Picky Eaters -- Causes and Top 10
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September 20, 2010, last updated December 15, 2012

By Louise Carr, Contributing Columnist

Can you imagine a diet of noodles, followed by noodles,
followed by a pizza crust without the cheese, followed by
noodles? This is what mealtimes are like for a picky eater –
none of the fun of food and a plateful of restrictions. Picky
eating, also called "selective eating disorder" or "food
neophobia", affects millions of Americans. Just what is picky
eating? Is picky eating an annoying personality trait or a
medical condition? What can you do to cure your own, or
your child’s, picky eating?

A picky eater can dislike most food except yellow-colored
dishes. Or eat only spaghetti with plain tomato sauce. A
picky eater child can drive you crazy by refusing to consume
anything but a burger in a plain bun and orange drinks. Does
your own picky eating cause you anxiety? Do you feel like
the only one who eats like this? Or perhaps you can’t
understand why people think you’re strange for never eating
mushrooms, or beans with a fuzzy texture – surely no sane
person could enjoy eating fungus, or hairy vegetables.

What Is Picky Eating?

Picky eaters are a diverse bunch. In essence, picky eating
can be defined as a restricted diet, where the picky eater
excludes many foods. This can involve whole food groups,
such as fruits or vegetables, or foods with specific textures.
Many picky eaters avoid foods because they don’t seem like
food – mushrooms are associated with dirt, and certain fruits
look like something inedible. Picky eating can be
characterized by how you eat your food. Picky eaters
sometimes need to eat separate ingredients from separate
plates. Picky eating can also prohibit certain foods touching
others on the same plate. Picky eaters tend to eat blander
foods and many will only eat foods that are white or pale in
color. No one is sure why, but nearly all adult picky eaters
like French fries and most like plain pasta.

What Are the Causes of Picky Eating?

No one really knows what causes picky eating. For many
picky eaters, following a restrictive diet isn’t down to not
liking the foods they avoid. Many will never have tried the
hated foods, or can’t remember ever having tasted them.

Neophobia, or the fear of trying anything new and unknown,
can cover food and may be a cause of picky eating.

But what causes picky eating or neophobia in the first place?
Researchers have recently discovered that picky eating may
be genetic. A 2007 study from the University College London
looked at the eating habits of 5,390 pairs of twins between
eight and 11 years old and found that 78 percent of picky
eating is genetic and the other 22 percent is due to
environmental factors.

What Environmental Factors Cause Picky Eating?

For kids, “Most food fights come from oppositional
behavior," according to Marcia Levin Pelchat, experimental
psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in
Philadelphia. Picky eating is "similar to potty training and
bedtime troubles."

Picky eating in children may have little to do with the actual
food and a lot to do with exerting control and independence.
Peer pressure can also influence a child’s eating habits. Some
picky eaters blame a traumatic experience on their ability to
enjoy or taste certain foods.

Picky eating in adults is different from eating disorders such
as anorexia and bulimia. Picky eating is not generally
concerned with being too fat or too thin and picky eaters can
be overweight, underweight or somewhere in between.
However, researchers are undertaking a new study to find
out if picky eating should be termed Selective Eating
Disorder and recognized as a medical condition.

Researchers at the Duke University in North Carolina are
putting together the first global registry of picky eaters to
find genetic or medical reasons for picky eaters’ tastes and
give a serious name to what is often dismissed as
childishness or fussiness.

Some researchers have suggested picky eating can be an
indicator of autism in children. 2010 research from the
University of Bristol, England, looked at a database of
children born from 1991 to 1992 enrolled in a long-term
study comprising food questionnaires and analysis of eating

At the end of the study, when the children were seven years
old, 79 were diagnosed with autism, 12,901 were not. The
autistic children were 35 percent more likely than unaffected
children to be slow feeders and by their first birthday had a
considerably less varied diet and were nearly twice as likely
to be pickier than unaffected children.

Are all picky eaters autistic. Certainly not. It is clear that not
all picky eaters suffer from autism and eating patterns alone
are not enough to diagnose autism. Toddlers are notoriously
picky eaters and can go through many stages of picky eating
before they grow out of it.

Does Everyone Grow Out Of Picky Eating?

Up to two thirds of children go through picky eating stages
and most start as toddlers. According to a study published in
the January 2004 edition of the Journal of the American
Dietic Association, the percentage of children identified as
picky eaters by their caregivers increased from 19 percent to
50 percent between four to 24 months in a national random
sample of 3,022 infants and toddlers. Children of both sexes
from all household incomes were just as likely to be picky

Picky eating habits tend to lessen from the ages of four and
five. Many adults who were picky eaters as children have
outgrown their disordered eating and are left with only
memories of the fear broccoli caused or the pain of having to
eat mushrooms. But for many others, picky eating persists
long into adulthood.


A 2010 study led by Drs. Mascola and Bryson of  Stanford
University discovered that 40% of all cases of picky eating
last up to two years. The study looked at 120 children and
followed their eating patterns for a period of 9 years, from
age 2 to 11.]

