The Brain and the Digestive Tract: Recognizing the difference between a fussy eater and a problem feeder

Kids with ADHD, OCD, Tourette’s, Asperger’s, Autism, learning disabilities, and other neurological issues are all problem eaters, to one degree or another. Is it coincidental that children with cognitive and behavioral disabilities also are extremely picky eaters? No, in fact what most people fail to recognize is that these issues are directly related. Most learning disabilities and behavioral issues are neurological in origin; they are not purely behavioral, psychological or emotional. These issues are brain issues and are referred to as “functional,” as opposed to structural or chemical. Usually it is due to a functional or electrical imbalance between areas of the brain or the hemispheres that result in an underdevelopment, under-integration or under-regulation of networks in the brain. When it comes to eating issues, there is a spectrum of severity. All kids are fussy to some extent, but in children with learning and behavioral issues, it tends to be much more severe than normal.

Some are what we call problem feeders. These are children who will almost eat nothing and can even have “failure to thrive” issues. These issues can be very dangerous. When eating issues are associated with a developmental issue, it is important to understand that improving the brain is the only way to deal with this issue on a long-term basis. Trying to behaviorally manage or reason with a child who has a neurological issue is extremely challenging, and often not effective. To correct the eating issue, parents need to address the root problem, which is the neurological imbalance in the brain.

One of the major issues present in virtually all children with neurological issues is an abnormal or even completely absent sense of smell. We have done standardized smell tests on tens of thousands of children who have come through our Brain Balance Centers in the last eight years, and more than 90 percent have significant problems with their sense of smell. In most cases, the parent is completely unaware that the child has a loss of smell, and that it’s a major factor with their eating issue. Likewise, we have found that in almost all cases when we do a comprehensive brain stimulation program (which includes smell activities), we can restore the sense of smell to normal. When restored, we find that eating habits change and become more normal; they start to eat all kinds of foods. We also see a change in eye contact and social skills. This is because much of our social networks in the brain are related to our sense of smell. Once a child starts to eat a healthy and more varied diet, it helps the brain to grow, develop and mature. In turn, it helps improve behavior, socialization and academic skills. When the brain is out of balance, all of the other systems may become dysregulated and out of balance.

The immune, endocrine, autonomic and digestive systems become involved as well. This can lead to a number of nutritional issues, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, food sensitivities, inflammation and more. All of this needs to be addressed while restoring balance to the brain and nervous system. The good news is that once the brain is working properly, the child may not need special diets or vitamins any longer because the part of the brain that connects to the digestive tract is now functioning properly. Along with these improvements, there may also be improvement in attention, social skills, academic performance, reading, memory and other essential skills.


To learn more, read Dr. Robert Melillo’s book The Disconnected Kids Nutrition Plan: Proven Strategies to Enhance Learning and Focus for Children with Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Other Neurological Disorders.

Dr. Robert Melillo is an internationally known chiropractic neurologist, professor, researcher and expert in childhood neurological disorders. He is also the author of Disconnected Kids: The Groundbreaking Brain Balance Program for Children with Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and other Neurological Disorders.