How fussy an eater were you as a child? Society has tended to blame parents for how willing or unwilling their child is to try new foods, often accusing them of pandering to their little darlings' every whim. But now researchers have found that things might be a little more out of their control, as genetics may have an equal, and in some cases greater, role in how fussy an eater a child is.
“Establishing a substantial genetic influence on both of these traits might be quite a relief to parents as they often feel judged or feel guilty for their children’s fussy eating,” explained University College London’s Andrea Smith, who jointly led the research published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. “Understanding that these traits are largely innate might help to deflect this blame.”
The researchers studied close to 2,000 sets of 16-month-old twins, and looked into the factors that influenced whether or not they were fussy eaters. These children were separated into two groups, identical and fraternal twins, and the parents were given questionnaires probing their children's eating habits. They found that the home environment and the parent’s behaviors did have a role to play, but that in some instances they appear to be less important that the child’s own genetic influences.
At the age of 16 months, around 46 percent of the variation related to how fussy an eater the child was could be explained by differences in genetics, while a full 58 percent of variation in whether or not a child would try new foods could be explained by their DNA. This may absolve parents of some responsibility, but as ever, it is not the full picture. Environmental factors such as home life can and does influence children, as well as parental actions.
“Genes are not our destiny,” said Dr Clare Llewellyn, another co-author of the paper. “We know of many traits with a strong genetic basis that can nevertheless be changed, such as weight. It would be useful for future research to identify the important environmental shapers of food fussiness and neophobia [the fear of trying new things] in young children so that they might be targeted to reduce these behaviours.”
The generally accepted advice for preventing your kids from becoming picky eaters is fairly straight forward. It involves introducing them to new food early on, to keep trying even if they initially reject it, but to never force them to eat something they may not want. Experts believe that on average, a child will need to try a new food at least 15 times before they will eat it, so even if a kid had rejected something for the fourth or fifth time, it doesn’t necessarily mean the parent should stop, or that the child will never like it.