Could This Explain Your Fussy Eating Habit?

Illustration by Mary Galloway.
So-called "fussy" eating is a problem that many people suffer with in silence, for fear of what others will think of them, and parents of fussy eaters often blame themselves for the unusual dietary habits that can blight their child's life. However, a new study suggests that fussy eating and a refusal to try new foods could be down to nature, i.e. genetics, as much as someone's upbringing, or nurture, The Guardian reported. Researchers from the UK and Norway, writing in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, looked at data on more than 1,900 sets of 16-month-old twins to investigate the significance of genetics on toddlers' eating behaviour. The researchers then compared how similar the results were from identical twins (who have the same genes) with the results from fraternal twins (who have around 50% of the same genes), and found that eating behaviour was substantially influenced by genetics. Fussy eaters were also likely to exhibit food neophobia – refusing to try new, unfamiliar foods – which, too, was found to be influenced by genes. Andrea Smith, PhD student and lead author of the research from University College, London (UCL), said parents of fussy eaters should take comfort in the fact that genes influenced both fussy-eating behaviour and food neophobia. Fussy eating has often been blamed on "bad parenting". "Parents... often feel judged or feel guilty for their children’s fussy eating. Understanding that these traits are largely innate might help to deflect this blame," she said. Explaining the results, Smith also said: “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,” reported The Guardian.

But environmental factors, such as the home setting, do play an important role and parents can still influence their children's eating behaviour, the researchers said. For example, parents shouldn't force their children to eat "problem" foods but offer it to them regularly outside mealtimes and praise the child for touching or smelling it, Smith said. “Genes are not our destiny. We know of many traits with a strong genetic basis that can nevertheless be changed, such as weight," said Dr Clare Llewellyn, from UCL, senior lead researcher for the paper. "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 behaviours.” Previous research had already shown the influence of genes on fussy-eating behaviour in adults and older children, and the new study highlights that this influence begins young.

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