PhotoBeing a picky eater is something that comes naturally to many children. Most kids may avoid eating their broccoli or Brussels sprouts, but being too picky of an eater could signify something much more serious. A new study from Duke Medicine shows that children who are too selective about what they eat could be suffering from serious mental conditions.

Serious mental conditions

According to the study, about 20 percent of children between the ages of two and six are selective eaters. Of that 20 percent, 18 percent are classified as moderately picky eaters and the remaining 2-3 percent are categorized as “extremely selective”. This last group is characterized by restrictive eating habits that are so particular that they have a limited ability to eat with others.

Dr. Nancy Zucker, who is the lead author of the study and director of the Duke Center for Eating Disorders, stresses that these children stand apart from their peers. “The children we’re talking about are not just misbehaving kids who refuse to eat their broccoli,” she said. Mental conditions, such as anxiety and depression, can manifest in these children at a very young age. Anxiety, in particular, can be detrimental to a child because they may grow up being very nervous and having trouble making friends or connecting with others.

In addition to the aforementioned mental conditions, these types of children also meet the criteria for having an eating disorder. It is called an Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), and it has recently been added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.


The researchers believe that these avoidant eating habits could stem from a variety of causes. For example, some children may have heightened senses which make many foods unpalatable. Certain smells, textures, and tastes can be overwhelming to these children, which causes them to reject many foods.

Other children may associate certain foods with bad experiences that they have had in the past. This can cause them to develop anxiety when confronted with that food, or when trying something else for the first time. In these cases, it is not necessarily the foods that they don’t like, but the emotions and memories that they have connected to them.

Zucker states that, while many children grow out of this type of behavior, identifying which will be able to put it behind them is very difficult. “[Physicians] don’t really have data to help predict which children will age out of the problem and which children won’t,” she said. This creates a problem of how to properly treat each child’s case.

Doctors currently have much difficulty in solving this problem because it is very difficult to adjust for a child’s sensory sensitivity. Creating new types of therapies that address this issue will be a main focus for researchers like Zucker and her colleagues in the future. Their full study has been published in the journal Pediatrics.

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