
Unfortunately most methods of parenting children that are picky eaters only address the behavior itself – but it’s just as important, and in many cases even more important, to address the gut flora as well.
The rampant junk food in our culture establishes ‘picky eating gut flora’ in our children as they are exposed to more and more sugar, starch, and artificial flavors in their diet.
This gut flora literally sends chemical signals to their brain, triggering cravings to sugars and starches, and aversions to delicious vegetables, healthy fats, and proteins.
Is picky eating is ruining your peaceful home?
Do you feel like you are consistent with parenting and providing healthy food with appropriate choices to your children, only to have them back into a corner and insist they only consume sugary or starchy foods like sweetened yogurt, chips, and bread?
Do you often shake your head, thinking of all the abundance we have in America, when your children refuse in favor of nutrient-void foods that are causing health problems in their bodies?
When does the survival instinct kick in?
When will their bodies realize that they can’t survive by refusing the healthy proteins, fats, and vegetables that we provide?
There are trillions of microorganisms in your child’s body making these decisions for your child
Our bodies contain trillions of bacteria cells. And the balance of bacteria in their body, especially their gut, plays a large part in dictating what they (and we) crave to eat. Healthy balanced bacteria craves a healthy balanced diet. An imbalance of pathogenic bacteria actually send signals through the bloodstream to the brain, which demand their preferred food – starch, sugar, and other carbohydrates.
Conventional methods for curing picky eating
- Offer healthy choices, be okay if they only eat apples for dinner even if it means they wake up at 11 pm hungry
- Allow them to eat what they want, as long as it’s fortified (like cereal)
- Let kids be kids and hope they grow out of it.
- Try to hide ‘healthy’ foods in food that they approve of.
- Educate them. Tell them why they need to eat a balanced diet.
- Outlast them – demand they eat what is serve, and continue serving it until it’s eaten
Are these methods of dealing with picky eating working for us?
Undoubtedly, they are not. They didn’t work when we were kids, and they’re not working now.
As a child of the 80s, I’ve seen a lot of my friends grow up picky. picky. picky. And then get sick. sick. sick. My peers struggle with eczema, infertility, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, anxiety, lethargy, digestive trouble, brain fog…
Some of these picky eaters have had the wake up call needed. A select few made the changes needed to turn around poor eating habits and are rapidly regaining their health.
However, many adults still struggle with health problems, and continue to be finicky eaters into adulthood. This is what we don’t want for our children.
Healthy appetites make Healthy People
The phrase: A healthy appetite…
How often do you see people who happily enjoy a variety of foods, without intense sugar and starch cravings (yes, the soda and beer habit fall in this category of sugar and starch cravings), who are chronically sick? It’s not often.
People who are healthy crave healthy things to eat.
How to solve gut-flora-caused picky eating
To solve gut-flora-caused picky eating the first thing we do is make sure it’s not an over-abundance issue. We don’t snack. When we offer snacks all day long, kids (and adults) never get to use that ‘best seasoning’ that makes even boring food taste amazing.
What’s the best seasoning for food? Hunger :)
Not snacking is a simple change that helps most picky kids. However, often there is more to the problem of picky eating.
In my own children, I watch the phomemon of them getting pizza, cake, and ice cream one day (such as at a birthday party), and then the following day they are much more likely to completely refuse the health-giving food that is their typical diet.
That’s the gut flora talking.
To solve the gut-flora induced picky eating, an elimination diet is key.
It’s so common that removing foods that often are allergy-causing, inflammation-causing, and cause a leaky gut. Removing dairy and/or gluten will most often relieve picky eating to a manageable level.
Then once they are a bit more un-picky, we can work on restoring gut flora balance and healing the gut. Most importantly, we clean up the gut.
When the gut flora is balanced, we don’t have the intense cravings for starches and sweets, to the exclusion of unhealthy food
Why is the gut so important?
Our gut, where we digest food, keep most of our immune system, and even have brain tissue, is much more important than most people realize. The gut normally is populated with a hefty balance of good gut flora (microorganisms – yeasts, fungi, and bacteria). It normally is healthy tissue with intestinal villi that work with the gut flora to extract nutrients needed from food, and pass them through the gut wall into the blood stream. These villi move food along the digestive tract, break it into smaller pieces so that nutrients can be extracted, and secrete enzymes needed to break down food (source). The bacteria in our gut line the gut walls, and actually pre-digest our food for us. They line our guts to prevent food from being passed through the gut walls without first being broken down sufficiently. This gut flora is also a large part of our immune system. When our gut is unhealthy, the flora in our gut is not protecting food from being passed through, vitamins and minerals are not able to be extracted properly from food, the body is unable to detoxify normally, and the immune system is not functioning as it should. Lastly, the pathogenic bacteria, which aren’t kept in check by the good bacteria, send out chemical signals as part of their metabolic process through the gut wall, into the bloodstream, and then make it to the brain.
