Lots of kids are picky eaters when they're little. While most kids outgrow this behavior, previous research has shown that around 12 percent of children stick to their picky ways. Now, a new study suggests that this exhausting habit might be cause for greater concern beyond the mind-numbing dullness of eating plain pasta for dinner every night. The study, published online in the journal Pediatrics earlier this week, found that picky eaters are more likely to develop anxiety, depression, and ADHD in later years.
The study consisted of following more than 900 children between the ages of 2 and 6 for an average of three years. Based on interviews with the children's parents, 18 percent were identified as moderate picky eaters and an additional 3 percent were identified as severe picky eaters. Children who had already been identified as on the Autism spectrum were not considered in the study as they typically tend to be particularly selective eaters.
While moderate cases were associated with symptoms of separation anxiety and ADHD, severe picky eaters were more likely to have an actual diagnosis of depression or social anxiety in later years. But the scientists stressed that this is a case of correlation, not causation.
"This doesn’t prove that [selective] eating leads to these other disorders," said Dr. Scott Pentiuk, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, who was not involved in the study, told the Wall Street Journal. "Kids who are already anxious about eating may be more predisposed to being more anxious in general or developing an anxiety disorder later." In other words, don't panic if your kid hates broccoli. Not eating it isn't going to cause them to develop anxiety, but you might want to look out for signs of anxious behavior.
Nancy Zucker, director of the Duke Center for Eating Disorders, where the study was based, explained to NPR that pickiness could result from an oversensitivity to taste or texture. "They're more sensitive to taste, to smell, to texture, to visual clues like light." Kids with such sensitivity "have a potentially richer, more vivid life experience," Zucker said. But "it could be a vulnerability if it crosses a threshold where it starts to impair them."
Severe selectivity in eating is now being treated at places like Duke as a newly recognized eating disorder called Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. But parents can make strides on their own if they're dealing with a moderately picky eater. Pair new foods with preferred foods on a plate, encourage playing with your food, and just keep trying. An adult may only need one or two tries to decide they like an unfamiliar dish, but according to Kathleen Kara Fitzpatrick, a psychologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, "extreme picky eaters can require 52 or more presentations of a food before it's no longer considered novel."