Do parents need to worry if their child is a 'whiteatarian'?

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

We all know that to get all the nutrients we need, it's important to eat a rainbow, but try telling that to a child, and their care factor is probably pretty low. Or if your kids are anything like mine, they'll tell you that sour gummies come in all colours, so they're well and truly covered.

But when should you be worried about your child's lack of interest in eating colour? Some children – known as whiteatarians – are only interested in eating white or beige foods.

Brisbane mum of two Gillian has such a child. Her eight-year-old son Harvey* has no interest in chowing down on that rainbow, and likes nothing more than gnawing on a chicken leg and following it up with a bowl of plain yoghurt or some cheese on (white) crackers. 

Gillian says she has no idea where the behaviour has come from.

"When my kids were babies, I was full on about making sure they had all the different textures, types of food, colours of the rainbow, everything," she says.

"But Harvey started to get fussy around the age of two. He loved drinking milk with lunch, and then would have another large milk before bed at night time – it became the central focus of his diet, and because he was such a good sleeper and I figured it was keeping him full, I didn't mind."

Gillian says Harvey's refusal to eat other foods drives her crazy at times.

"Being a foodie and an enthusiastic home cook, I find it devastating," she says. "Especially because my older son loves my cooking and is always talking about how great my food is."

Gillian says she sneaks nutrition into Harvey's diet where she can. 

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"He loves my homemade chicken broth which I serve alongside most of his dinners," she says, "so I always make sure I've simmered plenty of veggies into that, and I also give him a daily gummy multivitamin. I don't think it's enough but I'm trying."

Nutritionist and functional medical practitioner Dr Filipa Bellette says it's not unusual for children to be passionate whiteatarians, and there could be a simple explanation: it makes them feel good.

"A common reason why many children reach for white/beige foods (think bread, potato, popcorn, cupcakes, crackers, even bananas) is because many of these foods are high in carbohydrates," she says. 

"Carbohydrates turn into simple sugars in the body, providing a quick hit of energy for busy children. Some of the more processed white/beige foods often have sugar added to them, making them irresistible for little humans who love sweets. In fact, data shows that sugar releases feel-good neurotransmitters, such as dopamine."

Dr Bellette says texture can be another factor, especially for children with sensory issues, with many white and beige foods such as cheese, yoghurt and bread being smooth in texture. 

"Parents may not think about this," she says, "but along the same lines, the colour white can also feel non-threatening to fussy eaters. White foods are not visually or sensory overwhelming. They often taste blander too. This makes them a safer choice for children who are not very adventurous with trying new foods."

These food choices can be a concern if your child is limiting themselves to a narrow selection of refined carbohydrates, says Dr Bellette. 

"If they are only eating refined carbohydrate foods like bread, pasta, crackers and cookies, they may become nutrient deficient in amino acids and fatty acids," she says. 

"Amino acids and fatty acids make up every cell in the body – if a child is not eating enough protein or good fats, this could lead to a breakdown of any system in the body.

Dr Bellette says white foods are also devoid of important minerals such as magnesium and iron, which can lead to a weakened immune system, interrupted sleep, fatigue and agitation. 

She says in order to get the nutrition they need, children should be eating about 40+ different plant foods over the course of a week, which could come in the form of vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, legumes, grains, herbs and spices. It sounds like a lot, but it's only two per meal if you spread it over three meals a day. 

But if you're raising a whiteatarian, 40 different plant foods may as well be 1000. While you're doing what you can to build up more options, Dr Bellette recommends a good multivitamin.

As for expanding your little whiteatarian's repertoire, Dr Bellette suggests:

Start by introducing new white or beige foods, and replacing processed foods with whole foods if you can (such as sweetening with dates or pure maple syrup rather than sugar).

Try hiding nutritious ingredients in foods they already eat, such as cinnamon in their milkshake or finely grated vegetables in their pasta sauce or mashed potato.

Pair new foods with foods your child already enjoys, such as offering yoghurt as a dip for a new fruit, or serving sweet potato chips alongside their regular potato chips.

Talk about the importance of eating a rainbow so your child understands the why behind it.

Take your child shopping and get them to choose a new food to try at home.

Changing your child's eating behaviour takes time, but it's worth it to help build their immune system and ensure they're healthy. The key is to not give up, and be patient, says Dr Bellette. 

"Your child is likely not going to eat a brand new food straight away," she says. "Be consistent, and continue trying. The more they are exposed and given the opportunity to eat new foods, the more likely they will be to eat them eventually."