Kid's Work Therapy Blog

Picky Eating May Be an Indicator of Mental Health Issues in Children


Picky Eating Photo of TomatoMost young children have some sort of picky and inexplicable eating habit: some may have an aversion to broccoli, some to any red foods, and others may not eat foods that are touching other foods on their plate. Whatever their preferences may be, picky eating is seen as a normal habit out of which children will grow. However, a new study conducted by Duke University claims that selective eating among children five years and younger may not be as normal as doctors first made it out to be. In fact, the researchers discovered that moderate or severe selective eating, a form of disordered eating, can actually be an indicator of mental health issues, such as depression, generalized anxiety, social anxiety and ADHD.

While disliking broccoli and other vegetables is fairly typical of young children, parents should be on the watch for moderate and severe forms of selective eating. A moderate selective eater will have a limited range of preferred foods, while a severe selective eater, in addition to a limited food preference, will also have difficulty eating with others. According to Natalia Stasenko, a registered dietician, some indications that a child may have moderate or severe selective eating are: “accepting 15 foods or fewer, omitting whole food groups, persistent gagging, tantrums at mealtimes and frequent food jags.”Picky Eaters Tantrum Photo

Because selective eating is overwhelmingly viewed as common for toddlers, little is known from the minimal research that has been done to understand the origins of the disordered eating and how it may progress. According to the Duke researchers, the lack of knowledge in this area of toddler health leaves parents with only one option: “wait and see.” However, from their study, Nancy Zucker and her team have found that a child’s eating patterns can be “a marker for later psychopathology,” or mental disorders, with selective eaters being 1.7 times more likely to display symptoms of generalized anxiety.

In their study of almost 1,000 preschoolers, the researchers found that 18% of the children were moderate and 3% severe selective eaters. They concluded that both moderate and severe selective eating might be more common in children with sensory sensitivity, which heightens responses to “food texture, smell, visual cues, and motion.” While sensory sensitivity is often linked to autism, it is important to note that this study of selective eating did not find an association between the two. Selective eating can also be linked to physical issues, such as disordered oral-motor functions.

Realizing that selective eating in children is more than a phase may provide relief to parents because this means there may be support from physicians and treatment options. By using selective eating as an indicator of possible mental health issues, parents no longer must “wait and see,” but instead can seek help for their children early on. If your child has selective eating habits and you would like more information, please feel free to contact Dr. Stephanie Foster by emailing

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