Severe picky eating linked to psychiatric problems, finds study

There is no need for parents to fret about their 'regular' picky eater.


There is no need for parents to fret about their ‘regular’ picky eater.

Psychiatric problems, including anxiety and symptoms of depression, have been linked to severe cases of picky eating, a new study published in the journal Pediatric finds.

Researchers found that mental health problems became worse as picky eating became more severe. They suggest that rather than taking a “wait and see” approach, care providers should intervene.

“We need to do a better job of giving advice to these parents,” Nancy Zucker, study co-author and associate professor of psychology at Duke University, told NBC News.

“The first take-home message is that you’re not to blame. The second take-home message is that it’s more complicated than we think.”

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During the study, researchers screened more than 1000 children aged two to five and found that as many as 20 per cent were picky eaters. As many as 17 per cent were moderate picky eaters, defined as children who had a very limited range of foods they would eat and they would not try anything else.

Three per cent of the children analysed were classified as severe picky eaters.

The research suggests that severe picky eaters are more sensitive to the texture and smell of food, and have a stronger sense of disgust than other kids. Zucker says that this ability to experience the world more intensely may also make it harder for them to get a grip on their emotions or focus.

“These are just sensitive kids, they see things more intently, they feel things more deeply and that’s both in their own internal experience and the world around them.

“So they have more vulnerabilities to experience taste more vividly, but also more emotions more strongly,” Zucker explained.

The study found that children who were either moderate or severe picky eaters were more likely to have symptoms of anxiety or depression. They were also more likely to have mothers with anxiety and to come from families that had experienced conflict around food. 

Zucker notes that given the link between picky eating and psychiatric problems, there should be strategies in place for doctors to intervene, especially for kids in the severe category. 

The study also recommends that the condition might be better described as avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) rather than picky eating.

But while severe picky eating might be linked to some mental health problems there is no need for parents to fret about their ‘regular’ picky eater. It is quite normal for kids to refuse particular foods at certain stages.

Simone Austin is an Accredited Practising Dietitian, she says that early food experiences and eating environments are critical to healthy eating habits later in life.

Austin offers the following advice for parents:

* It is the parent’s responsibility to provide nutritious options for children (at home or for school), and the child can choose when, what and how much they eat.

* Ask children to leave the ‘new’ or unwanted food on the plate even if they don’t eat it and they may become more familiar with the taste, texture and smell and be more likely to try it every time they have it presented.

* It takes around 10 times to like a new food- need to get used to taste, texture and very importantly smell that makes up a lot of our taste.

* Try different foods numerous times, one refusal does not mean they don’t like it.

* Get kids to help out in the kitchen and they will become familiar with more types of foods and are more likely to try it if they have helped prepare it. Also develops a love for nutritious food.

* You don’t have to ‘balance’ nutritionally on a daily basis, the diet can balance out over a period of time e.g. could have lots of veggies one day, more meat a different day, go through a few days of having a favourite food like bananas as the fruit for a week and then a child might want all mandarins the next, it can balance out.

* An Accredited Practising Dietitian can provide helpful tips to improve the variety in a child’s diet as well as making sure that they are receiving all the important nutrients they need.


First published: August 5, 2016 at 01:59AM.
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