Positive encouragement may help picky eaters with food aversions, study finds

Photo (c) Peter Dazeley - Getty Images

Taking a more intense approach isn’t likely to lead to positive outcomes

A new study conducted by researchers from Duke University Medical Center explored some of the best ways for consumers to deal with the picky eaters in their lives. According to their findings, support and encouragement are likely to produce better outcomes than more forceful, intense measures when it comes to food aversions

“It is robust confirmation for what had been out there in the literature and reinforces the concept that children feeling forced or pressured to eat is not helpful,” said researcher Nancy Zucker, Ph.D. 

Approaching picky eaters with support

For the study, the researchers surveyed more than 19,000 people who claimed they were picky eaters. The participants shared their personal experiences with food aversions, including the ways that those closest to them handled their pickiness. The team then used artificial intelligence to better understand how those experiences emotionally impacted the participants.  

“From a technical perspective, this study used an AI application that understands language, not just words and sentences, but concepts of paragraphs, which was imperative here,” said researcher J. Matías Di Martino, Ph.D. “By getting the positive and negative emotions, it enables us to analyze the comprehensive memories of nearly 20,000 people.” 

The biggest takeaway from the study was that when participants felt forced to eat, it wasn’t a positive experience. Conversely, more encouraging and supportive efforts led to better outcomes. 

The study showed that strategies such as asking for help with food preparation, explaining the nutritional benefits of certain foods, and being flexible with meals were associated with more positive emotional responses. The participants also agreed that being asked to eat was a better method than being told they had to eat. 

“It’s not surprising that positive approaches were favored, but it is surprising how overwhelming that position was among this group of adults,” said Dr. Zucker. 

The toll on mental health

The researchers explained that severe food aversions may be linked with the mental health condition known as Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID). This goes beyond just not liking certain foods; consumers struggling with ARFID can feel shame around meal times and general emotional distress when it comes to eating. This can also affect health and nutrition, leading to significant weight loss or a lack of certain nutrients. 

Under these circumstances, the researchers learned that even positive encouragement isn’t always going to lead to better situations with food. While having a positive attitude can help consumers with ARFID, avoiding certain foods is likely to remain a concern throughout adulthood. 

“To our knowledge, there is no published research that identifies effective feeding strategies for those with ARFID,” Dr. Zucker said. “Figuring out the best way to feed a child with severe food avoidance can be exhausting and stressful for parents, so providing guidance is essential to improve the social and emotional eating environment for their children and reduce the distress that both parents and children have at mealtimes.” 

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