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Picky Eaters Tend to Be More Depressed and Anxious than the Rest of Us

Researchers have found that kids who hate to try anything beyond French fries and chicken tenders are more likely to have mental health issues and ADHD.
Photo via Flickr user avlxyz

People tend to think of picky eating as a cute quirk that kids outgrow once they realize the delicious magic of stinky foods like Brie and kalamata olives and asparagus that don't necessarily appeal to the infantile palate. Everyone had a childhood friend here or there who would only eat French fries and chicken fingers and shrieked in the fact of broccoli, or god forbid, cod fillet.

But for some people, these eating issues continue well into adulthood. And researchers are now saying that pickiness towards food as a child can be an indicator of future troubles with anxiety, depression, ADHD, and other mental and emotional problems.


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In a new study published today in Pediatrics, researchers argue that even moderate picky eating habits in children are tied to trouble to come. Researchers observed and interviewed more than 900 children between the ages of two and six in regards to their food preferences, and then looked at the incidence with which they were diagnosed with mental health issues over the following two years.

The children who were the pickiest about what they are were more than twice as likely to develop depression than children who ate normally. But if you're suddenly side-eyeing every kid who thinks Brussels sprouts are nasty, you can relax a little. In a statement regarding the study, lead researcher and Duke University associate psychiatry professor Dr. Nancy Zucker says that there is "normal dislike," but then the children that should really concern parents are more extreme—only about 3 percent of kids in total. However, about 18 percent of children fall into the "moderate selective eating" category, meaning that they are only willing to eat "a narrow range of foods." These two groups are the ones tied to the doubled incidence of anxiety symptoms.

As for the little brats who make faces at the sight of a pickle and shy away from onions but will go to town on most other foods, they'll probably come to outgrow it.

Zucker told the New York Times that the affected children aren't necessarily driving their nuts on purpose, or even out of stubbornness; actually picky eating serves as an indicator that these particular children have a "sensory experience … more intense in the areas of taste, texture, and visual cues. And their internal experience may be more intense, so they have stronger feelings." "Mothers with elevated anxiety" and "family conflicts around food" were also cited as possible reasons for the selective eating behaviors. In some cases, children had a negative experience with a particular food and then became distrustful of trying new things.


Everybody hurts, indeed.

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And if you think you're going to get little Zephyr and Alastair to open wide for the choo-choo train of açai berry Greek yogurt without a fight, think again. "Cutting up fruits into funny shapes is not going to do the trick for these kids," she warns.

Depression and social anxiety were the problems that most afflicted the server picky eaters, whereas attention-deficit behavior and separation anxiety symptoms were observed more in the "moderate selective eating" group.

Though it's commonly called "picky eating" in children, extremely limited food preferences in adults are diagnosed as "avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder." And yes, there are adults, even past middle age, who live on diets of French fries and grilled cheese sandwiches (Anderson Cooper included).

In some cases, that's the cost of being a little extra sensitive to the world—even if it means a life without kimchee.