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Did you know the 21st Century toddler who refuses to eat their broccoli might just be responding to an ancient evolutionary mechanism designed to protect all small humans in their first years of life?
When meals are a battleground and children are being picky about their food, breakfast, lunch and dinner can be reduced to tears, tantrums, bribes and threats.
Concerns about fussy eating are really common among parents, with research indicating that a third of all parents think their child is a fussy eater, says dietitian and Research Fellow at Queensland University of Technology Dr Rebecca Byrne.
In 2017 research1, Dr Byrne and her colleagues found that overall, there was no difference in food intake between children perceived as fussy versus not.
The research found mothers appear to be interpreting developmentally appropriate feeding behaviour as fussiness in children who are leaner, but are still within a healthy weight range.
This perception was then associated with habits such as using favourite foods in exchange for good behaviour or offering children food when they are upset, insisting on children eating food despite not being hungry or showing disapproval when a child does not eat. All of these practices may prompt a child to eat for reasons other than hunger disrupting self-regulation and increasing obesity risk.
“Our research indicates that children who are labelled as fussy, aren’t actually eating any less, or different types of foods, than those children who aren’t considered fussy,” says Dr Byrne.
“Instead, mothers interviewed for this research, actually labelled children fussy based on their behaviour at meal times - how often the child refused to eat, or was unwilling to try new foods.
“Also, despite none of the children being underweight, it was leaner children (compared to peers of the same age and sex) who were perceived as fussy.
“This ties in to parents underestimating their child’s weight. If the child is a lower weight and refusing food this may fuel concerns that the child is fussy or can’t possibly be eating enough to grow properly.”
Parents like to describe their child as a ‘good eater’ and children are praised for ‘eating all the food on their plate’. However, concerns about fussy or picky eating is a common concern in developed countries in contrast with the concerns of public health authorities which are overwhelmingly pointing to the incidence of childhood obesity as the greatest concern for governments, schools and parents.
The second year of life also coincides with the development of 'neophobia' - the fear of new foods. This peaks at two years of age, and gradually declines until about six years of age (so parents are dealing with this for quite a while).
The Australian Bureau of Statistics 2015 figures show that of children aged 2–4, one in five (20%) were overweight or obese, with similar proportions of boys (7%) and girls (9%) in that age group being obese.
However the Coalition of Australian Governments (COAG) has taken positive steps by agreeing to increase the proportion of Australian children and adults at a healthy body weight by five percentage points, over the 2009 baseline, by 2018. A 2016 COAG performance report shows that Australia is on track to meet this benchmark for children, but not for adults.
Dr Byrne says the behaviour of children to refuse food, especially new foods, is a normal part of child development.
“Children grow rapidly in the first year of life, and this growth slows in the second year. This means they simply don't need to eat as much,” she says.
“Food refusal is actually a sign that they are not hungry, or have had enough at that meal.
“The second year of life also coincides with the development of 'neophobia' - the fear of new foods.
“This peaks at two years of age, and gradually declines until about six years of age (so parents are dealing with this for quite a while).
“Neophobia is thought to be an evolutionary mechanism, designed to protect children from eating bitter, and potentially poisonous plants, at an age when they become more mobile and start to explore their environment.
“Vegetables are bitter, which means it can be more challenging for children to learn to like these foods (unlike sweet foods).
But there’s a simple solution.
“The key is introducing a wide variety of foods between 6 and 12 months, so they are not new once neophobia kicks in.
“And when it does, offer new foods over and over again, with no pressure on the child to eat it. It can sometimes be helpful to let the child know that they can taste the food, but spit it politely into a napkin, if they choose not to eat it.
“Children need to try a food 10-15 times before they learn to like it. “
Top tips to ensure healthy eating habits
(Supplied by researchers at the Queensland University of Technology’s Centre for Children’s Health Research .)
- Is your child fussy with food? They may just be learning to like new foods. Re-offer rejected foods – children need to be exposed to foods up to 15 times to become familiar with the look, feel, smell and taste of foods. Holly Harris, Dietitian and PhD Candidate
- To promote physical activity, parents need to engage in energetic play with their children. Stewart Trost, Professor of Child Health
- Try to have set times for 3 meals and 2 snacks a day, and sit at the table to eat without the distraction of TV or electronic devices. Andrea Fuller, Dietitian and PhD Candidate
- Children can feel overwhelmed with lots of food on the plate. If your child sometimes struggles to eat all of their meal or you are encouraging them to try new foods, put very small amounts on their plate and then provide more if they are still hungry. Andrea Fuller, Dietitian and PhD Candidate
- Legumes, such as lentils and kidney beans can be added to meals to add fibre and protein. They are inexpensive and can be added to meat dishes to make the meal go further. Suzie Harte, Dietitian and PhD Candidate
- Keep calm and eat your own vegetables. Modelling enjoyment of a variety of healthy foods is one of the few sure-fire ways to get your kids to do the same. Dr Rebecca Byrne, Research Fellow
- Don't be afraid of conflicting information. These days we talk a lot about information overload, but use this to your advantage. Find out as much as you can and try different things to see what works for you and your child. What motivates one family to adopt healthy habits, will be different to another. Dr Rebecca Byrne, Research Fellow
1 Byrne, Rebecca, Elena Jansen, and Lynne Daniels. “Perceived Fussy Eating in Australian Children at 14 Months of Age and Subsequent Use of Maternal Feeding Practices at 2 Years.” The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 14 (2017): 123. PMC. Web. 20 Dec. 2017.