Europe is battling a pandemic: childhood obesity. According to the WHO, one in three 11-year-olds in the European region are overweight or obese.
Childhood nutrition can shape health outcomes for a lifetime, influencing physical growth, cognitive development, immune maturation, the development of the digestive system and development of healthy eating habits. A poor early life diet increases the risk of developing non communicable diseases such as asthma, diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
Many parents find themselves confronted with children who are fussy eaters. This can take various forms, from an exclusive appetite for ‘white’ foods to an all-out refusal to eat veggies.
The problem is widespread. According to a recent survey conducted by YouGov and commissioned by kids’ food brand Organix, in the UK 55% of children aged four and under have two or fewer portions of vegetables a day - that’s 2 million children. One-fifth of UK pre-schoolers eat only one portion per day – while almost 116,000 infants were found to have ‘no vegetables at all in their daily diet’.
And it's not just about quantity. A lack of dietary variety is also a cause for concern, with just six vegetables making a regular appearance on children’s plates.
Now, new research from the University of South Australia and the University of Queensland has taken a closer look at what influences fussy eaters, and what is more likely to increase or decrease picky eating in children under 10.
‘External factors could help reduce fussy eating’
Dealing with a fussy eater can be stressful for parents and children alike, according to lead researcher and USC PhD student Laine Chilman.
“For parents with a fussy eater, mealtimes can be especially stressful – juggling the family meal and a picky eater is no small feat,” Chilman said. “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.”
She hopes that her research will help parents and carers better understand fussy eating in children.
The study reviewed 80 health industry studies and found that a range of factors contributed to a child’s likelihood of being a fussy eater.
It identified a number of negative influences that are likely to increase a child’s propensity for pickiness. These include pressuring a child to eat, offering rewards for eating and ‘very strict parenting’. The researchers believe a ‘more relaxed parenting style’, eating together as a family, and involving a child in the preparation of food are all likely reduce the probability of fussy eating.
“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.”
Don’t stress! The power of positive parenting
While encouraging healthy diets in fussy eaters can be a stressful task, reacting emotionally is only likely to make things worse. UniSA researcher Dr Ann Kennedy-Behr added 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 said.
“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 tackle fussy eating
The research drew together a number of tips to help parents deal with picky eaters:
- Eat meals as a family
- Schedule regular mealtimes
- Get kids involved with food preparation
- Turn the TV off: focus on food, not on screens
- Try to keep mealtimes calm and stress free
- Remove rewards or bribes or punishments
‘Picky Eating in Children: A Scoping Review to Examine Its Intrinsic and Extrinsic Features and How They Relate to Identification’
International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health
Authors: Laine Chilman, Ann Kennedy-Behr, Thuy Frakking, Libby Swanepoel, Michele Verdonck