Usually my posts are inspired by questions that you ask me. But today I’m sharing my two cents’ worth on two picky eating media articles that seemed to blow up this past week. The first on Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder - ARFID. The second on getting your kids to eat anything. Not quite viral, they definitely got lots of attention. The reason that I’m responding to them is because as a part of popular culture, they feed into the norms and expectations that people can have regarding kids and food. And I want to make sure that they aren’t impacting you in an unhealthy way.
So please be patient with me as I get up on my soapbox.
The first article was the CBC picking up on a commentary from health professionals in Ontario regarding something called ARFID. Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) is a category of eating disorder added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) in 2013. The DSM-5 is a psychiatric classification and diagnostic tool used across North America. ARFID is a mental health condition where kids or adults are so limited in the foods that they will eat that it’s having a negative impact on their physical health and getting in the way of social situations. It’s beyond the normal developmental picky eating stage that kids go through.
My concerns with ARFID are the same concerns that come with any label. A label is intended to be used as a diagnostic tool get a child help. But frequently I see labels used as a crux. Because someone has placed the ARFID label on a child, it explains the child’s behaviour and means that nothing can be done. You accept the status quo and don’t work to find ways to support your child to expand their food repertoire. In other words, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. You accept that your child only eats a few foods and those are the foods that you serve him/her.
My other concern is that a child will self-identify with ARFID and use it to prevent trying new foods. One of the first steps that I take when working with families is to have them stop talking about food in front of their picky eater. We want to start distancing these kids from the identity of “picky eater”. Then they can start to build the confidence to challenge themselves and try new foods. It’s the same reason why we tell our children that they’re smart, kind etc. We want them to believe that they are these things. So, why would we want to tell kids that they’re a picky eater. They’ll believe you and live up to your expectations.
When parents contact me initially saying that their child has ARFID or is a selective eater or is a super taster, I immediately am concerned. Because I’m worried that they’ve decided that there’s no way to help their child. They’ve given up. Defenses up, parents tell me “My child has ARFID so I’ll feed him nothing but apple sauce and chicken fingers because I know that he’ll eat them.” Kids always have the potential to grow. Success might be slow, but I’ve seen positive improvements in the eating of children who would be diagnosed (by a health professional) with one of these labels.
Ironically, the second article that was super popular this week was on the other extreme. It was a piece by Huffington Post Canada called “Picky Eater Tips: 6 Tricks To Get Your Kids To Eat Anything”. Hey, I have to give it to the editors at Huffington Post, they are experts at grabbing people’s attention. I mean, what parent wouldn’t want to click on that title?! The problem is that it sets unrealistic expectations. I’ve never met anyone – adult or child – who eats anything. OK, maybe Anthony Bourdain (not that I’ve actually met him). But the fact that he’s so abnormal that he’s crafted celebrity for it is my case in point. Your goal as a parent absolutely is not to get your child to eat anything. Your job is to support your child to eat a wide enough variety of foods that they meet their nutrition needs, can attend social functions without stress, and can calmly face eating foods that aren’t their favourites when their favourites aren’t on the menu. But I suppose an article title like that isn’t sexy enough to get lots of clicks.
Some kids are better eaters. Some kids are pickier. Your role is to create an environment that supports your child to be the best little eater that they can be.
OK, I’m off my soapbox now.