Sensory Food Aversion: Rejection of Certain Foods Due to High Sensitivity

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Sensory Food Aversion: Rejection of Certain Foods Due to High Sensitivity
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 28 November, 2022

From childhood, we’re told that we should eat everything on our plates. Indeed, we’re urged to try and include all kinds of foods in our diet to be healthier. Consequently, although there may be some small difficulties, as children, we generally end up accepting a whole range of foods. However, there’s a small group that finds this to be an overwhelming challenge, not only in childhood but also in adulthood. This problem is known as sensory food aversion.

As we said, many children experience certain difficulties with food, especially during specific periods. They may have a poor appetite, refuse to try new foods, reject certain food groups, or have strong preferences. However, these are usually transitory states that, with good action by caregivers, can be reversed without too much difficulty.

On the other hand, the case of sensory food aversion is much more complex. It’s not a problem that’s solved merely by the passage of time or by the way in which parents offer food. In fact, those with this condition can reach adulthood having made hardly any progress regarding the variety of foods they eat. But why does it happen? We’re going to explain.

girl denying food

Sensory food aversion

Sensory food aversion is a condition that leads the individual to suffer a great aversion toward food based on its sensory characteristics. Rejection can be caused by the color, smell, texture, or temperature of the food. Indeed, its taste isn’t the only factor involved.

Sensory food aversion is a characteristic of a neurological trait known as high sensitivity. In fact, highly sensitive people (HSP) are more likely to display this condition. It’s also common for it to occur in those who are on the autistic spectrum.

Since it’s a genetic and hereditary trait, it’s not due to the fact of parents having done a bad job, nor because the child is fussy or spoiled. Rather, it’s an instinct, a defense mechanism that’s triggered by the brain’s inability to process sensory stimuli.

Sensory integration is the process by which we receive and organize the information that comes from our senses. This can be either externally, from the environment, or from our own bodies. People with high sensitivity perceive and process more information than usual and with much more depth. This can make sensory integration difficult.

When it comes to food, these individuals perceive multiple aspects in a fraction of a second. Feeling overwhelmed, they choose to reject it as a form of protection.

Symptoms and signs of sensory food aversion

As you can see, sensory food aversion doesn’t mean just being a picky or fussy eater. Indeed, it’s not a matter of taste, but of instinct. It’s also not a transitory phase, but a characteristic that accompanies the individual throughout their life. Here are the symptoms of sensory food aversion.

  • Sufferers refuse more food than they accept. In fact, their aversion may lead them to tolerate only about ten to 15 foods.
  • The variety of foods they refuse never changes, no matter how many times they try them.
  • Their food must always be the same, from the same brand, and cooked in the same way. They won’t tolerate even the slightest changes.
  • They prefer dry, crunchy, and homogeneous foods. For example, toast or french fries. That’s because these foods are usually always the same so they know what to expect from them. On the other hand, a piece of fruit, for instance, might be bigger or smaller, sweet or sour, and juicy or less so. This saturates their senses.
  • They don’t only experience high sensitivity in relation to food, but it also encompasses other aspects of their life. They might, for example, be bothered by bright lights or loud noises, or find seams and tags on clothing uncomfortable. In addition, they experience emotions in greater depth and express them really intensely. 
  • Their aversion toward food is such that it not only generates a rejection of eating. It can also make them really uncomfortable at the thought of having to eat the problem food or even having it around them.
child refusing food

How to address sensory food aversion

For parents of children with sensory food aversion, it can be really concerning that their children refuse to accept the vast majority of foods. However, it’s also not easy for the children themselves (and the adults they become).

As a rule, they spend their lives being criticized and judged for their eating behavior and experience continuous pressure from their environment. This causes them to develop a really negative view of food. Moreover, eating with others generates feelings of enormous anxiety, discomfort, and fear.

In reality, there’s no way to eliminate sensory food aversion if it’s part of a neurological trait. It simply can’t be reversed by psychology, occupational therapy, or any other intervention. That said, there are some guidelines for handling it and managing its consequences.

Progress in this aspect is closely related to the development of the prefrontal cortex. It’s the maturation of this brain area that allows an individual to stop being governed by their impulses and be able to make rational decisions. At this stage, the individual can consciously choose to introduce certain foods even if it goes against their instinct. But it’s almost impossible for this to happen before the age of ten. Therefore, forcing or trying to convince a younger child to eat a problem food will be useless.

Don’t pressurize

As we mentioned earlier, this condition makes the sufferer’s body stay on alert when they’re eating. Therefore, it’s essential not to pressure, judge, or threaten a child suffering from sensory food aversion. These kinds of actions would only lead to a total lack of progress. They’d also generate strong feelings of emotional discomfort in them.

One guideline that can be followed to try and implement a healthier diet, is to take the child’s safe foods (those that they accept) and gradually introduce small variations. For example, offer roasted potatoes instead of fried potatoes or add a vegetable to the fruit juice that they can tolerate.

Finally, sensory food aversion is complex. The best way you can help a sufferer is by understanding them. Furthermore, therapists can offer guidelines for promoting sensory integration, helping a sufferer make rational decisions, and improving other manifestations of high sensitivity. Therefore, they shouldn’t hesitate to seek help.

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  • Melfi, D. (2018) Selectividad Alimentaria & Integración sensorial. 3er Congreso Argentino de Discapacidad en Pediatría. Buenos Aires. https://www.sap.org.ar/docs/congresos_2018/Discapacidad/melffi_defensividad_oral.pdf
  • Oliván Coronas, E., & López de la Fuente, M. J. (2019). Tratamiento de la selectividad alimentaria desde una perspectiva sensorial: a propósito de un caso. Congreso Virtual Internacional de Psiquiatría, Psicología y Salud Mental (Interpsiquis)|VOL XX
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The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.