So yes, survival instinct is kicking in, it’s just those billions of ‘bad bacteria’ that are in survival mode, and they’re drowning out your child’s (or your own) survival instinct to consume healthy food.
Oh, so that’s why it’s so hard to diet!
Yes! It’s not just a matter of ‘eat this and then stop until you eat that and then stop’. There are chemical signals, like drugs, in your body telling you what to eat. With this knowledge, we can be better equipped to deal with them, though.
It’s not just me saying this, here are some other supporting articles that show the same connection between gut flora and picky eating:
What can help heal the gut?
Click here to get a free printable checklist for a 30-day plan to get this started in simple steps
1. Remove inflammatory foods that are difficult to digest and high allergen: Gluten, other grains, sugars, and chemicals in non-food items (food dyes, preservatives, etc)
2. Provide foods that supply easy-to-digest nutrients to the gut to facilitate in repair and healing: Chicken stock, gelatin, fresh juice, healthy fats.
3. Provide probiotics that re-populate the gut with healthy flora.
5. Depending on your symptoms, you may be able to modify this protocol and still see great results; possibly just removing gluten, any known allergens (often eggs or dairy), and increasing probiotics for a time.
How did this work for us?
I notice that every time junk food creeps into our diets, my children become more picky. The baby is still easy to monitor, but my middle child seems to be most susceptible to pickiness when his gut flora are out of balance.
This can easily be upset by a holiday party, birthday party, or even just making PB&J on regular bread for school lunches that week. Thankfully, at 6, he’s now able to understand why we eat how we eat, and that even though he really wants to eat ice cream, cake, and pizza every day, it’s not going to be good for his system.
In this child’s case, it seems to be without fail, within 3 days of limiting the amount of sugars and starches in his diet to those allowed on the GAPS diet, he’s once again gobbling down scrambled eggs for breakfast, guacamole burgers for dinner, and the incessant whining for sugar and starch has subsided quite a bit. I love getting my sweet healthy boy back.
Picky eaters for life?
Are you raising picky eaters or are you raising children who are thankful for the care you put into their food and happily eat the nutrients they need to thrive.
It’s time to make a choice
Come watch my free webinar, and I’ll show you how to take your fussy eater and turn them into the kid who ‘eats everything’ in a week or less!
Webinar for Parents of Picky Kids: The Picky Eating Solution
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I want so bad to just go in 100% on this and never look back. But I can’t. I have a 21 year old and an 11 year old. 21 year old is starting to get it…a little bit. The struggle is the 11 year old and my hubby. I just started eating cleaner myself about 3-4 years ago so lots of bad food habits in this house. Hubby doesn’t believe in any of those “nonsense” as he calls it (as he sits there taking a pill every day that is a very high dosage statin that he has been taking since he was 28 for high cholesterol) and my daughter right now seems to ONLY want to eat carbs, carbs and more carbs. I KNOW that I am the adult and that in the end she’ll have to just eat what I give her…but I just struggle since I’m the only one that seems to care in the household. She won’t touch half the proteins we cook on a regular basis (chicken, steak, hamburgers at times), won’t touch veggies with a 10 ft fork…sigh. I know that my eating habits are at least seeping in a bit to her because she gets it. She’ll talk about proteins and healthy carbs and all that…just then notes that she doesn’t like them, ha! At this point I feel my only hope is that as she gets older she uses that knowledge that she has from watching me and changes what she does…but it could be too little too late :( Ideas?
I’m not sure, by that age you may need to just wait for her to see the health issues on her own. Sometimes playing the vanity angle can help, honestly even now I’m still quite motivated by how clear my skin is when I eat well. I ate a lot like her when I was a teen, and I’ve turned around… hopefully she doesn’t need to have a child with autism to pull a 180 (that was my wakeup call- having a sick child)
Thank you Cara!! This is such a great explanation we must share with everyone!! We don’t have to “settle” for dis-ease!!
I would start by giving your whole family a probiotic supplement. This can start to rebalance the gut flora while they don’t have to change their diet. Also, you can try to give some probiotic rich foods like homemade yogurt or homemade kombucha. (be careful. kids should not have tons of kombucha).
