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January 5, 2012

Are Picky Eating Habits Genetic?

From Jerry Seinfeld's finicky children, to the UK television show Farm of Fussy Eaters, picky eating has spent plenty of time in the spotlight! When we think of picky eaters, we tend to picture children with self-imposed, limited diets. Indeed, as many as 20-percent of children between two and five can be classified as "neophobic," which means they actually FEAR new foods. This condition is more common in children with autism, as well as in those with anxiety disorders, like obsessive-compulsive disorder. And scientists suggest that they're also is a biological reason behind these patterns. While children UNDER two often eat a wide variety of foods, their taste buds tend to shut down around the second year. This is an evolutionary "safety feature" to ensure that newly mobile children don't run around eating too many things they shouldn't. But picky eating isn't just evolutionary; in fact, a recent University College London study found that children's aversions to trying new food are largely INHERITED. According to the study, neophobicism is actually 78-percent genetic and just 22-percent environmental. This genetic component is what Jerry Seinfeld's wife, Jessica, dealt with when her three children refused to eat fruits and vegetables. In desperation, Jessica began pureeing fruits and vegetables and adding them secretly into foods her kids WOULD eat. The result, a cookbook called Deceptively Delicious, was met with mixed responses from experts. Because picky eating can lead to depleted nutrients, a lack of energy, behavioral problems, weight loss, and infections in children, some doctors heralded the "hidden foods" agenda as a wise way to handle picky eaters. Others, however, pointed out that hiding foods doesn't teach children to APPRECIATE them, or expand their food tastes to accepting them as part of their diet. No matter where they stand on this debate, however, experts agree that picky eating isn't just child's play. The reality show, Farm of Fussy Eaters, was actually created to explore finicky eating in ADULTS. The contestants on this UK hit all suffered from ADULTHOOD picky eating, which is sometimes called Selective Eating Disorder. Like children, adults with the condition tend to consume only a VERY limited set of foods. They have a real aversion to trying new things and some will restrict themselves SO severely that only certain KINDS of food are acceptable. For example, one contestant on Farm would only consume beige foods, like chicken, pasta, and bread. As a result of their selective eating, picky adults such as these may have trouble with social, romantic, and work relationships, as well as suffer health consequences from nutritional depletion. On Farm, a dietician, a psychologist, and a chef teamed up to help contestants deal with both their food aversions AND these consequences. But off-air, picky eating is not yet a medical diagnosis, which means that research on treatment options is scarce. Unfortunately, picky eating in adults can lead to varied health concerns, from malnutrition, obesity, heart problems, diabetes, and even death. For this reason, both picky eaters and those who parent them should consult with a doctor about the severity of the problem.

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Last Updated:
December 20, 2012