When your picky eater kid refuses to try new food, genetics could be to blame

Norman Byrd's picture

The reason your child constantly refuses to try some new dinner item may not have anything to do with just being stubborn, because it could be that their food neophobia could be a genetic response to stimuli.

Picky eaters might not be simply stubborn and willfully rebellious. Their reluctance to try new foods could be due to those traits, but it could also be due to a biological predisposition. In short, refusing to try new foods could be a genetic response, Science Daily reported this week (March 21).

One of the more memorable moments in film history is the scene in the 1992 Robert Redford-directed classic "A River Runs Through It" where the little boy, Paul, refuses to eat his porridge and sits there staring at it all day. Paul grows up to be (Brad Pitt) a bit wild, rambunctious, unwilling to submit to authority. The point is that his rebellious streak began at an early age.

But what if young Paul couldn't help himself? (Actually, we know that Paul was just being stubborn, because the kids in the film ate porridge all the time, making it a test of wills between child and father and setting the stage for the conflict that would run throughout. But for the sake of argument, let's say Paul was eating porridge for the first time.) What if Paul had been used to eating, say, eggs or breakfast. Or a sugar-mounded grapefruit. What if the oatmeal was something new that Paul just simply didn't want to try? A study out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has found that children with food neophobia, or the aversion to eat new foods, might be governed more by their genetic make-up than by any conscious act of being obstinate.

Myles Faith, an associate professor of nutrition at UNC's Gillings School of Global Public Health, found while studying a group of 66 pairs of twins, with ages ranging between 4 and 7, that genes were shown to account for 72 percent of the aversion some children seem to display towards trying new foods. Environmental factors accounted for the remaining 28 percent.

Faith found the aversion akin to temperament and personality. "Some children are more genetically susceptible than others to avoid new foods," he says of his work. "However, that doesn't mean that they can't change their behaviors and become a little less picky."

What that means is that even though biologically predisposed to refuse, children can, for various reasons, decide to overcome their predispositions. They still won't want to try that new food and display picky eating habits, but they will find a way to circumvent the tendency.

One of the more amazing finds in Faith's study was the discovery that there was a strange relationship between body fat and food neophobia. When testing body fat in both parents and children, it was found that children of heavier parents were also heavy only if they avoided new foods.

Faith admitting that the discovery was unexpected, "but the finding certainly invites interesting questions about how food neophobia and temperament potentially shape longer-term eating and influence body weight."

He urged parents to be mindful of their children's idiosyncrasies as well as propensities for food aversion. Getting kids to try new foods can be a difficult task under most circumstances, but a parent cognizant of each child's proclivities can shape environmental factors that will more likely prompt children to try an unfamiliar food item. This has some corroboration in that, in a 2012 University of Michigan study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, it was found that parents adopting healthy eating habits and encouraging good eating habits had better results than those trying to force their children to eat more healthily.

Just remember the next time your child takes a look at the food you've placed in front of them and immediately decides they aren't going to eat it that the food neophobia they are exhibiting might not be simply to be contrary. Or because the food item is green. Or the child is rebelling against the cook or preparer. Or because the child is "in a mood" or going through "a phase." The aversion could be simply due to genetic factors, a predisposed response to the stimuli of being presented a new food item or items.

According to Science Daily, Faith's study falls neatly in line with previous studies concerning food neophobia in 8-to-11-year-olds (78 percent) and adults (69 percent). This would suggest that genetics plays a role in food neophobia throughout the biological developmental stages.

Myles Faith's research was published in the latest edition of journal Obesity.

(photo credit: Renee Comet, Wikimedia Commons)

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