Why should we limit kombucha for kids?
It does contain alcohol, especially the homemade variety.
I cannot tell you how much I appreciate this post, Cara! You really explain this so well and logically with supporting information that we can use to educate ourselves and make healthy changes for not only our children, but to support our own health. I have been working with a nutritionist and am starting full GAPS next week, then will most likely move to the intro diet. We’re starting slow with me for a couple of reasons related to my health right now. And I knew right away, just the person to turn to … YOU! of course. I am so thankful for your site here and how you provide so much support, information and encouragement. I just wanted to thank you for sharing so much with us! I will definitely be sharing this post via social media and continue to share your site with those readers of mine who are also wanting support with GAPS. Thank you! Happy Mother’s Day!
I’m so glad you found it helpful Kelly! I wish you the best on your GAPS journey, let me know if you need any help. And a happy Mother’s Day to you too!
Thank you for this post! Several months ago, I adopted a very low carb diet to help control my Type 1 Diabetes (along with a probiotic every day and a few other normal supplements such as iron and magnesium). I have been shocked with not only how good I feel, but my sweet/starchy cravings have completely disappeared. My daughters (ages 7 and 3) and I attended a birthday party yesterday. I drank tea and ate a small cup of almonds/walnuts that I brought and was absolutely not tempted by the sandwiches, cupcakes and pastries. I probably had the best blood glucose numbers of anyone there!!! With such an incredible personal response, I am moving my family in the low carb direction as well. There is no need for children’s diets to be filled with cookies, chips and soda. Usually my kids eat well at home and I would not categorize them as picky but I can certainly tell, like you, after they have carb-loaded. They seem to want more and more of of those things. Thanks for the work that you do!
Thank you so much for this post! My daughter is sometimes crazy for sugar and treats. I try to follow a paleo diet with her. It is amazing what happens when she has to much natural sugar.
Thanks for this post, Cara, and for the sources at the bottom.
Thank you for this post!! It describes my 8 yr old exactly. It’s exactly what I’ve been saying is happening! And yet I’ve been at a loss for how to turn the problem around. I will be stronger knowing I’m united in the company of other strong parents.
Whenever I have tried these methods, my ASD 3.5 y/o starves himself indefinitely. He is already quite thin. I cannot allow him to starve. I cave in and give him organic, gluten free chicken nuggets, sneak him rice (he is that picky) and try sneaky fruits and veggies. He currently eats: gf fish sticks, gf chicken nuggets, bananas (sometimes), and a LOT of organic, natural peanut butter, and homemade crispy-nut method pumpkin seed butter. I’m desperate to fatten him up, and get him to eat. I’m also desperate to feed him nourishing whole foods and I am trying absolutely everything. We even tried gaps intro, he literally starved himself for days. He slept a lot. I cried a lot. Then I gave up. I bought your e-book. I don’t know what else to do. Last night I stayed up late slaving to make beet and squash gluten free muffins from scratch, after the baby finally went to sleep. With two kids and no local help, I’m struggling to make everything from scratch. When I do, he refuses to eat it and I want to give up on everything (though I don’t). I give him probiotics, ginger tea with raw honey. I stopped giving him bone broth snuck into things, and gelatin snuck into things, because it was suppressing his appetite. So I am just doing the best I can all the time.
Hi Nicole, I’m so sorry that you’re having trouble. Kids with sensory issues WILL starve themselves, it’s important for people to realize this. You said he likes peanutbutter, pumpkin seed butter, bananas, and honey/ginger tea. Can you try only giving him these (bonus: They don’t require much prep for you!) for 5 days? After 3 days the vast majority of kids start accepting more food after just 3 days, but I’d give it 5 before giving up.
Did you see this article on sensory issues and starting GAPS?
Thank you for acknowledging that ASD/sensory children will starve themselves as so many do not believe this and the struggle it entails. I’m about to check out the link you posted so fingers crossed I can help my 6 year old daughter
What a great, informative, article! I agree and find that my kids are like different people when they eat poorly for a few days. I just want my kids back (they are only well behaved and normal when they are eating healthy). High carb, sugary, processed foods are so addicting (I have first hand knowledge of this)(I’m sure we all do). Once you have eaten clean for a couple of weeks and are not in bondage to addicting foods, you feel so healthy, free, and in control. Kids are the same way. It is really worth the effort to make meals and packed lunches from scratch.
This was such great information! I’m not a mom yet, but I’ve always been curious about the connection between picky eating and the microbiome.
Thank you so much for this!