Food is often one of the first areas of life that kids can take control of. They can kick and scream when served anything green, or refuse to eat anything that isn’t served on their favourite plate. They might complain about the smell, the taste, the texture, and wrinkle their little noses in disgust. That kids mess around with food and sometimes refuse to eat it is not anything new. But rather than waiting for children to ‘grow out of it’, scientists are urging parents to do something about it, because picky eating – or ‘selective eating’ (SE) – has now been linked to mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and social anxiety. And girls are more susceptible than boys.
The research from Duke University among 917 children aged between two and five found that SE was reported by 20.3%, with 17.7% reporting moderate SE (a restricted diet only) and another 3% reporting severe SE (a restricted diet that limited their ability to eat with others). The study found that “moderate and severe levels of SE were associated with psychopathological symptoms (anxiety, depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) both concurrently and prospectively”. The more severe the levels of SE, the higher the likelihood of mental conditions. Children with severe cases of picky eating were more than twice as likely to develop depression. Two other significant findings were that high maternal anxiety existed with children who had moderate or severe SE. And severe picky eaters were more likely to be girls than boys.
The researchers even go as far as saying that the term ‘picky eating’ is obsolete when the selective eating is moderate or severe – as the fact that children are eating selectively implies that they need some help. They instead think the condition should be labelled with the diagnosis used by psychiatrists (DSMV) as ‘avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder’. This doesn’t mean parents need to panic if their little one spits out a piece of carrot. It is just a way of remaining vigilant if problems persist or become deeper and more consistent – and seeking further advice and help where needed.
You can check out the full research study here: Psychological and Psychosocial Impairment in Preschoolers With Selective Eating.