Many children who are picky eaters will only eat a few foods, and others might insist on eating their preferred foods at almost every meal. Though parents may frequently treat picky eating as a discipline problem, alternatively begging and demanding their child eat “just one more bite,” a study published in Pediatrics suggests there may be a correlation between picky eating and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
Mental Health Issues and Picky Eating
Researchers screened more than 1,000 children between the ages of two and five for picky eating habits, finding that about 200 children, or 20%, exhibited picky eating habits. Most were only “moderately” picky: They preferred to eat a limited number of foods and listed a large number of foods they were unwilling to try.
But in 3% of the children surveyed, picky eating habits were more severe. These children’s food preferences were so limited that they had difficulty eating outside the home. As they grew older, their eating habits interfered with outings with family and friends. Some children were so picky that even the smell of certain foods could induce vomiting.social anxiety or depression. Those who were only moderately picky about food had higher rates of attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD) and separation anxiety.
Though researchers did not directly test why children who are picky eaters are more likely to experience mental health concerns, an increased sensitivity to sensory input may be one reason. The study’s authors suggest that these children may have a stronger sense of disgust than other children and that a child who feels constantly assaulted by sensory overload may find the world a challenging place to navigate.
How Parents Can Help Picky Eaters
Grace Malonai, PhD, in Walnut Creek, California, specializes in parenting and regularly works with picky eaters. She emphasizes that these children often obtain good results from occupational therapy.
“There are three strategies parents can use to help their children deal with picky eating,” she said. “First, understand the reasons behind the picky eating, because there could be a problem. Picky eating may be a sign of negative associations with certain types of foods, mental health issues relating to a need for control, sensory processing dysfunction, developmental problems, depression, anxiety, other mental health issues, or gastrointestinal problems. Second, ask your child to try a small bite of a new food, or even just a lick, but do not force-feed your child. Third, continue to offer healthy foods, even if a child does not eat them. This helps your child’s brain understand that the item is food.”
The Ellyn Satter Institute, which helps parents develop healthy approaches to feeding their children, emphasizes that parents may need to present a food 15 to 20 times before a child is willing to eat it.
In 2013, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual added avoidant/restrictive food intake to its list of mental health diagnoses. Restrictive food intake is characterized by eating habits so selective that they interfere with daily life. Many children with this condition are highly sensitive to tastes and smells.
- How children learn to like new food. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://ellynsatterinstitute.org/htf/howchildrenlearntolikenewfood.php#
- Pawlowski, A., & Edwards, E. (2015, August 3). The dark side of picky eating: The new findings parents need to know. Retrieved from http://www.today.com/health/picky-eating-linked-psychiatric-problems-kids-study-finds-t35961
- Study: Child’s picky eating may signal emotional troubles. (2015, August 3). Retrieved from http://www.freep.com/story/life/2015/08/03/picky-eating-study/31062379
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