When You’re A Nutritionist & Health Coach… And Your Son Gets Diagnosed With Malnutrition

There’s a reason I lost my shit the last time (because this has happened many times) a well-meaning fellow mum said to me, “Just arrange the vegetables in smiley faces, that worked for our son who was *really* fussy”. Genuinely, I’ve wanted to smack the smirk off every single person who has said that to me over the past 3 years (and I’m not generally a violent person), because Braxton isn’t “just fussy”.

I have known this for a long time, that our situation is more serious than just fussy / picky eating. I’ve known that the dark circles under his eyes are likely the result of not having enough iron in his red blood cells, and that the sporadic pains he experiences in his body are because there isn’t enough glucose circulating his muscles, that the bursts of hyperactivity are spurred on by the spikes in his blood sugar-levels, caused by the only foods he will eat, and that his immune system is lower than it should be for the son of a holistic wellness coach and nutritionist, because he simply doesn’t get enough nutrients and what he is eating is damaging his gut, and therefore, his immune system.

I have known all of this, but after pursuing numerous approaches that bore no results, I kept being told by well-meaning family members that he’ll grow out of it as kids usually do, to just “give him what he wants” in the meantime, and that I am being too “stressy” and highly-strung about his eating. So I tried, in vain, to “relax” about his eating in the hope that less resistance from me would reap results.

I didn’t do a great job of relaxing, because deep down I knew that he wouldn’t just grow out of it, and we have now, at four years and three months old, been given a diagnosis of ARFID – avoidant restrictive food intake disorder – and anaemia, which may not sound particularly serious, but as I have discovered throughout the course of my own life with chronic illness and subsequent remission, the body offers warning signs. The onset of deficiencies that aren’t dealt with can be the catalyst for any number of conditions that we may be genetically predisposed to. It’s a slippery slope.

Though I certainly cannot blame anyone else, I am angry at them for continuously telling me “let it go”. But mostly, I’m angry at myself for not being firmer in my resolve to the well-meaning family members and friends. I suppose that after trying everything we possibly could (at least everything we knew about), the only other option was to wait and hope that things would improve. But with each passing day that Braxton’s eating got worse, as did my anxiety surrounding the situation.

It began early on

It all started when he hit a year old. If I’m being honest, he never loved food, even for those 6 months that he was on solids before he reached a year he was never the baby who ate everything in sight, and I can only recall two occasions where he reached for what was on my plate, but at least he ate. He always had a very strong gag reflex, and around the time he turned 1, he would gag each time he tried something new, and the gag reflex would lead to projectile vomiting. This happened on many occasions when I was in public places, without my husband as it was always during the day, as I navigated new motherhood with this child who would just vomit wherever we went, other mothers swiftly gathering up their young to escape the vomiting child, lest it be contagious. One time I was in a soft-play cafe when it happened. It went everywhere – absolutely everywhere. He was drenched from head to toe, the high chair was drowning under the weight of the vomit, and I was covered in the stuff myself. Not one of the mums around us offered to help, and that was the last time I took Brax anywhere at mealtime for a long while.

After a few months of this happening, I took him to the doctor to see what was wrong with him, not yet connecting the dots myself, because surely this wasn’t normal.

After ruling out allergies, reflux, gut issues and anything more sinister (which I admit I didn’t allow tests for because I knew it wasn’t sinister), I managed to look back over those months, put things into perspective, and realise that it was nothing more than the fact that he was a child with a very reactive gag reflex. The cause may not have been sinister, but its consequences certainly were.

As Braxton’s brain began to connect eating new foods with being violently sick, he trained his brain to believe that food was bad, and over time, his dietary repertoire decreased and decreased, and as he became more verbal, he even taught himself to say things like “that will make me sick” or “this is dirty food” – these were NEVER things he’d heard us say.

And that’s where we are today. A mother who is a nutritionist, health-food blogger and wellness coach – the annoying kind who makes homemade jam and vitamin gummies, homemade gluten-free bread and dips, weekly soups and beetroot burgers, healthy cookies and crumbles, not to mention coming from an Israeli / Moroccan family where being a foodie isn’t a choice, it’s a given – and a son, who, as of January 2020, will eat only: jacket potato with beans and cheese, plain pasta, pizza or pizza bagel and, what can only be described as a blessing from God, his daily morning smoothie, into which I’m able to put a load of superfoods and some essential vitamins. THANK. GOD.

