#41 -Sensory Food Aversions: Causes & How to Start "Fixing" Them

Sep 10, 2023
#41 -Sensory Food Aversions: Causes & How to Start "Fixing" Them

Welcome back to the Food Explorers Podcast, episode #41 where we are talking all about sensory food aversions, what can cause them, and some ways you can start working on “fixing” them.


I’m putting "fix" into quotations here. When it comes to sensory challenges, I personally don’t believe that we fix them, but rather we help our brain learn to accommodate sensory input and sensory challenges so that we can better participate in life. 


And I think this really goes along with neurodiversity as well. When we use the word “fix” we’re insinuating that something is wrong with a person or a child. But in reality, every single one of us has a different sensory system with different sensory needs. Some people just have stronger sensory quirks, that don’t fit with our current world. So by fixing, I mean, how do we help people achieve the right fit that works for them and their body.


Now let’s talk about that term sensory food aversion. What does it mean?


Well, in a broad sense it means that a person or child is averse, or has a strong dislike, of a food or certain foods due to the sensory characteristics of that food or their personal sensory preferences.


Sensory food aversions seems like a super specific term, but honestly, theres many terms used to describe the same thing. For example, you might also hear someone say that a person or child has:

  • Food texture issues
  • Sensory food issues
  • Food sensory issues
  • Hypersensitivity to foods


Now a big question I often hear is "how do I know if it’s picky eating or selective eating vs a sensory food aversion?"


I like to think of eating challenges (like picky eating) as the general way of explaining that a person is struggling to eat. But then, we need to figure out WHY a person is struggling to eat. AKA why they are being “picky” or “selective.” And sensory is just one of those reasons.


*Sidenote - if you’ve been here a while you know how I feel about the term picky eating, I’m not going to go into that today, but I do on several other podcast episodes. Specifically, take a look at episode #33, “Is it Just Picky Eating, or is It Something More?”


But what CAUSES this? Why do some people have sensory food aversions? Where do they come from? 

Well, in my personal opinion and in my experience, it can be either biological - meaning we were born with our sensory system being more or less sensitive, for example medical concerns. OR, it can be learned from experiences. 


Let’s start with biological. You may have heard someone say that people with sensory difficulties are “wired differently,” meaning that the wiring in their brain is different than the wiring in the brain of someone without sensory difficulties. 


This arose out of a study at the University of California San Francisco. In this study researchers examined pictures of the brain of both children with and without sensory processing disorder. And what they found was actual, structural differences in the white matter of the children with sensory processing disorder. Specifically these differences were mostly in the areas of the brain that offered connections for the auditory and touch systems. Hint hint - texture issues come from the touch sense. Connections between the right and left hemispheres of the brain were also impacted. 


This study was incredibly groundbreaking. From my understanding it was the first study that showed us true anatomical differences in the brains of individuals with and without sensory challenges. So again, it can be biological.

Now, the study was small with only 16 boys with sensory processing disorder, and 24 boys without sensory processing disorder, so of course more research and bigger sample sizes are needed to come to complete conclusions. 


On the other hand, I believe some sensory difficulties are learned from experiences. And here’s the reason I believe that. 


Many of you know that I am also a NICU occupational therapist. Meaning I work with newborn and premature babies. I’ve also had extensive experience working in the other units of the hospital including the pediatric intensive care unit and cardiac intensive care units. 


Now, the hospital is clearly not an optimal environment for development. Children who spend prolonged amounts of time in the hospital often are deprived of normal, pleasurable sensory stimulation. For example, being exposed to natural light, soft items & toys, movement opportunities, pleasurable touch from friends, and true opportunities to explore their environments.

Instead, they’re often exposed to unnatural, and non-pleasurable sensory experiences - like IV insertions, procedural touch, blood draws, florescent lights, scratchy sheets, and pains.

In my experience, I’ve seen children’s sensory systems change over time from these sensory experiences. Some kids become more sensitive to this input, while others become less sensitive.

In fact, there’s a pretty famous study on the Romanian children living in orphanages, and the effects of sensory deprivation on their brains and development. These researchers have not only found that sensory deprivation impacts sensory modulation - meaning how sensitive we are to sensory input, but it also changes the brain and stress response. Showing us that the sensory input, or lack thereof we receive in life can change how our body reacts to sensory information.


So of course, my guess is that you are not here because your child is sensory deprived, but what I want you to be aware of it that the experiences we have in life impact our sensory processing.


Our brain is constantly learning and putting down new pathways. For example, when we have a bad experience with a food, our brain logs that. And then next time, we’re less excited or likely to engage with that food, and even other foods.

But I know, I know you want to know how to overcome this. 


