Health In Focus
  • Fussy eating habits in toddlers significantly influenced by their genes.
  • Children respond differently when faced with new foods having different appearance, texture and flavor.
  • Some toddlers are naturally more cautious than others to try out new foods.
  • Bad parenting or upbringing not to blame, say scientists.

Picky eaters have it in their genes, says a recent study undertaken by researchers at the University of London.

Aim of the Study

Researchers at the University of London embarked on the study to investigate the influence of genetics on the eating habits of toddlers.
Fussy Eating Toddlers - Blame It on Their Genes, Not Their Parents

Earlier studies have underscored the influence of genes on the eating behaviors in older children and adults, but the new research, aims to show that such genes exert a significant influence from a much younger age.

The study involved more than 1,900 families having twins aged 16 months. Parents were asked to complete a questionnaire which probed the eating habits of their toddlers, with questions that asked whether their children enjoyed eating various types of foods and if they were averse to eating new foods (neophobia).

The researchers analyzed the data and compared the results between identical twins (who share all their genes), and fraternal or non-identical twins (who on an average share about 50 percent of their genes only), who are genetically different.

What the Study Revealed

The results of the study revealed that fussy eaters were also more likely to refuse unfamiliar foods (neophobia), with many of the environmental and genetic factors common to both traits namely fussy eating and neophobia.

More interestingly, the results indicate that genetic make-up plays a key role in the eating habits of the toddlers. "At 16 months we found that overall 46% of the variation in food fussiness was explained by genes, and we found that 58% of food neophobia (rejection of new foods) was explained by genes," said Smith, lead author of the study.

The fact that such pickiness relating to trying out new foods existed even at 16 months of age shows how innate the tendency is, says Dr Smith.

It is difficult to say exactly which genes are involved in fussy eating and the refusal of new foods, but Smith states that many genes are likely to play a role.

"There will never been one gene which is the food fussiness genes - they are a lot of different ones," she said. "These genetic effects might be working through slight differences in personality in eating behaviors, in how sensitive individuals are to texture and flavors, to how extroverted and how open they are to new situations."

However, she adds that environmental influences such as home setting can play an equal part in fussy eating as much as genetic influences, but has much lesser influence on neophobia, where genetic influences are far more significant.

Lessons to be Learnt From the Study

The results reveal that though genetic influences may outweigh environmental influences overall, parental actions and modifications of the home environment could still affect toddler's eating behavior.

"We know that genes are not our destiny," said Smith. "Parents can positively influence their child's eating behaviors."

Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King's College London, who did not participate in the study, concurs that the results of the study take a lot of guilt and pressure off the parents.

"Every kid is different," he said. "There is a genetic tendency to be more or less fussy." But, he adds that such eating habits are not impossible to change, and parents can exert a positive influence. "You can modify it by changing the family's habits, the way you present food to the child and the whole concept of the mealtime," he said.

How to Make Fussy Kids Eat Better

Dealing with a toddler who is a fussy eater or outright refuses to try out new foods can be very distressing for the parents, especially the mother. The following tips may help in minimizing the ordeal for the kids as well as the parents.
  • Adhere to a meal routine - Allowing the child to snack in between meals might reduce appetite.
  • Serve smaller portions and give them the opportunity to ask for more.
  • Your child may just not be hungry. Don't force it to eat, or offer a favorite food as reward for cleaning the plate.
  • Serve new foods along with your child's favorite food. Give the child time to experiment new foods. Some children need several exposures to a new food before deciding to actually eat it.
  • Make the plate colorful. Serve healthy foods with a dip or sauce. Foods can also be cut into attractive shapes and sizes using cookie cutters.
  • Encourage the child to get involved in choosing foods at the supermarket and at home while cooking.
  • Minimize distractions such as television during mealtimes.
  • Avoid cooking separate meals for the child. That will only reinforce their pickiness.
  • Desserts or sweets may be made a part of the meal say, twice or thrice a week. withholding desserts will only increase the child's craving for sweet and sugary foods.
  • Last but not the least, parents should set an example by eating various types of healthy food themselves.
It might be fitting to conclude with the remarks of one of the study authors, 'Parents often comment on how different their children are, and so it makes sense that they vary their parenting strategies to suit each individual child.

Reference :
  1. Children's Nutrition - (

Source: Medindia

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