Could Picky Eating Be Linked to Mental Health Issues?

Young girl looks down sadly at plate of foodMany 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.

Two years after the initial interview, researchers followed up with the children who had picky eating habits, interviewing them along with their parents. Compared to those who were not picky eaters, the children who had severe picky eating habits were twice as likely to experience 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.

References:

  1. How children learn to like new food. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://ellynsatterinstitute.org/htf/howchildrenlearntolikenewfood.php#
  2. 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
  3. 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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  • debra

    debra

    August 9th, 2015 at 4:12 PM

    You note “A” study meaning one then use the worst of the study to use as a example but then use a BROAD term for the articles title. shame

  • Caroline

    Caroline

    August 10th, 2015 at 4:14 AM

    This might be a stretch but let’s say that there is some correlation. Let’s say that the physical aspects of being a picky eater can then manifest into mental health problems. Fair?

  • Nancy d

    Nancy d

    August 12th, 2015 at 6:33 AM

    I believe that this could be an indicator for depression and anxiety. My daughter was a very picky eater (still is as an adult) and suffers from both anxiety and depression. Her daughter is 6 and is a very picky eater, and I see focus problems and unreasonable anxious reactions to many things.
    I am interested in any info in how to help in this area

  • Annette H.

    Annette H.

    September 3rd, 2015 at 2:18 PM

    I find this very interesting. I’ve been the pickiest of the picky for my entire life. I’ve also noticed as an adult that my finicky behavior increases and decreases according to my anxiety level.

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