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Is Picky Eating in Toddlers Genetic?

November 28, 2016
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Recall this familiar scene: a parent tries to feed their child broccoli at dinner. No matter how many times the parent pretends the fork is an airplane or a train, the child refuses to eat. As frustrating as this moment is, picky eating may not be a side effect of the “terrible twos.” According to a study by the University College London, fussy food habits are directly influenced by genetics. Researchers analyzed eating habits of over 1,900 pairs of identical twins, and observed parental behavior in the home. Identical twins were selected because 100 percent of their genes are shared. Two types of picky eating were analyzed: food fussiness and food neophobia. Fussiness referred to a toddler’s preference about texture, taste and smell, and neophobia acknowledged a child’s refusal to try new food. The study found that genetics were responsible for 46 percent of food fussiness and neophobia during childhood. While genetics may play a factor, Dr. Sam Wass, a development psychologist from the University of East London, argues that fussy eating is influenced by other outside factors including sensitivity to textures and scents, fear of novelty and a child’s need to exert control. Andrea Smith, co-leader of the University College London study, agrees that external factors play a role, but focuses more on the parents. She believes that a parent’s behavior about mealtime affects a child’s eating habits more. “When mealtimes tend to be negative, it makes the child tense and those fussy tendencies become stronger,” Smith said, “Coercing them into eating also exacerbates these tendencies.” There are no serious health issues for fussy eating, but long-term habits can cause anemia or constipation. According to Jo Wheatley, an associate editor at Netmums parenting forum, parents are still worried. “A lot of our mums say they feel guilty if they have a child with fussy eating habits,” Wheatley said. So how can picky eating be combated? Siobhan Freegard, the founder of parenting site ChannelMum.com recommends a positive mealtime. “The key to overcoming fussy eating is to offer, encourage but not force,” she said, “Make mealtimes fun and includes lots of different types of food which you and the rest of the family eat without making a fuss – and show you enjoy them.” Freegard also advises against making a big celebration when a child tries something new. This may scare toddlers or deter them from trying other new foods. “Eventually, toddler curiosity will overcome any anxiety and your child will try it – but be patient,” Freegard added.
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