Picky Eaters

Picky eating is very common in autism and beyond.  Don’t let that discourage you from trying diet.  In fact, having a picky eater is often an important reason TO try diet.

Picky eating can be due to being addicted to very wheat and dairy they are eating–in fact, often it’s almost all they are eating.  The opiate-like compounds created from the improperly digested wheat and dairy proteins causes addictive cravings for wheat and dairy foods.  If your child is like most children with autism, they eat mostly wheat and dairy containing foods like: pizza, milk, bread, mac and cheese, chicken nuggets, as well as maybe a few snack foods like French fries.  It’s very possible, their picky eating could be due to gluten and dairy cravings.

Additionally, “Addictions” to chemicals (e.g., MSG, artificial additives) can affect restriction to one brand or a strong preference for processed foods. MSG is known to create “excitement” in the brain by stimulating the glutamate (excitatory) receptor, making food seem to taste much better. Artificial ingredients such as artificial colors and flavors can also affect similar cravings.

Nutrient deficiencies (such as zinc) can make all foods taste bad or bland. When zinc is deficient, which is a common finding in children with autism, sense of smell is reduced and food tastes boring or unappetizing. Texture can then become an even bigger factor: imagine eating mashed potatoes if you can’t taste the potato flavor – a bland mouthful of mush.

All the previous circumstances are “biochemical reasons” for picky eating. The good news is, in these circumstances, there is often something you can do about it – when you remove the problematic foods causing the “addiction” then picky eating often improves.  There are many reasons for picky eating, I’ve just described some of the biochemical ones, but there are also physical, medical, and psychological reasons for it too.  In addition to considering a special diet, it’s important to see a feeding therapist if your child is a very picky eater (or “problem feeder”).  More on this in my Get Started Guide: Using Food and Nutrition to Improve ADHD and Autism.

Next, get creative with taste, texture, and visual presentation.  With picky eaters, texture goes a long way. Cooking to Heal contains many creative recipes with kid-friendly textures.

There are things you can do.  As the addictive foods are safely removed, children often begin to eat a larger variety of foods. Very often children expand their diet with some creativity and effort in the kitchen; however, it is important to reach out to a feeding therapist if your child is very limited with food choices.  (Also, a doctor and nutrition professional can help ensure they are not malnourished.)


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  1. mitchell wick d.o. May 14, 2011 at 5:32 am #

    very interested in information on glutamate receptor,information on gluten and caesin addiction effects.Ama board certified physician with a undergraduate degress in chemistry

  2. carolyn burgett March 12, 2012 at 4:46 pm #

    I need help I have a six year old with autium that is not eating well at all, picky eater gaining weight like mad. I’am his great grand mother he lives with me.

    Thankyou for your time.
    Carolyn Burgett

  3. dorothy bienen August 22, 2012 at 11:02 pm #

    Thanks for your good site….chock full of good info….I am passing it on to my daughter so she can use it for my 2 1/2 year old grandson. Fortunately, she is a ware of good nutrition for her children and has been well above the curve, but every bit or bite, counts! With gratitude, Yossi’s Grandma, Dorothy

  4. Cheryl September 19, 2012 at 2:26 am #

    Thanks for the info.. GFCF didn’t work for us. We were faithfully on it 1 1/2 years… took all dairy first, then gluten….so then after that time, no new foods and went we went back to regular he won’t try them, but his cereal. My son only eats peanut butter -smooth only… gfcf Glutino pretzel sticks only; cheddar rice cakes, BABY goldfish, bananas, baby fruit which i put in lots of protein powder and supplements recommended by DAN doctor. Orange juice box at school only. Any other suggestions? It’s been 5 years that he’s been on this… last few days no pretzels! We did do vanilla yogurt, before a time frame of a few months here and there… THANKS

    • lauren November 8, 2012 at 3:12 pm #

      sorry i forgot to mention that the GAPS program, is the SCD which you probably have heard of. Its the same priciples as that and almost exactly the same diet—it just has a lot of fermented foods introduced and some detoxing and a few supplements.

  5. Terri December 10, 2012 at 12:40 pm #

    My son is exactly the picky eater with the food list you described. I also have to wonder how many “healthy” children would benefit from this diet? I love this article and want to thank you so much for writing it. I am new to this, as my son is just now going to testing for autism. I have been asking my doctors for years to evaluate my child as I didn’t feel that something was quite right with him. It only seems now that he is years behind developmentally that they are starting to do testing on him. Because he had a high IQ, made pretty good grades in school, and was able to sit for long periods of time playing video games they kept telling me he was “normal”. He is anything but that and needs HELP. Found more information on your site than any doctor has given me YET.

  6. Mary Douillard October 23, 2013 at 3:20 am #

    What about goat milk and goat milk products? Do they fit in with a GFCF diet?

  7. Hanlie Smit October 25, 2013 at 8:26 am #

    Hi Julie.

    My son is 5 in November, he was diagnosed with ASD at 3. My son doesn’t eat food at all, still lives on milk(first 3 years on soya milk, then changed to pediasure) The problem is he is gaining too much weight- currently 23 kg, would alternative like coconut milk/rice milk be an option- or is there another formula milk you would suggest? Since he doesn’t eat any food, it must be something that will still give him most of the vitamins and minerals.

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