Our lowest point came recently when he stopped eating fish fingers and nuggets when he could “see the white”. The foods I vowed I’d never give my children are now things I would be happy to see him eat again. Fish fingers would at least mean him getting some protein. Bolognase was given up around 4 months ago, with no explanation, because it’s “dirty”, but give the kid a chocolate and he’ll Bruce Bogtrotter the whole thing up.

Try and give him the chocolate in a bribe if he eats a vegetable, however, and he’ll forgo the chocolate. He has a defiance in him that I have never seen on a child before, and that all my friends who have kids of the same age, agree is unusual. “If you eat just one pea, just ONE,” I plead, “you can have that whole chocolate you chose!” Braxton’s response: “I won’t have the chocolate then,” and he’ll walk away. Like a calm, self-assured Mafia boss who rests in the knowledge that the other person will always relent, because he’s the one that does the negotiation, no one else. I’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse, he’s thinking, and that offer is that he’ll eat chips or he’ll go hungry. Don Corleone has nothing on Braxton.

And yes, bribing was also something I vowed before becoming a parent that I’d never do. It’s easy to stick to the list of non-negotiables that you compiled before you had kids when you have children who you know won’t let themselves starve. Braxton is a whole other kettle of fish, and changes in our approach to parenting have come from a place of utter desperation. You do what you have to do to get by.

No stone left unturned

When we realised that bribing and negotiating wouldn’t work (nor would the smiley faces or different colours or nice plates or eating on the floor or outside or in the car or in fucking outer space), and two doctors had said he was healthy, we took him to a homeopath we know and have worked with before (not our usual homeopath), one who is also a GP. “Just leave food out for him, don’t force it, and he’ll eat eventually when he realises he’s not getting anything else. Give him healthy foods he likes and nothing else.” She gave us some remedies to try, to no avail. We then took him to our usual homeopath who spent hours figuring out which remedies would be right, but again, nothing changed. (I’d like to note here that this is the first thing homeopathy hasn’t worked for, for me.)

The next step was to take him to our naturopath, who has five healthy children of her own so any advice from her is always welcome, but after she’d exhausted the checklist of generic questions: does he eat better at nursery because they usually do, does he eat better at your mum’s house – she basically said the same as the homeopath. It was as if people, even professionals in our life, were not acknowledging that this wasn’t a child who would just decide one day that he now enjoyed food. I couldn’t imagine it happening – even though I constantly prayed it would – because I knew my son. I knew that it went deeper and that his defiance is part of his innate character. Even as a baby he was independent beyond comprehension; nothing could be in his cot – teddies, books, muslins or anything else that usually offer babies comfort, and he would never accept any sort of comforter such as a dummy, toy or blanket – he rejected anything and everything that would have made life easier for us. And yes, these qualities will stand him in good stead as an adult – his confounded, unmitigated self-assurance and awareness of self – but parenting a child like that, well, saying it’s challenging is more of an understatement than saying that Oprah is a bit successful. He may grow up to be this independent, self-assured adult, but if I haven’t dropped down dead from the stress of it all before then to witness it, I’ll eat my hat (or my vegetables).

Because our children are here to challenge us to the very core of our beings. They strip away the ego until we are forced to bare ourselves naked and acknowledge our truest selves in the most raw, exposed, humanness of our shadow self. And that’s where I’m at now.

So after the practitioners who always solved all my problems before this couldn’t help, we took him to a child psychologist who also happened to be a gastroenterologist – the perfect combination for our situation, I thought (if not a little more mainstream than we’re used to). But, alas, we essentially spent £250 for him to send us an email of ‘tips’ after the consultation – all of the same ilk as the aforementioned suggestions. Oh, and have we tried letting him cook alongside us so he can see how the food is made? No, genius, I’m a food blogger but have never had my son in the kitchen with me.

Along the way we also took him to a paediatrician and our cranial osteopath, and I started having sessions with a spiritual life-coach to unblock anything in my own energy that might be causing this. I’m still on that journey.

More recently, a friend whose son stopped eating following a sickness bug suggested EFT (emotional freedom technique). She said her son had stopped eating everything because of the fear that he might be sick again. Although her son was 7, and remembered a time in his life where he did eat and food was ok, we thought we’d give it a go as we hadn’t tried it yet, and it was gentle.

