Ask an expert: How to spot when your child’s fussy eating is dangerous

Ask an expert: How to spot when your child’s fussy eating is dangerous

Many parents worry about the dangers of their child being a fussy eater, and their fears will have been heightened with the news that a teenager has gone blind after living on a diet of chips and crisps.

For several years, the Bristol teenager had only eaten French fries, Pringles and white bread, and an occasional slice of ham or a sausage, according to a case report in a medical journal. Tests revealed he had severe vitamin deficiencies and malnutrition and, by 17, his vision had deteriorated to the point of blindness.

It’s a terrifying story for parents to hear – but how can they make sure it doesn’t happen to their child?

What can parents do? (iStock/PA)
What can parents do? (iStock/PA)

We asked dietitian Ursula Arens, a spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, to outline how parents can spot when fussy eating is getting dangerous. Here is her advice:

Check their weight

“There are many shades of grey with fussy eating, but one marker is the child’s weight. If their weight is normal compared to their peers, then they’re getting enough calories, so that’s one thing ticked off. But of course you can get enough calories and still not get a fantastic range of nutrients. If they’re not eating to the point of being skinny, then obviously that’s a worry and you’d be advised to seek professional advice.”

Give a multivitamin

“Most kids like crisps and chips, and parents try and balance it by offering other foods. A lot of kids have phases of particular likes and dislikes, in relation to taste or texture, raw foods versus cooked foods, or dry versus wet foods. If their weight is okay but they’re just faddy and will eat bread and cheese but nothing else, parents can allow that for a while, and the advice would be to give them a multivitamin supplement – there are many varieties formulated for kids available at a reasonable price, and some are drops that you can sneak into their food. That’s still not going to give them great nutrition, because they might still be lacking in protein and zinc and other things, but it’s better than nothing.”

Eat as a family

“But if they continue to eat in a really strange way compared to their peers, modelling is important. That means you insist always that your child eats with the family, i.e. not alone in a corner in front of the telly. It’s the incredibly old-fashioned idea of sitting round a table together, and the child observing their parents eating peas or whatever else they might eat. That will increase the chance that a child is more prepared to try things and understand that these are enjoyable, normal foods.

“Some children have been put in a high chair at an early age and are fed from a jar, and are then fed on a tray in front of the telly, and there isn’t a family eating together situation where food culture develops. There are lots of reasons for that and it’s not a matter of pointing a finger at a mother and saying ‘It’s your fault, you’re evil.’

“For lots of reasons it’s a great idea if, not necessarily every meal or every day, but as regularly as possible, kids should eat together with adults. Even if the child says they don’t like their peas or whatever, if they’re watching adults eat, they’re more likely to drop some of their faddiness.”

Know when to get expert help

Some kids develop long-term problems (iStock/PA)
Some kids develop long-term problems (iStock/PA)

“But some kids maintain bizarre and very long-term problems. We all have individual foods we don’t like, which is fine – but if the food variety really is restricted to two or three foods, then at some stage you need to take them to see a paediatric dietitian, referred through your GP.  If the doctor feels there is a problem and it’s gone on for a while – I suppose around a year – and you’ve tried everything, then a paediatric dietitian or possibly a psychologist may be necessary.

“Kids have phases, and food can become a battle tool between a parent and a child, so you have to be careful not to escalate that too quickly. As far as possible, parents need to be quite chilled and relaxed about the child not eating his peas on that day, because having flaming rows is not likely to help. But if after a while your child is noticeably stranger about food than all their friends, you may need to act.”

- Press Association

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