Hypnotherapy for picky eating

Written by Jane Pendry
Can hypnotherapy help children and adults overcome picky or fussy eating issues?

Photo by cottonbro from PexelsJunk food, packed with sugar and salt, is notoriously addictive and feeds our natural cravings for salt and sweetness. Stress and trauma can lead us to choose these sorts of foods over others. Sometimes the textures, smells or tastes of particular foods can become unappealing in childhood because of negative associations laid down in childhood.

We know picky eaters are not usually getting the variety of food they need to have healthy minds and bodies. That’s where Solution Focused Hypnotherapy can be helpful in helping ease you into healthier eating patterns without creating distress.

How long does it take to create a new habit?
According to the healthline website, “It can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit and an average of 66 days for a new behaviour to become automatic.”. That sounds like a long time, but much of it depends on the client’s age, the length of time a bad habit has been ingrained, current levels of stress and anxiety and the support of friends and family.

Solution Focused Hypnotherapy speeds up the process of forging new, heathier habits and makes the process of embedding them painless and relatively easy.

Can hypnotherapists work with people of any age?
It’s often when people reach their 20s that they decide they want to address their picky eating habits. These bad habits were formed in childhood and have become embedded. Sometimes something traumatic happened and became associated with certain food types. It may be as simple as having parents who themselves had limited diets, and an awareness of health and fitness leading them to want to eat better and be more healthy.

Usually bad habits are related to choosing foods that are sweeter or saltier. Children and teens naturally crave sweeter foots and dislike bitter foods as their taste buds develop. We are all primed to seek out sweetness as our ancestors had to be motivated to search for, pick and dig for sweet fruits and vegetables. When the craving for sweet or salty food dominates, and becomes associated with emotional comfort then we have laid the foundations for picky eating and food issues.

Naturally, fussy eating may then lead to other health problems linked to either under eating, or over-eating the wrong kinds of high fat, high sugar foods that lead to obesity and related health issues.

So picky eating and overeating are linked more to the emotions associated with food than the food itself.

Basic understanding of good nutrition
It helps to have a basic understanding of good nutrition. But in order to move forward it might help to take one step at a time and simply break the negative associations and explore different foods to wider food intake.

I treat weight loss and picky eating in a similar way. We explore the emotional associations linked to various foods, food habits, eating habits, eating times and sleep. By supporting clients to frame visualise incremental changes in their eating habits, we can work together to make those changes at the pace of the client. There’s no sense of force or unrealistic or achievable goals. The clients set the goals, which often become more ambitious as they become more confident. But they always come from the client; not me.

How do we work together to resolve a fussy eating issue?
We start by keeping a weekly record of what has been good and better. We begin by asking:

  • What do you currently eat?
  • What would you like to try to eat this coming week?
  • What would you absolutely refuse to eat at the moment?

The phrase ‘at the moment’ is very important. No habit is embedded for every and there is always an opportunity for change. However, there may be some foods that never appeal – as is true for all of us – but client find they can still increase the variety of food they eat while feeling comfortable that their absolute ‘red lines’ will not be pushed too far.

Hypnotherapy reduces the anxiety of trying new foods. If appropriate, we work with Rewind Trauma Therapy and hypnotherapy to change traumatic associations and dull triggers so the client can make new, healthier and more enjoyable associations. By reducing stress overall and improving sleep, clients feel more able to try new foods and create new associations – step by step.

Sometimes progress is rapid; sometimes it takes time. The pace is set by the client taking the pressure off them to find a quick solution.

It’s particularly important that the client is motivated to make the change themselves rather than feeling pressured by a friend, partner or parent. Solution Focused approaches – which keep you firmly anchored in the present and future and involve no analysis or digging into the past – ensure the client remains in control of the process at all times.

How long does it take to resolve the issue?
Firstly, the client needs to determine what success looks like. What are their best hopes for the process? Is it to eat a wider variety of foods? Is it to eat almost all food types? Is it to overcome a dislike of specific named food stuffs?

One the client has determined a frame of reference for success, we might expect to work together for 4 weeks to 12 weeks, depending on the nature of the issue. Often, we work intensely together for the first few weeks and take stock of where the client is on their journey. In short, we take it session by session.

Does hypnotherapy work with children?
I can work with children over 10. Often this involves working the parent too, ascertaining whether the parent is putting too much pressure on the child, or has issues with food themselves. As hypnotherapy sessions are absolutely tailored to the individual the nature of the issue, and possible solutions would need to be discussed with the parent and child, along with safeguarding issues.

If you have a child who is a fussy eater, it’s very important that mealtimes don’t become a battle of wills involving coercion, force and shame. I can help parents create a healthy eating environment. Eating meals at the table as a family, where possible, is helpful as is modelling healthy eating. Avoid using sugary or salty foods as rewards as this creates unhelpful associations which will create lifelong unhelpful habits.

What does healthy eating look like?
Healthy eating involves eating a variety of food types: protein, complex carbohydrates, vegetable and fruits. Scientists have explored the relationship between sweet, salty and fatty foods and how these create addiction-like effects in the human body and brain including the relationship between losing self-control, over-eating and subsequent weight gain. So sugar and salty snacks is often a good place to start.

We keep nutritional knowledge very basic at this stage. The aim is to change habits and break negative associations. There is plenty of information out there about healthy eating and many nutritionists who can help with specific nutritional needs for sports performance, or to reduce symptoms in the case of chronic illness.

How can parents help children who are picky eaters?
Always offer the healthy option first and have plenty of fruit and vegetables to hand. Avoid buying cakes, biscuits and sweets until habits are broken. If they aren’t in the house, they can’t be offered. Our taste for sugar and sweet things does change quite quickly, once our body becomes more regulated. The whole issue of sugar and its impact on our bodies is, in itself a complex one.

Firstly, parents need to educate themselves on the impact of refined carbohydrates and sugar on the system, including behaviour. Sugar is highly addictive. The NHS page at the bottom of this piece outlines some basic information.

Sugar is associated with all sorts of health issues, from diabetes to dementia. It also impairs our cognitive abilities and self-control.

The biggest piece of advice is to avoid using affirmations that link bad foods to behaviour, things like; “If you are good you can have some cake”. This sets up bad eating habits for life as bad foods become rewards for good behaviour! Equally avoid blame and shame, such as “There are starving children in Africa. Eat up.” Whether the comments are positive or negative, linking reward or shame to eating may create unhelpful associations which are difficult to shift.

Stick to the mantra; “Eat what you can; leave what you can’t. Just do your best.” The same applies to adults trying to change habits. Just trying a new food type might be a step forward to start with.

How does Hypnotherapy help?
Hypnotherapy is simply working with your subconscious mind to support you to make new and healthy habits. We work with hypnotic suggestions, which do not involve direct commands which the subconscious mind can resist. Using guided meditation to help you get in to a deeply relaxed state, I then add in these suggestions, many of them in your own words, to create a state of relaxation, create a healthy sleeping and eating pattern and to create new positive associations with new food types.

We can get you back to healthy patterns of eating in a relatively short time, and these changes will be embedded for the future improving your health, wellbeing and maybe even your life expectancy! 

Jane Pendry DSFH, HPD, BA Hons (London), PGCE (Cantab)Reg CNHC, AfSFH, ABNLP, ABH, IARTT
Sense-Ability Hypnotherapy & Coaching
35 Farm Close Road, Wheatley, Oxon OX33 1XJ
p: 07843 813 883
e: jane@sense-ability.co.uk


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