Picky eaters and anxiety

For parents with toddlers and small children, meal-time food battles are common.

Rare is the family whose children will gladly ingest unfamiliar dishes without at least some suspicion.

As common as it is for kids to avoid one or two foods or ingredients, there are some who seem to take it to a whole other level.

Everyone likely knows at least one particularly picky eater. These kids are the ones who insist they can only eat a certain colour of food, whose peas can’t touch their carrots, who can only enjoy things with smooth textures, or noodles with no sauce.

A study from Duke University and published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, associated extremely picky eating with an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and ADHD.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the symptoms worsen with the severity of pickiness.

Researchers in this study examined eating habits of 3,400 children between 2007 and 2010. They then narrowed it down to just over 900 picky eaters between the ages of two and five who were not on the autism spectrum (associated with very picky eating).

More than one in five of these kids demonstrated moderate or severe selective eating and those in the severe category were more than twice as likely to have a diagnosable psychiatric condition and twice as likely to have behaviour problems outside the home.

In the moderate group, children had increased rates of ADHD and separation anxiety.

Both groups had 1.7 times increased likelihood of generalized anxiety disorder.

Of course, picky eating does not necessarily mean your child is anxious or depressed, but if picky eating is interfering with your child’s social functioning or if you are concerned, it may be a good idea to seek professional advice about it.

When a co-existing psychiatric condition is present, getting help early can prevent the condition from worsening, and can also minimize its negative effects on a child’s life.

Often, early education and work with a child can help them to cope with difficult feelings and situations so he or she is able to continue taking part in daily activities.

It is not well understood exactly what causes extremely picky eating. Several theories exist and most scientists now believe it is the result of a combination of neurology and environment. There has not been a lot of study yet into how best to introduce new foods to these children.

Although more longitudinal research is underway, we don’t yet have data on how many picky children continue on to be picky adults or how many continue to develop more serious psychiatric symptoms.

Parents can be comforted to know that extreme picky eating is not typically a result of poor discipline or permissive parenting. 

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


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About the Author

Paul Latimer has over 25 years experience in clinical practice, research, and administration.

After obtaining his medical degree from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, he did psychiatric training at Queen's, Oxford and Temple Universities. After his residency he did a doctorate in medical science at McMaster University where he was also a Medical Research Council of Canada Scholar.

Since 1983 he has been practicing psychiatry in Kelowna, BC, where he has held many administrative positions and conducted numerous clinical trials.

He has published many scientific papers and one book on the psychophysiology of the functional bowel disorders.

He is an avid photographer, skier and outdoorsman.

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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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