Picky Eating As Child Common With Depression and Anxiety

A new study from Duke Medicine has found that children who are picky eaters end up also having serious issues such as anxiety and depression. The study was published in Pediatrics, and it showed that around 20 percent of children between ages 2 and 6 are picky or selective eaters. Not only is picky eating annoying, it can lead to poor nutrition for kids, family conflicts, and also parents who become frustrated with their children, and this then leads to a breakdown in the parent-child relationship.

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The study, which consisted of 3,433 children, is showing that out of the 20 percent of children that are selective eaters, about 18 percent of those were considered moderately picky eaters. The other children were classified as severely selective, which means that their food intake is so restricted that is limits their ability to eat with others. Lead author of the study, Nancy Zucker, is the director of the Duke Center for Eating Disorders, and she said that the children are not just misbehaving children who refuse to eat their broccoli, as this is much worse than that. The children who have both moderate and severe selective eating habits are showing symptoms of anxiety and other mental health conditions, such as depression. The study has found that the children with the selective eating habits are about twice as likely to have increasing symptoms of generalized anxiety during each of the follow-up intervals in the study. The picky eating can impact the children in many different ways, including affecting the child’s health and growth, as well as negatively impact social skills and functioning, plus the parent-child relationship. The child might feel like the parents don’t believe them and then the parents will feel responsible for the situation.

The study also found that the moderate and severe selective eating was responsible for a significantly higher incidence of depression, social anxiety, and also generalized anxiety. The children with moderately picky eating did not have an increased likelihood of a formal psychiatric diagnosis, but the children with a severe form of selective eating were twice as likely to have a depression diagnosis. The children who had moderate or severe patterns of selective eating would meet the criteria that is used to diagnose an eating disorder which is called Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, which is called ARFID. This is a new diagnosis that is included in the recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is also known as the DSM. The findings also suggest that parents regularly are conflicting with their children over food, but this does not result in the child eating their food, so doctors and the parents need to find new ways and tools to help treat the problem. Not all of these children will have selective eating in adulthood, but the children do end up possibly having long-term health consequences due to the picky eating from their childhood. It is important for both parents and doctors to know when to intervene during childhood in order to reduce the risk of health problems later in life.

Zuker said that some of the children who refuse to eat might have heightened senses, and this could make the smell, texture, and tastes of certain foods to be overwhelming. The overwhelming aspect could lead to aversion and disgust, and the children could develop anxiety if they end up having a bad experience with a certain food. This then leads to the children becoming more anxious if they have to try another new food or if their parents force them to eat that same food again. There is not much information about which of the children will grow out of the selective eating or which children will end up having this problem throughout their lives, so it’s hard for doctors to really help out because it’s hard to know what is a real problem and what is just a phase during childhood. Therapy could help some of the children, which might include demystifying the foods that are causing the anxiety, which is done through exposure to the foods. However, if the child has sensory sensitivities then therapy might not work. The researchers say that new interventions are needed in order to deal with the group of children who have sensory sensitivities and frequent discomfort when it comes to palpable disgust. The treatment also needs to be more specifically detailed to the age of the child, because different age groups might require different therapies, and it could also help narrow down whether the selective eating is already set into the brain, which means at a certain age it’s more likely to happen during adulthood as well. One good thing about this condition is that it’s very easy for parents to recognize in their children early on in life, which means that if they need help dealing with the situation, they can get medical attention before anxiety and depression really sets in during the middle-school age group.


You might think that as a parent, you can just tell your child to knock it off or tell them they will be grounded if they do not eat their dinner, but this is just not accurate. Sometimes not eating foods is related to the child rebelling and yes those situations can be fixed by timeouts or groundings, but for the sensory sensitivities, this is just not going to work. The children who have the sensitivities are the group that are more likely to be depressed and anxious, and also the children will be more likely to carry this into adulthood. This then leads to social anxiety and inabilities to connect with peers because of the lack of abilities to connect with others through food. More research will need to be done to see just what specifically the negative health effects are into adulthood as far as what the selective eating does to the various organs in the body when they are not getting the nutrients needed to function properly.


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Jeanne Rose
Jeanne Rose lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and has been a freelance writer since 2010. She took Allied Health in vocational school where she earned her CNA/PCA, and worked in a hospital for 3 years. Jeanne enjoys writing about science, health, politics, business, and other topics as well.

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