Although picky eating, or Selective Eating Disorder, is not as
life threatening as anorexia it can cause significant health
problems for adult picky eaters as well as social and
emotional stress. If you’re a picky eater and you’re not a
child or a teenager, your social life can be severely affected.
Eating is a social and shared experience and you can cause
people to feel insulted or rejected if you only eat cheese
sandwiches on white bread and jacket potatoes with cheese.

Here are the top 10 natural remedies for picky eating. These
natural remedies are mainly focus on solutions for children
but adults can be helped by many of the tips as well:

Food Chaining Can Stop Picky Eating

This treatment for picky eating involves working in small
steps to increase exposure to foods based on what you will
already eat. In this process, barely acceptable foods become
more acceptable as you consume more of them in a ‘chain’ of
foods you already like. If you only eat pizza, you can expand
to a pizza sandwich – adding bread – or adding mushrooms
to one half of the pizza. You could try blending the pizza to
make a dip so your child can try some unfamiliar bread sticks
with a familiar flavor.

Being Sneaky With Food Can Help Picky Eating

Children who are picky eaters are sure about what foods
they will and will not eat but can often be ‘fooled’ into
consuming more nutritious or varied food. Hide different
food in the dishes your child will eat, for instance mushroom
slices under the cheese in a pizza. Blend or puree vegetables
like peppers and broccoli into tomato pasta sauce or mix
chopped carrots into the plain ground meat. Adults will
obviously catch on a lot sooner but disguise may be
something to try in order to increase the nutrients in a
limited menu.

Giving Children Control Over Shopping Can Reduce Picky

If you let your kids push the cart, choose foods that appeal
to them – within reason, don’t submit to any foods that you
don’t want your child to eat –and generally let them know
they’re fully involved in the process you can reduce picky
eating. Allow your children full access to the kitchen and
encourage them to help you in the preparation, cooking and
serving of food. Have a little fun – if they decide to eat in the
dark or under the kitchen table, let them do so if they’ll eat a
full meal.

Eye-Catching Food is Good For Picky Eaters

Often food is less about how it tastes and more about how it
looks. Catch children's attention with interesting
presentations. Use cookie cutters to make different shapes
or add ingredients to form faces on food. Adult food or food
that looks ugly to children can indicate to them that it tastes
bad. Pretty often means palatable and you should try to vary
your presentation in order to increase your children’s diet.

Active Tasting As A Remedy For Picky Eating

Food isn’t all about taste. Smell, sight, touch and texture all
contribute to whether or not a certain food will be rejected.
Allow children to discuss what food smells like, how they
think it feels and its shape, not just how good it tastes. Don’t
be dismissive if your child needs to touch or smell food
before putting it in their mouth. Picky eaters may need
repeated exposure to new foods before they take the first
bite. For children, turn tasting into a game by telling them
you want their expert chef’s opinion on a newly created
dish. For adults, experiment with different ways of tasting.
The side of the tongue, rather than the tip, is the best place
to introduce new foods.

Multivitamins Prevent Problems Associated With Picky

A 2003 study from The Pennsylvania State University found
that girls with both food neophobia and pickiness consumed
fewer vegetables than those who could eat an unrestricted
diet. Vegetables are one of the most common foods picky
eaters avoid and brightly colored fruit can also be a problem.
A lack of the vitamins and minerals found in fruit and
vegetables can contribute to health problems. Take a
comprehensive multivitamin supplement everyday or insist
you child takes one. Chewable and dissolvable multivitamins
are also available.

Don’t Bribe or Force Picky Eaters

Although it can be difficult not to lose your patience when
faced with a child who won’t eat, forcing food onto a child
or making them clear their plate may cause more problems
than it solves. Respect your child's appetite and if they’re not
hungry, don’t make them eat. Force or bribes can only
reinforce a power struggle over food. Be strong and offer
healthy choices until they are accepted.

Don't Offer Dessert As A Reward For Picky Eaters

If you only offer dessert for good behavior – such as eating
a full meal, vegetables, or healthy food – you send the
message that dessert is the best food and the only type of
food worth bargaining for. Dessert as a reward can
encourage a sweet tooth and unhealthy eating patterns later
in life.

Stick To A Healthy Eating Routine

No matter how scattered your child’s eating patterns, try to
stick  to a
healthy mealtime routine. Don’t let children fill up
on unhealthy snacks so they’re not hungry for the balanced
meal you prepare for dinner. If kids come to the table
hungry, they may be more likely to eat what you make for

Relax To Handle Picky Eating

Many children and adults need the right atmosphere for
eating, to minimize stress associated with food and create a
calm, fun atmosphere for eating. This is particularly
important if picky eating is associated with a traumatic
experience in the past such as choking.

Turn off the TV, remove toys, books and computer games
and make sure there’s plenty of talk but no threatening
discussions about food.

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