When is Picky Eating A Problem?

by Coach Vanessa Millovich DCN RDN LDN

In it’s extreme form, picky eating can be an eating disorder. Diagnosed eating disorders are medical conditions that require consistent treatment from a team of professionals, just like many other medical conditions. See your doctor if you believe your child has a eating disorder. 

One example of an eating disorder connected to picky eating is ARFID, which stands for Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. This is a newer diagnosis in the realm of eating disorders. It used to be called “Selective Eating Disorder” and has key symptoms which make it more serious than “regular” picky eating.

“Regular” picky eating comes and goes throughout different phases of a child’s life. It doesn’t cause children to not be able to go to a birthday party or participate in typical activities.  Picky eating also doesn’t cause a child to lose a significant amount of weight or “fall of their growth curve”.

Is your child’s food avoidance getting in the way of other activities?

One sign to alert you to when is picky eating a problem is if your child 

  • avoids foods 
  • is uninterested in food and mealtime, on a consistent basis, 
  • looses weight or does not gain weight over several weeks to months

These are signs there may be a more serious underlying issue going on.

Children who rely on oral supplements to meet their nutritional goals, in combination with an avoidance to foods because of the look, texture, taste, and smell, may need to be evaluated by a doctor who specializes in ARFID and disordered eating.

More significant warning signs for younger children (think toddlers to pre-puberty)

When is picky eating a problem with the little ones? Because of their younger age, it may be more challenging to figure out if their picky eating is more serious. However, some signs to looks for are: 

  • they may begin to avoid more and more kinds of foods, 
  • their hair could start to thin, 
  • they may also have a serious fear of choking or vomiting when they eat. 

More significant warning signs for older children (think puberty and beyond)

How about older children? When is picky eating a problem with these bigger-little ones? If your older child often complains about any of these symptoms listed below or you notice them, you should talk to your pediatrician. Symptoms are:

  • Feeling cold, dressing in excessive layers 
  • More tired than usual
  • Tells you that they feel full a lot (even when they’ve barely eaten)
  • Will only eat foods of certain textures
  • Complains that they can’t concentrate
  • They get dizzy 
  • For girls who have gone through menarche, they stopped getting their period 


Normalize eating disorders

If your child does end up being diagnosed with an eating disorder like ARFID or one of the other eating disorders, try to help them understand that it is like any other medical condition. This means that it still needs to be treated by trained professionals, just like if they had a broken leg. For example, they would go to the right kind of doctor to get their leg put in a cast, etc. It is very important for children with any warning signs of an eating disorder to be evaluated and treated, if needed. Why? This helps to avoid life-altering mental and physical consequences later on in adulthood. If you’re looking for additional help for your child with an eating disorder, you can call, text or chat online with the National Eating Disorder Alliance (NEDA) helpline.

Bottom line?

In conclusion, when is picky eating a problem? Remember there are various degrees of picky eating. For example, picky eating can look like avoidance of vegetables and it can be severe and is a medical condition. See your pediatrician if you think your child has ARFID or shows the signs we list above.

Learn more about the many strategies to manage picky eating at home.

You’ve got this!