If you want your kids to eat their vegetables, you need to eat your vegetables. - Dr. Beurkins

09: Sensory Processing Disorder & How to Get Kids to Eat Healthy Anyway

Kids MORE than picky? They might have a sensory processing issue, and I cannot tell you how much I learned from Dr. Nicole Beurkens, PhD in this interview about helping kids eat healthy no matter their sensory limitations! These practical tips are amazing for kids who only eat 20 foods or less (but also apply to any selective eaters!). I never understood before how sensory processing works, but Dr. Beurkens explains things so well, and her background as a special ed teacher then psychologist then nutritionist is a POWERHOUSE of info!

I think all parents and teachers need to hear this positive and encouraging info…pass it on to those we can help! All kids CAN eat healthy food, and it’s a happy circle – the better they eat, the less their developmental issues affect their learning and behavior.

Who Should Watch?

Parents with picky eaters, busy bodies, learning disabilities, autism spectrum, known or suspected SPD, and…everyone. I know you’ll learn so much!!! Never heard of Sensory Processing Disorder? Here’s a quick summary:

Sensory Processing Disorder refers to difficulties that happen in some children where their brain struggles to make sense of input coming from the sensory environment. Information comes to our brain through our five senses. The brain has to make sense of it so that we can react appropriately. The brains of kids with SPD struggle to make sense of this information quickly and effectively.

This usually impacts eating in some way. There is a difference between picky eaters and kids with true feeding disorders. Kids that are picky won’t eat some foods, but at least they have a range of foods they eat. Kids with feeding disorders usually have less than 20 foods in their diet, and they may even be brand or presentation specific. Usually the first step for BOTH of these types is exposure to new foods without expecting them to eat it. Watch the interview to find out how to get kids to eat a wider variety of foods by asking them not to eat!

Can’t see the video? Click to watch “Sensory Processing Disorder” on YouTube.

No time to watch the whole video? Here are the notes!

Sensory Processing

  • 0:25: Dr. Beurkens shares her story and how she ended up where she is today. She began as a special education teacher and later shifted into working with parents and children to empower parents to help their kids and continue therapies at home. Along the way she began noticing certain health trends in the kids she was working with and that sparked an interest in health and nutrition. Now she integrates healthy diet and lifestyle into her work as a psychologist.

Shifting the things that kids are eating, using targeted nutrient intervention, using integrative lifestyle kinds of things, makes such a big difference in the symptoms that we’re dealing with with our kids.  -Dr Beurkens

  • 4:24: Dr. Beurkens shares what SPD is. Sensory Processing Disorder refers to difficulties that happen in some children where their brain struggles to make sense of input coming from the sensory environment. Information comes to our brain through our five senses. The brain has to make sense of it so that we can react appropriately. The brains of kids with SPD struggle to make sense of this information quickly and effectively.

Is There Only one Kind of Kid that Has SPD?

  • 5:30: There are two different types of kids with SPD. Some are under-responsive, which means they might not notice that things smell differently, or they can fall down and get a scrape and not really feel it. Some are over-responsive, which means they always cover their ears because everything is loud, or a small lump in the seam of their shirt could make them super uncomfortable.
  • 6:54: We learn about the 5 senses in school, but did you know there are a couple more senses that can be affected by SPD? The proprioceptive sense is how we sense pressure or gravity on our muscles or joints and the vestibular sense is how we are aware of balance and where we are in space. The signs of SPD in these senses are sometimes easy to mistake for disruptive behavior.

Kids are remarkably resourceful in terms of figuring out how to meet their needs. -Dr. Beurkens

  • 9:38: By intentionally studying your child’s behavior, you can get clues to help you figure out what may be going on. Activities and behaviors that might be seen as misbehaving can be a sign that the child is struggling to process the input they are receiving. Falling out of their chair repeatedly, purposefully running into things, constant fidgeting and pacing, or avoiding certain things can all be signs of SPD.

Kids want to please. They want to do the right thing. When they’re struggling, it gives us cues if we’re willing and able to watch for it to say “what’s going on here?” -Dr. Beurkens

Labeling and SPD

  • 10:48: Many kids with SPD are dumped into the ADD/ADHD bucket, but these are different things which may coexist. Kids who are diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, autism, or behavioral disorders often have an SPD component to their symptoms, but that’s not the whole picture.
  • 11:36: How does SPD come into play when it comes to eating? Remember how there are both over and under processors? Well, both sides can have difficulties with eating.

Quote about what we eat impacting our bodies

  • 11:54: What we eat is so important for our overall health. If we don’t feed our bodies well, then we can’t function correctly. Your child’s diet can impact their behavior, mood, anxiety and more.  The neurotransmitters that govern mood and behaviors are formed from, you guessed it, the nutrients in our food. Many parent’s aren’t as aware of the link between our mental health and our food.

