Marco pushes most of his dinner around his plate with a fork, eating his pasta but leaving everything else untouched. For a three-year-old, this is considered fairly typical behavior. Most children who are picky eaters are expected to grow out of it by adolescence.
When those who don’t grow out of their picky eating habits, also known as “selective eating disorder,” it could signal more serious mental health issues, like depression and anxiety, according to a new study from Duke University.
Linking Picky Eaters with Behavioral Issues
In the study, published in the journal Pediatrics, adolescents with both levels of selective eating habits were found to have a higher risk of depression, social anxiety and generalized anxiety. They were also twice as likely to show increased symptoms of generalized anxiety during follow-up visits.
Around 20 percent of all children are considered picky eaters, said researchers. Of this group, 18 percent are moderately picky and 3 percent are severely selective. And those adolescents who are severely selective eaters may have such narrow food options that it can limit their ability to eat with others.
“The children we’re talking about are not just misbehaving kids who refuse to eat their broccoli,” said Dr. Nancy Zucker, lead study author and director of the Duke Center for Eating Disorders. “These are children whose eating has become so limited or selective that it’s starting to cause problems.”
Eating Habits Can Create Conflict
Selective eating habits can affect growth, health and social abilities and can create conflict with parents, researchers found. And parental frustration can exacerbate a young person’s unwillingness to try new foods.
Researchers said doctors and parents need to devise new strategies to deal with the problem before it develops into a long-term eating disorder or leads to other health issues. “There’s no question that not all children go on to have chronic selective eating in adulthood,” said Zucker.
“But because these children are seeing impairment in their health and well-being now, we need to start developing ways to help these parents and doctors know when and how to intervene.”
Tips for Getting Proactive
Zucker recommends therapy that is tailored to impact the above factors, especially since it could clue them in to extenuating mental health issues. “It’s a good way to get high-risk children into interventions,” she said.
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