The EFT practitioner was also a colour therapist. She did the tapping on him without him knowing what it was about, and she worked with the colours. She explained that Braxton is a ‘red’ child. We are all made up of colours but very rarely is someone fully ‘red’ without that red being muted down a bit with other colours. She’d only ever treated 2 red children before him. She said it explained his infernal defiance, and that simple bit of information helped me emotionally. As someone who advocates a personalised and individualised approach to healthcare, I’ve spent years troweling through information about what makes us all unique, more recently delving into the modality of Human Design, so this helped me to understand why things that worked for other children (like bribing with chocolate, a method which will see most children submitting their principles), never works with Brax. I had a session with her myself, once again trying to take responsibility for the situation we find ourselves in, aware that it could be something in my own energy and willing to play my part and put in the work.

The practitioner came for 2 weeks in a row, then said to wait for 2 weeks and in that time not mention food at all – just give him what he wants and lay off, and in 2 weeks there should be some minor improvement. But, as I feared (and I wish I wasn’t shrouded by this total pessimism surrounding this situation but I suppose I’ve lost all hope), nothing changed.

And as the heaviness under his eyes morphed itself into an altogether deeper and more terrifying hue, and the complaints about sporadic joint pain became less sporadic and more frequent, I knew I had to do something fast.

We’d already taken him to a paediatric rheumatologist after the first few times he’d complained of knee pain before he was 3. I was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis aged 2, so it’s always at the back of my mind and I whisked him off to the doctor at the first mention of knee pain even though I could see there was no inflammation. At the time the doctor said he looked healthy, I was doing all the right things (supplements etc), and that he’s sure things would improve. But over a year later, here we are.

Our genes determine which illnesses we are predisposed to, our lifestyle determines whether they get triggered…

The thing is, I’ve spent my entire career advocating the fact that our genes are not our destiny and that our lifestyle determines which genetically pre-disposed illnesses will get triggered and when. The fields of epigenetics and nutrigenomics leave no doubt that this is the case. So we may have grown up with a debilitating chronic disease that even others in our family might have too, but with the right lifestyle choices for our children, this illness need never be triggered in them.

Which meant that my entire approach to parenthood coming into it was to do everything I possibly could to strengthen my childrens’ immune systems. I pushed myself through a 24-hour back-to-back labour with no pain-relief to bring my son into this world in the calmest, most natural way possible to ensure that not only did he come into contact with all the essential birth microbiome that comes with a natural delivery, but that he would not start his life with trauma that could lead to physical difficulties. I placed immense pressure on myself to breastfeed both children through excruciating damaged milk ducts to ensure that their guts were as strong as they could be from the beginning, which would lead to a strengthened immune system, not faltering on this for a minute when postpartum arthritis flare-ups (that only happened after birth when otherwise in remission) left me unable to walk and some days, hold my babies. I knew that stopping breastfeeding would probably help me heal quicker, but I wasn’t prepared to risk any autoimmune response in my children triggered by gut issues from formula. (Just to be clear, I don’t regret any of these choices and would make the same decisions all over again.)

But then, came weaning, and I was ready and prepared – excited even – making absolutely everything from scratch with the finest quality organic ingredients, absolutely sure that nurture would lead the way over nature, and that my children would be great eaters because of what they saw at home and I’d be able to say to people who told me about their fussy kids, “Oh, you have to let them see how it’s done at home”. Smug bitch.

And yet. And yet… of all the things that could happen, my child chose to hate food. And with all my qualifications and experience, it all remains futile and redundant and none of it matters because if he won’t eat, there is nothing I can do to help him, and that has rendered me useless. For all the homemade vitamin gummies, 48-hour cooked bone broths and homemade elderberry syrups (the things I try to offer when he’s unwell), they simply sit, desolate, on the shelf in the fridge while I ponder the utter irony of the position I find myself in.

Food. The very thing that mothers pride themselves on providing to nourish their children, staring at me in the over-qualified, used-to-be-smug face, and there’s absolutely sod all I can do about it.

Food. The very thing that mothers pride themselves on providing to nourish their children, staring at me in the over-qualified, used-to-be-smug face, and there’s absolutely sod all I can do about it.

Because our children are here to challenge us to the very core of our beings. They strip away the ego until we are forced to bare ourselves naked and acknowledge our truest selves in the most raw, exposed, humanness of our shadow self. And that’s where I’m at now.