When we put junk in our bodies, in the way of food, we end up getting junk out. -Dr. Beurkens

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Nutrients Deficiencies and SPD

  • 13:40: When it comes to kids with SPD there are certain nutrients they tend to be deficient in. Zinc and iron are both very important for our sense of taste and smell. If a kid is adverse to the smells and tastes of most foods or doesn’t seem to notice different smells and tastes they are often low in both of these nutrients.
  • 14:55: The next aspect of SPD relating to food is that texture issues, difficulty chewing or disliking many tastes leads to avoidance patterns around anything new. The child will have a (usually very small) group of things that they accept and know to be ok and they are very resistant to anything else. Then you end up with nutrient deficiencies due to their limited diet which perpetuates the cycle.
  • 16:37: The first step to overcoming these challenges as parents is to recognize that this is a process and manage expectations. You won’t take your child from chicken nuggets, pizza, fries and mac and cheese, to vegetable lover overnight.
  • 17:46: Dr. Beurkens discusses the differences between a true feeding disorder and picky eating. A child with a feeding disorder will generally have less than 20 foods that they will eat. They may even have brand or presentation specific preferences. These kids would often need and benefit from specific therapies to overcome their challenges.

Better Eating Through Exposure to Foods 

  • 18:39: The process begins with exposure without the expectation of eating it.
  • 19:19: Hear examples of how this can look in practice.

Quote about involving kids in the kitchen

  • 21:20: Dr. Beurkens has some tips for dealing with picky eaters who don’t have a feeding disorder. One important step is you as the parent deciding what does or doesn’t come into your house.

We can strategically use our purchasing decisions and what we keep in the house as a way to help move them towards better choices. -Dr. Beurkens

  • 22:57: It may take many times of exposing your child to a food or having them help prepare it before they’re willing to try it. Don’t give up too soon!
  • 23:19: Do you know how many exposures the brain needs to decide whether or not it likes something? Hint: it’s more than once!

Better Eating Through Modeling

  • 23:56: There’s a modeling component to this too. As adults we have things we don’t eat and don’t like that may be opinions formed in childhood from a single exposure. Maybe you also need to try something 10 times before deciding whether or not you like it.

Quote about getting kids to eat their vegetables

  • 25:12: Trying something 10 times is for everyone, sensory issues or not! A kid with SPD may need to be exposed to a food many, many times leading up to even trying it.
  • 25:56: One of Katie’s strategies is to have kids “smell it, lick it or taste it” if they aren’t ready to take a “no thank you bite.”

We’re not allowing kids to be locked into these rigid stories of “I don’t like that.” -Dr. Beurkens

  • 26:21: Especially with younger kids, letting them play with food (when it’s appropriate) is a great way to have exposure in a fun way that doesn’t induce anxiety. It’s exploration and play at the beginning with no expectation that they will be eating the food.
  • 27:06: With a child who has SPD food issues, you may need to be a bit more flexible and learn what works or doesn’t for your specific child when it comes to setting rules and boundaries around eating.

If it’s turning into meltdowns and power struggles, it’s not working. -Dr. Beurkens

  • 28:07: If you’re at the point where the child is really distressed or there’s a power struggle every meal, back up a bit and see what the next layer of exposure is that you can work with. Back up to where they don’t necessarily like what you’re doing, but they will tolerate it.
  • 29:04: As a parent of a child with SPD leading to a very restricted diet, keep the expectation that it will take a couple years to build up your child’s diet and get them to be a comfortable eater.

Quote about getting kids to eat fruits and vegetables

  • 30:51: It’s important for parents to understand that some kids don’t just grow out of this. Don’t just assume that time will fix it if your child has SPD.
  • 31:23: When a child has difficulty eating, whether because they have SPD or picky eating preferences, they aren’t just not getting all the necessary nutrients, they’re also missing out on the social aspect of eating and feeling the impact on their relationships.

Foods to Avoid

  • 31:51: We talk foods to avoid to help treat kids holistically. As you might guess, artificial food additives and highly processed foods are definitely things to avoid, especially when you’re dealing with a brain related issue. Removing these from the child’s diet won’t remove the problem, but it will help make the process of introducing new foods easier on them. Many parents are surprised at the difference in their kid’s behavior simply from removing things like high fructose corn syrup, artificial dyes and sweeteners.

I really encourage parent’s to ask “What would happen if…?” “What would happen if we didn’t have gummy bears?” -Dr. Beurkens

  • 34:35: How to set up an experiment with your child to track their behavior and response to different foods.
  • 35:02: A quick recap of how beneficial it is for kids to get in the kitchen in the process of improving their diet.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens, PhD, is a Psychologist, Nutritionist, Mom and Best Selling Author of Life Will Get Better.

Find Dr. Beurkens in the Greater Grand Rapids area at Horizons Developmental Resource Center and she has a wealth of online info as well on her website.

For more info on this topic, Mary Voogt is an expert as well because her own kids struggle with sensory processing. Here is a post on her own blog and her post on Kitchen Stewardship

Getting Kids with Sensory Processing Disorder to Eat Healthy Food

Katie KimballI interview experts about kids’ health every week.

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