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Genetics plays a major role in toddlers' food fussiness, study suggests

Genetics plays a major role in toddlers' food fussiness, study suggests
Even if genetics plays a major role in children’s food fussiness, parents can help modify such behavior by adopting a few food-related strategies.

Whether or not a toddler is a fussy eater is strongly influenced by genetics, not just by the upbringing style of the child’s parents, according to a study published Friday in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

This finding may offer some solace for parents with children who are extremely picky about what foods they will eat or who refuse to try new foods. 

“Establishing a substantial genetic influence on both of these traits might be quite a relief to parents as they often feel judged or feel guilty for their children’s fussy eating,” said Andrea Smith, the study’s lead author and a Ph.D. student in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London (UCL), in a released statement. “Understanding that these traits are largely innate might help to deflect this blame.”

Yet, parents aren’t completely off the hook. For, even if genetics plays a major role in children’s food fussiness, parents can help modify such behavior — and encourage broader, more healthful eating habits — by adopting a few food-related strategies, say Smith and her colleagues.

Study details

For their study, the researchers used data collected from 1,932 sets of twins who were born in Great Britain in 2007 (and who are part of a large twins study known as Gemini). Of those twins, 626 pairs were identical, and thus shared 100 percent of their genes. The other 1,306 pairs were non-identical, which meant they shared about 50 percent of their genes.

When the twins were 16 months old, their parents were asked questions about their children’s eating habits — questions designed to identify the level of each child’s food fussiness (such as whether the child eats a variety of foods or is difficult to please with meals) and food refusal (such as whether the child refuses certain types of food or decides that he or she doesn’t like a food, even without tasting it).

Smith and her colleagues then compared the answers of the parents of the identical twins with those of the nonidentical twins. This enabled the researchers to estimate how much of the children’s eating behavior was determined by genetic factors and how much by environmental ones.

The data revealed that children who were fussy eaters were also likely to reject unfamiliar foods. Furthermore, genetics appeared to have a strong influence on both traits, although particularly on food refusal.

Genes explained 46 percent of the variation in food fussiness and 58 percent of the variation in food refusal, the researchers report.

‘Genes are not destiny’

These results are not definitive, for they show only a correlation between hereditary factors and food fussiness, not a direct cause-and-effect. Still, the study offers the most comprehensive look to date on how genes may influence eating behaviors from an early age.

Also, the findings should give worried parents of fussy eaters some comfort, for they suggest that parents can influence their child’s eating habits — at least a bit.

“Genes are not our destiny,” explained Clare Llewellyn, the study’s lead author and a health psychologist at UCL, in a released statement. “We know of many traits with a strong genetic basis that can nevertheless be changed, such as weight. It would be useful for future research to identify the important environmental shapers of food fussiness and neophobia in young children so that they might be targeted to reduce these behaviors.”

Tips for parents

In the meantime, parents of fussy eaters can take several steps to help their children eat a wider — and more healthful — variety of foods. The Mayo Clinic offers these tips:

  • Respect your child's appetite — or lack of one. If your child isn't hungry, don't force a meal or snack. Likewise, don't bribe or force your child to eat certain foods or clean his or her plate.
  • Stick to the routine. Serve meals and snacks at about the same times every day. You can provide milk or 100 percent juice with the food, but offer water between meals and snacks.
  • Be patient with new foods. Young children often touch or smell new foods, and might even put tiny bits in their mouths and then take them back out again. Your child might need repeated exposure to a new food before he or she takes the first bite.
  • Make it fun. Serve broccoli and other veggies with a favorite dip or sauce. Cut foods into various shapes with cookie cutters. Offer breakfast foods for dinner. Serve a variety of brightly colored foods.
  • Recruit your child's help. At the grocery store, ask your child to help you select fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods. Don't buy anything that you don't want your child to eat. At home, encourage your child to help you rinse veggies, stir batter or set the table.
  • Set a good example. If you eat a variety of healthy foods, your child is more likely to follow suit.
  • Be creative. Add chopped broccoli or green peppers to spaghetti sauce, top cereal with fruit slices, or mix grated zucchini and carrots into casseroles and soups.
  • Minimize distractions. Turn off the television and other electronic gadgets during meals. This will help your child focus on eating.
  • Don't offer dessert as a reward. Withholding dessert sends the message that dessert is the best food, which might only increase your child's desire for sweets.
  • Don't be a short-order cook. Preparing a separate meal for your child after he or she rejects the original meal might promote picky eating. Encourage your child to stay at the table for the designated mealtime — even if he or she doesn't eat. Keep serving your child healthy choices until they become familiar and preferred. 

FMI: You can read the new study in full on the Journal for Child Psychology and Psychiatry website.

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