If you’re pulling your hair out at mealtimes because your child’s preferences change daily, there could be a scientific reason. By Kim Bell
Science shows that your child’s pickiness has less to do with nurture, and more to do with nature. A British study, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, has found that fussy eating and the refusal to try new foods are heavily influenced by genetic make-up. The study, known as Gemini, looked at more than 1 900 families with twins aged 16 months. Researchers from the UK and Norway had parents fill in a questionnaire regarding the eating habits of toddlers, including whether they enjoyed a variety of foods, and if they refused new foods.
The study looked at how similar the results were from identical twins (who share all their genes), compared with fraternal twins (who share on average 50% of the genes), and were able to see what the influence of genetic factors were on the eating behaviours of the toddlers.
“That these traits were so significantly influenced by genes so early on indicates how innate the tendency is, and that it is not because of the parents who are kind of moulding [children] into fussy eaters – it is already there when they are 16 months old,” says lead author, Andrea Smith. The study found that picky eaters are also more likely to reject unfamiliar foods. “At 16 months we found that, overall, 46% of the variation in food fussiness was explained by genes, and we found that 58% of food neophobia (rejection of new foods) was explained by genes,” adds Smith.
Further research, conducted by researchers out of the University of Illinois in the US, and published in the Journal of Nutrigenetics and Nutrigenomics, has discovered that two gene mutations are believed to be related to the perception of bitter taste, particularly among two- to four-year-olds. The one, TAS2R30, has been associated with limited dietary variety, and the other, CA6, is associated with being out of control during mealtimes. Both are believed to be linked to sensory response, and may be the reason your child refuses a particular food. To her, it simply tastes bad.
The good news is, even with nature, environmental factors can play an important role, and this fussy eating behaviour can be modified.
Registered dietician Jennifer Hyland, from Cleveland Children’s Clinic adds that it is typical for picky eating to start in the toddler years.
“Usually, during infancy, they’re adventurous eaters and they’re trying new things, and then picking eating really creeps up around the time they become toddlers. Parents will say, ‘My kid ate vegetables and they really liked that and now they don’t eat anything,’ – we see that pretty frequently,” she adds.
Hyland adds that if this is the case, it is still important to continue to expose your toddler to new foods in order to get them to eat over time. She explains that it can take anything between 10 to 20 tries to get a child to like a new food.
She recommends you introduce “no thank you” bites. Your toddler can say “no thank you” but, they have to, at the very, least try the food. This, she adds, will lead to continued exposure and, over time, your toddler will hopefully learn to develop a taste for foods previously considered unpalatable.
“Please try your best to cook the same meal for the whole family,” says Hyland. “The child may not eat all parts of it, but it’s important that you encourage them to at least try, and that you set an example of trying these foods yourself so that over time, they will learn to eat these foods.”
Kim Bell is a wife, mother of two teenagers and a lover of research and the way words flow and meld together. She has been in the media industry for over 20 years, and yet still learns more about life from her children everyday. You can learn more about Kim Bell here.