Many parents struggle to encourage their children to eat a well-balanced diet. They usually resist anything green on their plates and would prefer processed foods such as hotdogs, nuggets, and more. Kids being picky eaters are a common problem for parents. Previous studies show that it is as prevalent as 22% in children between the ages of 2 and 11.
Picky Eating is Common in Kids
Experts have emphasized the importance of eating healthy foods such as vegetables and fruits at a young age. As a result, many parents tend to resort to strategies or techniques that could encourage kids to eat the foods on their plates. One of these strategies is called the “clean plate club,” which pediatricians believe are not effective. According to them, this only creates power struggles within the entire family and only leads to stressful mealtimes.
While discovering why a child is a picky eater may take time, parents still need to be patient. Lee Gibson, Ph.D., a reader in biopsychology and director of the Clinical and Health Psychology Research Centre at the University of Roehampton in London, said that it’s important to remember that fussy or picky eating is normal in young kids. It is also counterproductive for parents to overreact or try to apply strict dietary regimes to discourage picky eating.
“Parental anxiety won’t help. It’s better to learn by example, always be positive when offering food and show children how much you like a food when you’re asking them to eat it,” Gibson said.
According to NBC News, an online site that covers breaking news, videos, and the latest top stories in world news, business, politics, health and pop culture, picky eating can lead to both short- and long-term nutrient deficiencies and other problems. “Picky eaters tend to reject new foods, but they are also likely to reject meat, vegetables, and foods mixed together. They tend to eat only their favorite foods and are very sensitive to textures. This can result in the consumption of an inadequate variety of foods,” Gabriela Martorell, a psychology professor at Virginia Wesleyan University, said.
“It is important for kids to develop a healthy relationship with food at a young age. When this doesn’t happen, [kids] can have weight problems and disordered eating later on in life,” Tanya Altmann, spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said.
Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, a Pediatric Speech-Language Pathologist & Feeding Specialist, added that 1 in 4 children will develop a pediatric feeding disorder, where extreme picky eating impacts their nutritional health. According to VeryWell Family, a modern resource that offers a realistic and friendly approach to pregnancy and parenting, this can lead to nutritional deficiencies, over or underweight kids, and an increased likelihood of chronic diseases like osteoporosis and heart disease.
However, Potock said that stress would be much more common in situations like this. “The stress in these households is palpable. Mealtimes are often miserable for the entire family, and the picky eater’s behavior always changes the family’s behavior and thus, family dynamics,” she said.
Picky Eating May Be a Sign of Psychological Stress
Previous studies suggested several reasons why some children are picky eaters. For instance, researchers found that children prefer sweet and salty foods—a preference that they exhibit even more strongly than adults. This explains why kids of all ages will naturally reach for what’s most innately satisfying: something salty or sweet over something sour, bland, or bitter.
Another reason why children exhibit picky eating behaviors is not because of the food on the table but rather the dining setup. Researchers said that kids may feel unsettled, dissatisfied or distracted by several physical attributes around them, including their position at, or distance from, the table; the utensils being used; ambient noise or distractions in the room, and many more. However, other experts believe that picky eating can be a sign of a deeper problem.
Researchers from Duke Medicine in Durham, NC, conducted a study to understand what level of selective eating severity causes psychological problems since eating problems are prevalent in children. They reported that between 14% to 20% of parents said that their young children aged 2-5 years are selective eaters.
“The question for many parents and physicians is: when is picky eating truly a problem? The children we’re talking about are not just misbehaving kids who refuse to eat their broccoli,” lead author Nancy Zucker, director of the Duke Center for Eating Disorders, said.
According to Medical News Today, one of the world’s leading open-access medical and life science hubs, the researchers interviewed the caregivers of 917 children aged between 24-71 months. They were asked about the children’s eating habits, functioning, possible psychiatric symptoms, and home environment variables.
“These are children whose eating has become so limited or selective that it’s starting to cause problems. Impairment can take many different forms. It can affect the child’s health, growth, social functioning, and the parent-child relationship. The child can feel like no one believes them, and parents can feel blamed for the problem,” Zucker explained.
The findings revealed that picky eating is linked to underlying psychological problems in children such as anxiety, depression, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). According to the researchers, children with moderate selective eating habits are less likely to be diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder. On the other hand, severely selective eaters were more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression.
However, children who moderate and severe selective eating habits were associated with raised symptoms of depression, social anxiety, and generalized anxiety. “Because these children are seeing impairment in their health and wellbeing now, we need to start developing ways to help these parents and doctors know when and how to intervene,” Zucker said.
A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics suggests that picky eating may be more of a trait than a phase or stage of early childhood. The findings showed that children who tested “persistently high” on the scale of food avoidance tended to be highly demanding and had exaggerated mood swings. Picky eating may sometimes be a sign of a sensory processing disorder (SPD), hypersensitive hearing, touch aversion, and poor motor coordination.