Picky eaters may have more problems later in life

In children 2 to 6 years old, picky eating has been considered a normal part of development — fear of new foods, food jags, and erratic eating, that is. It’s been estimated that 14 to 20 percent of children aged 2 to 5 years are reported to be picky eaters by their parents. As such, parents may hear advice that he or she “will grow out of it,” or “just ignore the behavior” — he or she will come around. For many children, this is true, but it’s not true for all children. 

I used to have a pediatric nutrition private practice where I saw kids with a variety of nutrition challenges, such as being overweight/obesity, eating disorders, food allergies, sports nutrition, and more. One of the areas with which I helped children and their families was picky eating. Frequently, I counseled older children, 7 to 10 years old, with picky eating; they were kids who had been picky eaters their whole lives.

Their families were told early on that picky eating was a normal stage and it would pass. As the kids got older, however, the picky eating remained the same or got worse, and the family usually had adapted to their child’s picky habits. Feeding dynamics were off, there was strife at the meal table, and the child was still stuck in his or her eating ways, not moving forward with food variety, food texture, or their confidence in eating new foods.

By the time these kids entered school, their food selectivity had become a hindrance to their social lives, which was a common reason that families sought my services. They wanted me to help their child branch out with food so he or she could spend the night at a friend’s house, join in the end of sports season pizza party, or vacation with another family.

While I was helping with food and nutrition, I was simultaneously encouraging families to seek the help of other professionals, such as occupational therapists, speech and language pathologists, behavioral counselors, and mental health professionals. I knew the problem was bigger than picky eating and more involved than my nutrition expertise.

Recent research has analyzed the social and emotional impact of being a picky eater. In a 2015 study published in Pediatrics, researchers looked at children 2 to 6 years of age with moderate (meaning they only ate foods they accepted routinely) to severe picky eating (where a limited food repertoire got in the way of social engagement) and found higher levels of anxiety, depression, and ADHD in these kids versus those children identified as being “normal” picky eaters (having typical dislikes, such as broccoli).

This study challenges the attitude that picky eating is harmless. In fact, as kids’ selective eating worsened, so did their psychological symptoms of anxiety and depression. The researchers concluded that children with moderate and severe picky eating should seek intervention to avoid future negative psychological impact.

As a practitioner, I couldn’t agree more. I have always advocated early intervention with picky eating. From reading about positive ways to intervene with the normal picky eater to seeking professional help when eating becomes extremely selective or weight status becomes problematic, helping a child grow with eating pays dividends in many ways, including in kids’ physical and psychological health.

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About Jill Castle, Bundoo Pediatric Nutritionist

Jill Castle is a registered dietitian/nutritionist and childhood nutrition expert. She is co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School.

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