We were given the diagnoses of ARFID and anaemia caused by malnutrition, and through the bloods were thankfully able to rule out anything inflammatory, autoimmune or coeliac, and we have since found a therapist who specialises in ARFID. She works closely with patients over a long period of time through child psychology, psychotherapy, play therapy, cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based CBT and trauma-based CBT. We begin on Monday. Though we will see this lady for the time-being, there is a specialist clinic for ARFID at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, and we’re trying to get in there as they offer a whole dedicated team with psychologist and dietician.

I suppose the diagnosis, or label – something I shunned the idea of myself growing up with a chronic disease in an attempt to not be defined by something I did not choose – almost came as a relief to me. It validated my belief that this is a serious situation that could lead to long-term, chronic health issues, and also helps me to be able to illustrate to people who may trivialise the situation that Braxton is not “just a fussy eater”.

I’m going to document our journey with ARFID here, so that relatives and friends can keep abreast of what’s going on, for others going through similar to feel less alone (I won’t say get tips as I clearly have none left, though I hope in time I will build up an arsenal of tools based on results), and for myself, so I can look back on this one sweet day, when Braxton is no longer malnourished, perhaps when he’s that self-assured, confident adult I know he’ll be, and see that this was all part of my learning journey.

Until then, I’m still working on myself through meditation, inner-child and unblocking work, and with the spiritual life coach, as, though I am not blaming myself for this condition my son has, I am pretty sure that as parents, with our children being an extension of us (or to go deeper, us all being an extension of one another), our energy contributes to our children’s choices and ultimately, to their health. To that end, I have to do as much work as he does. So here I am, vowing to do that.

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This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Andrea J

    I’m so sorry for all you’re going through. I’m not a nutritionist or blogger, but I am a long time follower of a traditional, whole foods diet. My son became very ill at 7 and at 8 was diagnosed with Crohn’s. It was also ironic as he ate better than any other kid we knew, was born at home with no meds, was not vaccinated, etc. This world has become very toxic and I tried to keep him healthy but it was out of my control. We do our best and that’s all we can do. You sought help many times. Don’t blame yourself, it isn’t your fault. Being a mom of a toddler is hard enough to navigate without the food issues. What’s important is that you’re getting him the help he needs. He’s still little. There’s time to turn this around without long term damage. Give yourself Grace.
    One thing I wanted to mention. My son was hospitalized because his colon was so inflamed he couldn’t absorb nutrients. He had those dark circles and the pain and he was so thin. We put him on a feeding tube for 8 weeks and it was amazing! No food, just formula via tube and water by mouth. It would be a blessed relief for you to not have to worry about food for a few months, and it would allow him to gain weight and get the nutrition he needs. We did a temporary nasal gastric tube but a friend of mine just got the g-tube for her little guy who has eating issues and was also malnourished. He is able to eat by mouth anything he wants but then he gets the added nutrition via formula.
    Just an idea if you’re worried it will take awhile to see results from this new process. Oh, and we also did IV iron infusions which helped immensely.
    Best to you and your little man. You got this!

  2. Bronny

    Lauren this is a fantastic article and so brilliantly written. Wishing you all the best with the new therapist and going forward with Brax’s food journey. You are doing an amazing job! Xx

  3. Roslyn

    Phenomenal Post Lauren. With love and dedication you have persisted through this and I’m so relived for you and your family that you now have a solid answer and are on the pathway to healing. Will certainly be following as I’m quite sure this sort of issue is fobbed off in many many house holds that don’t have quite the determination that you and your husband have! Sending lots of positive energy! Xxx

  4. Talia Litman

    Goodness gracious love – what a challenge! I have no doubt you will both emerge from this period immensely developed, wiser and healthy. Sending you lots of love for the journey ahead..

    ps. love the sound of the techniques the new therapist practices, best of luck! x

  5. trish

    Motherhood is a roller coaster ride its not for the faint hearted and no where in any book do they tell you that [secret women’s business] .I think your attitude of working on yourself is great but as a mother who had two children with challenges I did forgot to be forgiving and kind to me,
    I thought it would never end when the kids were young the challenges just kept coming ,but it did end and my kids are fantastic adults although I have some scars from medical and bureaucratic disagreements .
    Children don’t come with Ikea plans ,but I do believe if work is needed in this life they choose who they will be born to and ,Brax has made a wise choice in choosing you as his Mum you are , self motivated, strong,full ,of empathy kindness and wisdom a loving caring Mother , very pro-active ,not to mention a dam good cook ,My love and light go to you and Brax in your journey and I look forward to stories of his success’s big and small .
    ,