Researchers find link between picky eating and psychological distress


Most children prefer hamburgers to carrots, and ice cream to broccoli. For some children, however, their picky eating habits are so severe that they avoid entire food groups and would rather go hungry than eat a food item that isn’t one of their favorites.

According to a research study published in the journal Pediatrics this past August, these picky eaters aren’t necessarily “going through a phrase.” Instead, their eating habits may coincide with serious psychological issues, such as anxiety and depression. In recognition of Eating Disorders Awareness Week, Feb. 21-27, 2016, let’s take a closer look at how picky eating can influence a child’s mental health.

The study

The research study was led by Nancy Zucker, Ph.D., the director of the Duke Center for Eating Disorders, in an attempt to learn more about the psychology associated with picky eating.

Researchers like Zucker have recently recognized the clinical significance behind what was once thought of as a mere childhood quirk. In 2013, severe picky eating was officially added to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder. The condition can also be referred to as selective eating disorder.

In the study, the researchers found that over 20 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 4 are picky eaters. Most of these children were only moderately picky (defined as only eating preferred foods), but a small percentage were severely picky (defined as having difficulties eating with other people because their food preferences are so selective).

“The children we’re talking about are not just misbehaving kids who refuse to eat their broccoli,” explained Zucker in a press release. Children in the study who disliked eating commonly loathed foods like broccoli were categorized as having normal eating habits for their age.

According to the study, children who were defined as moderately picky or severely picky had an elevated risk for depression, social anxiety and generalized anxiety. In fact, compared to the other children in the study, picky eaters were twice as likely to have increased symptoms of generalized anxiety at their follow-up visits.

“There’s no question that not all children go on to have chronic selective eating in adulthood,” explained Zucker. “But because these children are seeing impairment in their health and well-being now, we need to start developing ways to help these parents and doctors know when and how to intervene.”

How do we help picky eaters?

Parents can help a clinically picky eater, but first they must learn how to spot clinically picky eaters. Some common symptoms of avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder include:

  • Willingness to eat 15 foods or fewer
  • Omitting whole food groups from their diet
  • Persistent gagging
  • Frequently getting “stuck” on one particular food
  • Anticipatory nausea when facing an undesired food

Some children who demonstrate these symptoms might have heightened senses, a condition that can make the taste, smell or texture of certain foods overwhelming. Other children may have had negative experiences with food in the past. Others may be struggling with orthorexia or another eating disorder.

Regardless of the cause, seek psychological intervention. You may not be able to get children with selective eating disorder to eat a filet mignon, but you can determine whether or not their diet is linked with psychological issues that are diminishing their quality of life. Medication, therapy and other behavioral interventions may make all the difference for picky eaters.

At White River Academy, we provide our students with the structure and 24/7 support that allow us to best understand the nature of our students’ problems. Students receive help from trained therapists, psychiatrists and certified teachers who can help them continue their education, achieve mental wellness and recognize their true potential. For more information, contact us at 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Courtney Lopresti, M.S., uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her Master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis.

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