When picky eating is more than just a phase

8 13 15 picky eaterAug. 11, 2015—Picky eating may often just be a temporary phase for kids, but according to new research, some children just don’t seem to change their eating habits.

The findings suggest that kids who have what’s called selective eating might need a little more than coaching from their parents to help overcome dining difficulties. The behaviors may also be a warning sign of mental health problems, and that means parents at a loss might need to see a doctor for more help.

About the study

Over the course of about 4 years, researchers studied children age 2 to 5 years old to assess their eating habits and mental health.

Overall, about 20 percent of the kids were selective eaters. Most, nearly 18 percent, had moderate symptoms—meaning that they only ate foods that they preferred. About 3 percent had severe symptoms—meaning that they were on such self-restricted diets that they couldn’t easily eat with others.

Researchers said many kids with moderate or severe selective eating were very sensitive to food, including the way it looked, smelled, felt or moved.

And while parents may try to shift the pattern, they aren’t always successful. Parents of kids with moderate or severe selective eating had a 3- to 5-fold greater likelihood of fighting with their children about eating, when compared to parents of kids with no selective eating.

The problem with pickiness

Researchers suggested that some kids’ intense sensations to food taste and texture might make it difficult for them to balance emotions at mealtimes.

Selective eaters had more symptoms of depression and anxiety when compared to non selective eaters. That means that picky eating may be an important subject for parents to talk to a doctor about—the behavior could be an early warning sign of mental health problems.

The researchers said that these findings suggest that picky eating and even selective eating might be outdated terms. Instead, children with moderate to severe selective eating may have avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder.

This diagnosis could be useful for screening kids at risk for anxiety and providing early intervention, researchers said.

For more details, read the study in Pediatrics.

The take-home message
While a percentage of kids have severely restricted diets that parents find hard to budge, there are plenty of picky kids out there that could eat a more balanced, varied diet with a little help from parents.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggest that parents:

  • Assess stress. Mealtime battles can make kids too uncomfortable or upset to eat. Try to make the table a place for fun and happiness.
  • Encourage experimentation. Provide plenty of choices, and ask your child to eat at least 1 bite of everything offered.
  • Model good behavior. Serve the same foods to everyone at the table, and make sure the adults eat at least a bite of everything offered.
  • Cook with kids. Let kids pick out fruits and vegetables at the store, and ask them to help prepare the meals.

And if all of these steps don’t help and your child seems unable or unwilling to shift food preferences, speak with your doctor.


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