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.