Children who are fussy eaters may be anxious or depressed, say scientists

Pickiness is usually dismissed as just a phase, but scientists say it can signify mental problems

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Indy Lifestyle Online

It can be a frustrating and  disheartening routine for all concerned: a small child pushes unwanted food around their plate, while an exasperated parent looks on.

However, scientists have discovered that picky eating in small children is not only a sign of a food fussiness, but could also be a precursor to a serious mental problems that should not be ignored.

Parents and doctors who view fussy eating as a passing phase could be making a grave mistake, a study suggests.

Even “moderate” pickiness was associated with significantly increased levels of depression and anxiety in a population of more than 3,000 children aged two to six.

Those with highly selective eating habits were more than twice as likely as normal eaters to have a diagnosis  of depression.

Lead researcher Dr Nancy Zucker, director of the Duke Centre for Eating Disorders in the US, said: “The question for many parents and physicians is, when is picky eating truly a problem?

“The children we are  talking about are not just  misbehaving kids who refuse to eat their broccoli.”


The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that more than a fifth of the  children studied were selective eaters. Of these, nearly 18 per cent were classified as “moderately picky” and about 3 per cent as “severely selective”. Children with both moderate and severely selective eating habits displayed symptoms of anxiety and other mental problems.

Dr Zucker added: “These are children whose eating  has become so limited or selective that it is starting to cause problems.

“Impairment can take many different forms. It can affect the child’s health, growth, social functioning and  the parent-child relationship. The child can feel like no one believes them, and  parents can feel blamed for  the problem.

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

Some children who refuse to eat might have heightened senses, causing them to be overwhelmed by the smell, texture and taste of certain foods, she pointed out.

A bad experience with a certain food could lead to anxiety when a child is given something else that is new and “untrustworthy”.

New remedies were needed for sensitive children with  frequent experiences of “palpable disgust”, said  Dr Zucker.