Study links children’s picky eating to pressure from parent

Toddlers used to illustrate the story. [Photo credit: New Scientist]
Toddlers used to illustrate the story. [Photo credit: New Scientist]

A U.S. study on Sunday linked children’s picky eating to pressure from parents.

While insisting kids eat those foods isn’t linked to the behaviour or their weight changing, using coercion could cause meal-time tension and could damage the parent-child relationship, the study by the University of Michigan (UM) found.

The study set out to answer several questions in two scenarios: Should parents pressure kids to eat, and what are the consequences for kids’ weight and picky eating? Will the child learn she must eat everything, resulting in obesity, or will learning to eat veggies and other healthy foods help her avoid weight gain?

Neither happened, the study found.

“We found that over a year of life in toddlerhood, weight remained stable on the growth chart whether they were picky eaters or not,” said Julie Lumeng, a professor of nutritional sciences at UM School of Public Health and professor of pediatrics and communicable diseases at the UM Medical School.

“The kids’ picky eating also was not very changeable. It stayed the same whether parents pressured their picky eaters or not.”

“Nor pressuring led to a decrease in picky eating. There was no link between pressuring and picky eating and any of these other outcomes, the study showed.

Appetite researchers would prefer the terms choosy or selective over the loaded term picky nowadays.

“We don’t call selective adults picky, but we hold kids to a different standard even though taste is at least somewhat hardwired and beyond one’s control to change at any age, Lumeng said.

“The takeaway here is that pressuring children to eat needs to be done with caution and we don’t have much evidence that it helps with much,” Lumeng said.

“As a parent, if you pressure, you need to make sure you’re doing it in a way that’s good for the relationship with your child.”

Picky eating is important only in the sense that it’s unsettling and frustrating for parents, and inconvenient, said Lumeng.

It’s rarely a health issue that’s associated with nutrient deficiencies and poor growth.

It’s just not a serious behaviour flaw that parents should expend lots of energy to eliminate.

“Dealing with picky eating falls into the category of how can you do little things that might make meals better for everyone, but not squelch something that may be part of your child’s personality,” Lumeng said.

The study has several limitations: There was high attrition in the study population, and results might not be generalisable to other populations outside low-income toddlers.

The study has been published in the journal Appetite.(Xinhua/NAN)


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