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Could Your Child's Picky Eating Signal a Bigger Problem?

The Short of It

Any parent of a toddler is familiar with picky eating, but could severe pickiness about food signal a bigger problem in kids?

The Lowdown

A new study published in the journal "Pediatrics" links severe picky eating with anxiety and depression. Researchers found that kids who will only eat certain foods are more likely than kids who eat most foods to be abnormally sensitive, and therefore, may struggle with emotional problems.

The data showed even moderate pickiness means a child has a higher likelihood of experiencing depressive or anxiety symptoms.

"They have a stronger sensitivity to the world outside and to how their body feels. That sets them up to have more vivid experiences—more intense food experiences, more intense emotional experiences. None of that is pathological, but it could be a vulnerability for later problems," explains lead researcher Nancy Zucker, an eating disorders specialist at Duke University Medical Center.

To reach their conclusions about peewee picky eaters, researchers looked at 3,400 children between the ages of 2 and 6 who went to Duke University for routine medical care. More than 900 kids were evaluated in their homes, while parents filled out psychiatric assessment forms and reported back about the kids' eating habits.

Of the kids who were screened, 20 percent exhibited some form of pickiness, but only 3 percent fell within the severe picky eating category; 17 percent showed moderate pickiness. If participants were not eating foods typically associated with kids' dislikes (Brussels sprouts!), they were considered normal.

Selective eaters found it challenging to eat out and felt sensitive to the texture and smell of food. They also exhibited noise hypersensitivity, suggesting pickiness is linked to sensory challenges. Those extreme picky eaters were twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression and seven times more likely to suffer from social anxiety.

The Upshot

Researchers suggest that parents should seek professional help for severe picky eaters to make sure they aren't dealing with psychiatric problems and to get help with how their pickiness affects family mealtimes. But they note that most kids don't fall into the 3 percent, where there's really a cause for concern.

Instead, many children go through a picky phase and will grow out of it. My experience as a mom-of-three kids has taught me this is true. All of my girls went through a picky phase, and it was beyond frustrating. I worried something was really wrong with them; I mean, who eats only Cheerios and cheese every day and grows up to be a healthy adult? But my oldest daughter grew out of her tendency to be picky at about age 5. Now she will try just about anything. Thank goodness!

Meanwhile, the researchers behind the study advise parents to make dinner a pleasant experience and serve foods you know your child will eat. Introduce new foods at other times of day, like snack time, to avoid nighttime meltdowns and major meal disruptions!

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