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A sensory processing disorder (SPD) alters typical food responses. You’re more likely to notice how something tastes, feels, or sounds. And during mealtimes, your senses could keep you from enjoying some types of food.
Children with ADHD or autism are sometimes diagnosed with SPD. But adults can have the problem too, and if you do, you’ve probably lived with your disorder for years. You may have an arsenal of tools you can use to keep people from noticing your unusual reaction to food.
Up to 16% of school-age children have sensory processing disorder, and since the issue can’t be cured, the same percentage of adults likely have problems too. If you’re one of them, know that your eating patterns could cause health issues, but d treatment programs can help.
Sensory Processing Disorder & Eating
Eating a meal is a complex sensory experience consisting of foods with ranging appearances, odors, textures, and tastes.
If you eat with others, they may contribute sounds that further impact your sensory system. You may feel overwhelmed by your senses, and you may eat very little or nothing at all as a result.
Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) shares characteristics with SPD eating. People with both issues fit the following criteria:
- Picky eating: You may only eat from a small list of approved foods.
- Inflexibility about food: Deviations from the approved food list aren’t allowed.
- Inability to try new foods: You eat about 20 foods (or less), and you don’t want to add anything else to this list.
People with avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder have more of these symptoms than people with SPDs. Their lives are deeply impacted by them. But the stronger your symptoms, the more likely it is that you’re moving from SPD to ARFID.
A Common Sensory Processing Disorder Diet
Disordered eating related to sensory processing is variable. You may have favorite foods that someone else won’t touch. But most people with SPD share preferences.
Your distinguished palate and food sensitivity may draw you to high-calorie, palatable foods. You might enjoy things like chocolate, as it’s smooth and relatively consistent from batch to batch.
You may also have strong preferences about the following:
- Texture: You may only like foods that are smooth and pureed. Or you may only like things that are crunchy and crispy.
- Flavor: You might like bland foods (like potatoes) and stay away from strongly flavored meals (like curries).
- Smell: You may like buttery things (like swiss cheese) but avoid things with a strong smell (like blue cheese).
You may like to keep your food groups separate rather than allowing items to touch on your plate. You may also want to eat while away from other people, as talking or hearing others while you’re eating can make you more uncomfortable.
What Causes Sensory Processing Disorder?
If you have sensory processing disorder as an adult, you’ve probably had symptoms throughout your life. A traumatic episode or difficult conversation can’t spark the disorder. But your symptoms may wax and wane throughout your life, depending on your stress level.
Researchers say people with SPD have abnormal tissues in their brains that might block communication between the left and right sides of the brain. In essence, your body takes in data, but it can’t communicate the information properly and make sense of it.
Psychological factors include perfectionism, anxiety, depression, difficulty regulating emotions, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and a rigid thinking style. Sociocultural risk factors can include cultural promotion of the thin ideal, size and weight prejudice, an emphasis on dieting, and ideal body definitions that include a narrow range of shapes and sizes.
Biological risk factors for eating disorders include having close family members with an eating disorder; a family history of mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and/or addiction; a personal history of depression, anxiety, and/or addiction; food allergies that contribute to picky or restrictive eating; and type 1 diabetes.
- Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder
- Autism and anorexia
- ADHD and co-occurring eating disorders
Risks for a Sensory Picky Eater
When you’re unable to tolerate specific foods, sensory processing disorder can produce symptoms that are similar to those seen in eating disorders. Situations such as long, drawn-out meal times combined with a small appetite can lead to poor nutrition and significant weight loss.
Those with SPD often report gastrointestinal issues or digestion problems, including stomach pain, diarrhea, constipation, acid reflux, vomiting, or bloating, which can also occur in those with eating disorders. Food allergies are also common in both disorders.
Treatment for a Sensory Eating Disorder
A limited diet is dangerous, and while it might seem normal to you, it’s not healthy. Treatment can help you get back on track.
Some therapists use sensory integration to challenge your senses and help you feel a sense of accomplishment when you try something new. You might also use therapy to explore how foods you’ve avoided make you feel, and you might be exposed to them in very small increments to help you adjust to them.
While you may always have sensory processing disorder, therapy can help you maintain a healthy weight and enjoy meals once again.
- Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). American Academy of Family Physicians. https://familydoctor.org/condition/sensory-processing-disorder-spd/. August 2021. Accessed July 2022.
- Picky vs. Problem Eater: A Closer Look at Sensory Processing Disorder. Food and Nutrition. https://foodandnutrition.org/september-october-2014/picky-vs-problem-eater-closer-look-sensory-processing-disorder/. August 2014. Accessed July 2022.
- Adult Picky Eaters with Symptoms of Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder: Comparable Distress and Comorbidity but Different Eating Behaviors Compared to Those with Disordered Eating Symptoms. Journal of Eating Disorders. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5086050/. October 2016. Accessed July 2022.
- Atypical Sensory Processing is Associated with Lower Body Mass Index and Increased Eating Disturbance in Individuals with Anorexia Nervosa. Psychiatry. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2022.850594/full. March 2022. Accessed July 2022.
- Food Intake is Influenced by Sensory Sensitivity. PLOS ONE. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3423386/. August 2012. Accessed July 2022.
- It’s Not ‘Picky Eating’: Five Strategies for Sensory Food Sensitivities. Organization for Autism Research. https://researchautism.org/its-not-picky-eating-5-strategies-for-sensory-food-sensitivities/. March 2017. Accessed July 2022.
- Breakthrough Study Reveals Biological Basis for Sensory Processing Disorders in Kids. University of California San Francisco. https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2013/07/107316/breakthrough-study-reveals-biological-basis-sensory-processing-disorders-kids. July 2013. Accessed July 2022.
- How to Treat Sensory Processing Disorder. ADDitude. https://www.additudemag.com/sensory-processing-disorder-treatment/. July 2021. Accessed July 2022.