Whether it’s an exclusive appetite for ‘white’ foods or an all-out refusal on veggies, when you have a fussy eater on your hands, mealtime can be more than a challenge.
While picky eating is all part of the norm for developing toddlers, when it extends into school years, it takes a toll on all involved, children and parents alike.
Now, new research from USC, the University of South Australia, and the University of Queensland is providing a better understanding of what influences fussy eaters, and what is more likely to increase or decrease picky eating in children under 10.
Reviewing 80 health industry studies, the research found that a range of factors contributed to a child’s likelihood of being a fussy eater.
The study found that pressuring a child to eat, offering rewards for eating, very strict parenting all negatively influenced fussy eaters. Conversely, a more relaxed parenting style, eating together as a family, and involving a child in the preparation if food all reduced the likelihood of fussy eating.
Lead researcher and USC PhD student Laine Chilman says the research hopes to help parents and carers better understand fussy eating in children.
“For parents with a fussy eater, mealtimes can be especially stressful — juggling the family meal and a picky eater is no small feat,” Chilman says.
“Some families have kids who turn their noses up at any vegetable. Others are dealing with kids who dislike certain textures or colours of food.
“Some of these preferences relate to a child’s characteristics or personality, which are difficult to change, if at all. But others are external factors that could help reduce fussy eating in kids.
“Eating together as a family, with siblings, and having a single meal at a regular time all helped reduce food fussiness. As did getting the fussy child involved in the meal, either by helping to choose the menu, or helping to prepare the meal.
“Yet if fussy eaters were allowed to eat in front of the TV, or if they were rewarded for eating certain foods, these behaviours negatively influenced picky children.”
According to the Australian Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey, most children do not meet recommended diet and nutrition guidelines.
UniSA researcher Dr Ann Kennedy-Behr says stress can contribute to fussy eating.
“When you have a child who is a picky eater, it’s very stressful for a parent or carer — they’re forever questioning whether their child is getting enough nutrients, enough food, and often enough weight gain,” Dr Kennedy-Behr says.
“Yet it’s important to understand that being overtly anxious or worried can actually contribute to increased picky eating.
“Avoiding getting cross and limiting any negativity around mealtime will be benefit everyone.
“Positive parenting, no matter how difficult it can be in certain situations, is the best step forward for fussy eaters.”
Top tips to help a fussy eater
- Set a good example: a family that eats together has better eating habits
- Schedule regular mealtimes: regular mealtimes reduce levels of stress.
- Get kids involved with food preparation: familiarity and a sense of control can help
- Try to have one mealtime: a separate kids’ sitting encourages fussy eating
- Turn the TV off: focus on food, not on screens
- Try to keep mealtimes calm and stress free: will be a better experience for all.
- Remove rewards or bribes or punishments for fussy eaters.
“Some have the ability to maintain cognitive function despite the accumulation of these pathologies in the brain, and our study suggests that the MIND diet is associated with better cognitive functions independently of brain pathologies related to Alzheimer’s disease.
In this study, the researchers examined the associations of diet — from the start of the study until death — brain pathologies and cognitive functioning in older adults who participated in the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center’s ongoing Memory and Aging Project, which began in 1997 and includes people living in greater Chicago. The participants were mostly white without known dementia, and all of them agreed to undergo annual clinical evaluations while alive and brain autopsy after their death.
The researchers followed 569 participants, who were asked to complete annual evaluations and cognitive tests to see if they had developed memory and thinking problems. Beginning in 2004, participants were given an annual food frequency questionnaire about how often they ate 144 food items in previous year.
Using the questionnaire answers, the researchers gave each participant a MIND diet score based on how often the participants ate specific foods. The MIND diet has 15 dietary components, including 10 “brain-healthy food groups” and five unhealthy groups — red meat, butter and stick margarine, cheese, pastries and sweets, and fried or fast food.
To adhere to and benefit from the MIND diet, a person would need to eat at least three servings of whole grains, a green leafy vegetable and one other vegetable every day — along with a glass of wine — snack most days on nuts, have beans every other day or so, eat poultry and berries at least twice a week and fish at least once a week. A person also must limit intake of the designated unhealthy foods, limiting butter to less than 1 1/2 teaspoons a day and eating less than a serving a week of sweets and pastries, whole fat cheese, and fried or fast food.
Based on the frequency of intake reported for the healthy and unhealthy food groups, the researchers calculated the MIND diet score for each participant across the study period. An average of the MIND diet score from the start of the study until the participant’s death was used in the analysis to limit measurement error. Seven sensitivity measures were calculated to confirm accuracy of the findings.
“We found that a higher MIND diet score was associated with better memory and thinking skills independently of Alzheimer’s disease pathology and other common age-related brain pathologies. The diet seemed to have a protective capacity and may contribute to cognitive resilience in the elderly.” Dhana said.
“Diet changes can impact cognitive functioning and risk of dementia, for better or worse,” he continued. “There are fairly simple diet and lifestyle changes a person could make that may help to slow cognitive decline with aging, and contribute to brain health.”