Vanessa Peat discusses the difficulties that neurodiverse children may have when it comes to meal times. Exploring what we can do to ease these challenges for them.
What Does Neurodiverse Mean?
Neurodiversity describes how everyone’s brains have differing behaviours based on their structure, chemistry, and the way a brain functions, and what is considered normal or typical behaviour.
No single definition describes a neurodiverse child. They may be referred to as having Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), be Autistic or dyslexic, or have adult Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Neurodiverse Children and Their Instinctive Food Choices.
A child with ADHD is more likely to choose ultra-processed foods and to binge eat due to them having lower levels of dopamine. Ultra-processed foods, which often contain simple carbohydrates, trigger a rush of dopamine to the brain, a subconscious response to combat that feeling.
Evidence shows there is a disproportionate amount of people on the autistic spectrum that are diagnosed with eating disorders. One such disorder is avoidant restrictive food intake disorder, due to their sensory responses or dislike of certain food textures.
Lack of Nutrition in Neurodiverse Children
When a child lacks a varied diet it may lead to general poor nutrition, vitamin deficiencies and obesity. Ultra-processed foods may impair their cognitive development and behaviour leading to social and anxiety issues.
A study of 247 children from the Australian Autism Biobank and Queensland Twin Adolescent Brain project explored this. Where 99 of the children were diagnosed with ASD. It concluded that the difference in the microbiome of the ASD children compared to the rest of the group was a direct result from their lack of dietary diversity.
Children with ADHD are more likely to lack specific micronutrients. This can include omega-3, magnesium, and zinc, all crucial for maintaining optimal brain, body, and immune system function.
What can you do to help Children Make the Right Choices?
If eating habits are not corrected in early years this could lead to worsening physical and mental health. Especially as they head through puberty and into adulthood.
The latest report from Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner for England, indicates that the number of children and young people starting treatment for eating disorders has more than doubled since 2016-17.
- Pre-planning nutritious meals for your child is key.
- Creating an open environment to discuss likes and dislikes.
- Celebrate the progress that your child makes, no matter how small.
- Smaller more frequent meals may help keep your child fuller for longer.
- Offer a wide variety of finger foods to young children. This allows them to experience different tastes and textures.
- Include complex carbohydrates and protein. Good sources of protein include beef, legumes, dairy, eggs, turkey and so. These are rich sources of the amino acid tyrosine and phenylalanine which have an important role in dopamine production.
- Other ways to increase dopamine levels include regular daily exercise, high quality sleep, listening to choral and instrumental music and daily sunshine exposure. However, always adhere to sun exposure guidelines.
- Gradually introduce small changes into daily eating habits. Do this until they have the significant impact required to contribute to a more positive lifelong nutritional, physical and mental wellbeing.
- Be creative when preparing meals by blending small amounts of high nutrient foods into a meal that your child enjoys, ensuring they consume the much-needed nutrients in their meals.
- Create opportunities for your child to eat in different social settings or with friends where they may try to explore different foods.
- Eating a wide range of foods at family mealtimes expresses a positive message to children who learn from that experience.
- Work with professionally trained nutritionists to fully understand the specific selective eating habits of your unique neurodiverse child and create a long-term plan for positive future health and wellbeing.
You can find out more about helping Neurodiverse children’s mental health over in our Children’s section, and don’t forget to have a read of our article – Let’s Pretend – How to Help Children Reduce Anxiety When Eating Out! Do you have any tips for helping neurodiverse children cope with food choices?
Vanessa Peat is the Co-founding Director of Uniquely Created Nutrition and Health (UCU). She is a Performance Nutritionist and Registered Associate Nutritionist and identifies as neurodiverse.
Vanessa has a lived experience of disordered eating and stress related IBS, and her husband has Asperger’s syndrome. She is a mother to two neurodiverse children, aged 18 and 13 who she is supporting on their own unique journeys.
Vanessa also became more passionate about nutrition after her husband was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. At that time, Vanessa witnessed the positive impact holistic lifestyle change can have on improving quality of life.
In 2022 Vanessa began teaching as part of a Student Selected Component in Human Nutrition for the University of Cambridge.
Vanessa is passionate about translating science into everyday practice along with listening to her clients’ goals and having a food first approach.