Why little ‘fussy eaters’ should be taken seriously

If you, like so many grandparents, have a fussy eater on your hands, you might want to take note: it isn’t always just a phase, and it could be the sign of something more serious.

As grandparents, sometimes it can be easier for us just to give in the picky eating so we can avoid tantrums and have an enjoyable meal, but a new study has suggested a fussiness for particular food significantly increases the chances of a severe mental problem.

According to lead researcher Dr Nancy Zucker, director of the Duke Centre for Eating Disorders in the US, “The question for many parents and physicians is: When is picky eating a problem? The children we’re talking about are not just misbehaving kids who refuse to eat their broccoli”.

The new researched, published in the journal Paediatrics, found more than a fifth of the children were selective eaters. Of these, nearly 18 percent were classified as “moderately picky” and about 3 percent as “severely selective”.

And it was the children with moderate and severely selective eating habits that displayed symptoms of anxiety and other mental problems.

You may have noticed that your grandchild’s refusal to eat certain foods could be causing bigger problems. Dr Zucker noted that an impairment could take many forms and can be less obvious. “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”, she said.

As the child gets older, a bad experience with food could lead to anxiety about new and untrustworthy things, outside of food. Dr Zucker said that small amounts of pickiness are normal and most kids outgrow their fussy eating. With that said, it is a good idea to keep working on children who only eat a select few foods.

The study focused on about 900 children aged 2 through 5 in Durham, North Carolina, and they were interviewed to evaluate their eating habits and mental health. Follow-up evaluations were done two years later in almost 200 children.

Compared with children who aren’t fussy eaters, depression and social anxiety were at least two times more common in kids with severe pickiness; attention deficit behaviour and separation anxiety symptoms were more common in moderately selective kids.

Severe selective eating is called avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder. It can occur in all ages; some of those affected are extra-sensitive to food tastes, smells and textures.

Dr Zucker said severe pickiness might be the first clue for parents that a child is experiencing anxiety or depression and that they may want to seek help from a mental health specialist.

Tell us, is your grandchild a picky eater? What do you do to help them?

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