My first suggestion is to not look at yourself or your child like there is something wrong that needs to be “fixed.” Again, as I mentioned above, I prefer to celebrate neurodiversity. Every person is different and needs different supports. And our world is not really designed for neurodiversty, it’s designed thinking that we mostly respond predictably, in the same way. Instead, I really prefer to think about how we can help a person become more comfortable and confident encountering challenging sensory information, like food textures, because encountering new sensory information can’t always be controlled. It’s going to happen throughout life.


So how do I do this? 


Well, I think it depends what the goal is. Is it to expand the variety of foods eaten? OR is it to work on specific food textures?


I think when it comes to working on food it’s important to have a goal in mind. Because otherwise, it may be too overwhelming.


Let me give you an example of this. 


If you’re like most people I chat with, you probably answered both to that question. But here’s what that may look like in reality.


Say my goal is to work on variety - in this case, I would likely make sure to offer a new food in a texture that a child is already comfortable with. For example, if I know they like crunchy foods, I might try to introduce crunchy fruits or dried fruits. That way we’re keeping the texture easy, but introducing a new food which is harder.


Or, if I want to work on texture, I may choose a food they already know and love - for example, say carrots. But then try to introduce it in a different texture, like steamed. This way, the food is easier because they already know and enjoy it, but the texture is harder. 


But if I chose a totally new food and a totally new texture - let’s say yogurt, this would be doubly challenging, and the chance of success goes down, because this may be too hard for the mind to handle. 


Of course, just because we make it easier, doesn’t mean it’s going to be an absolute win. Many people and children still need time to gain comfort with that food, and with themselves. That’s why I love food play and talking about food. We think of eating as two steps - picking up food and putting it in our mouth. But in reality when we’re nervous about a food, we often look at it, poke it with our forks, or try it out on our teeth.


And what we don’t realize is that this is a skill we’ve learned through the years.


We gradually try little things to assess our comfort with food before biting into and swallowing it. And it’s a skill that some adults and children need to learn and be taught. And food play, or food discussions can do just that. It can teach them how to assess, and become more comfortable with a food, so that their brain isn’t as nervous taking a bite. This is where 1:1 feeding therapy can be a game changer. It gives you structured time to practice and learn this, and take new steps you or your child might not have on your own. If you’re looking for a therapist, I really like using the SOS Approach to Feeding website, and they have a provider directory on there.


Now, many people with sensory challenges come to the table with their fight or flight response already amped up, because their senses are telling them that eating doesn’t feel good for their body. 

This doesn’t put them in the right place to learn. You can’t learn well when your body is focused on protecting yourself. We have to first turn off that fight or flight response and build confidence at the table. 


And you do this by learning about the senses, the person’s personal sensory system, and supporting it where it’s at. Then, you gradually start to offer variety within food or food textures, in small increments.


But you can’t do this, until you really understand sensory processing, and how it’s related to eating. 


While I am a huge therapy proponent, I do believe that it’s extremely important to also educate the client or the parent. Because progress happens at home. It’s important that you understand this information too. And that’s why I’m excited to announce that I am bringing you a ton of affordable mini-courses that will provide this education just for you! 


And the first one launched this past week. For only $30 and 30 minutes, you can take the Impact of the Senses on Eating, and get a deeper dive into how the senses relate to eating, the psychology behind what goes on with sensory food aversions, and how to start helping turn off  the fight or flight response, so curiosity and exploration can be rediscovered at the table.


If you've been told about sensory issues with food...but no one ever explained:

  • What that actually means
  • What part the sensory system plays
  • How the sensory system can be triggering mealtime battles...and how those battles can make eating even more challenging
  • How you can get started supporting the sensory system at the table

then this is for you!

In this course you will: 

  • Be introduced to the 8 senses

  • Discover how the sensory system affects eating 

  • Picture mealtime through the eyes of someone with sensory challenges

  • Learn how the sensory system activates the fight or flight response...and leads to mealtime battles

  • Explore the importance of subtle cues

  • Gain practical & simple tips on where to start


Again, this mini-course is only a 1 time payments of $30, and you can finish it in half-an-hour. Go to https://www.drsamgoldman.com/impactofthesensesoneating to get started right now! 

I really hope you enjoyed this episode on sensory food aversions - this was actually a personal request from you guys on Instagram. I’d love to hear what you thought, or what you would have like more of. Head over to @DrSamGoldman on Instagram, and send me a personal DM. I can’t wait to chat with you! Talk soon.



  1. https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2013/07/107316/breakthrough-study-reveals-biological-basis-sensory-processing-disorders-kids
  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2213158213000776

  3. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/230788557_Deprivation_and_Sensory_Processing_in_Institutionalized_and_Postinstitutionalized_Children_Part_II 


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