My youngest son has some very specific food preferences—think “Mikey” from the old Life cereal commercials. Meaning that most of the time, when we sit down at the dinner table, the first words out of his mouth are, “I don’t like that.” My wife and I have slightly different views on how to handle this. Often, she will make something special for him just so that he’ll eat. That’s what moms do, especially an Italian one. My view more often than not is that he’s just being overly picky and he can eat what we put in front of him.

Now before you start writing your comment chastising me for being a cruel dad, most of the time when we insist he taste what we’ve made, he likes it and will eat it. And he has yet to go to bed hungry. So my wife and I actually balance each other nicely. Don’t tell her I said that, though.

My attitude towards my son’s eating habits would change, though, if it were a matter of health and nutrition rather than preference. If he had a condition that required a specific diet, I would go out of my way to provide it, even going so far as to cook special meals for him. I would give him supplements to replace deficiencies in his body and keep the nutrients at optimum levels.

We tend to treat education like nutrition. The regular curriculum is designed around the recommended daily allowance of reading, math, science and social studies. The content is nutrition, and we provide the amounts that are needed to keep children’s brains growing and learning. Some students have deficiencies, and we spend extra time, effort, and money to customize their diets to bring them back to optimal health.

But what about the gifted students? I fear that many people look at them in the same way as the child who likes to eat a lot. We’re worried that if they eat too much, they’ll get fat, so we carefully regulate their diets, keeping them to the recommended amounts, making sure they don’t go overboard. It’s the same thing my wife and I do when our kids equate being bored with being hungry. Instead of giving them snacks every half hour, we redirect them and give them something else to keep them occupied.

But this model is wrong. Instead of looking at gifted kids as overeaters, we need to realize that they actually have an entirely different kind of metabolism. They consume more not just out of preference but out of necessity. They have a condition that requires much higher amounts of complex and different nutrients just to stay healthy. But when they balk at eating the same diet we’re giving to the rest of the family, we tend to see them as whiny brats and respond just as I do to my youngest son: “It’s good for you. Just eat it. And if you clean your plate, then you can have dessert.”

It’s not a matter of keeping their appetites under control. It’s recognizing that their nutritional needs are completely different than ours. The learning they crave isn’t dessert, and forcing them to eat the meal first doesn’t keep them healthy. Withholding the challenging content, or keeping it carefully controlled, or ignoring the messages they give us about what they want and need isn’t actually preventing obesity, it’s malnutrition.