Picky Eating: Is It Nature or Nurture?

Picky Eating: Is It Nature or Nurture?

Why you should care

It might be in the genes. So it’s still kinda your fault.

Laurel Elis’ 2-year-old son has a short list of foods he’ll eat: buttered noodles, pickles and bananas — but only if the bananas are peeled just so. “Vegetables are a nonstarter, unless I’ve hidden them in chicken noodle soup,” says Elis, a Chicago-based writer. As a former childhood picky eater, Elis took calculated steps in the hope that history wouldn’t repeat itself, from expanding her own palate during pregnancy to implementing family mealtimes and encouraging her son to eat whatever dish was served. Despite her best efforts, her son developed “strong inclinations for specific foods.”

But there could be a hidden force behind the challenging mealtimes for the Elis family. According to a new study, it’s not all about nurture: Genetics could play a role in picky eating.

Researchers at the University of Illinois evaluated the DNA in saliva samples from 153 preschoolers and performed genotyping to help identify whether picky eating is a result of genetics or external influences such as parenting style. In the resulting study published in the Journal of Nutrigenetics and Nutrigenomics, they found that:

Two genes responsible for sensitivity to bitter taste could play a role in picky eating.

Time for a genetics lesson. The TAS2R38 and CA6 genes are related to a sensitivity to bitterness; the CA6 gene is also associated with struggles for control during mealtime. Children interested in a very limited diet? They showed the variation of both genes.

The findings may represent the first direct relationship between these types of genetic variations and picky eating. “You can’t blame genetics for everything,” says Soo-Yeun Lee, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois and an author of the study, but the information can “help to understand your children better and give them more flexibility.” For example, if your child is highly sensitive to bitterness, it simply could be quite difficult for him or her to swallow. In future studies, Lee would like to see a larger sample of children analyzed as well as the investigation of other genetic variations that could influence picky eating.

It’s best to tackle the situation early on, and keep dishing out those parsnips.

What can parents do? Be persistent about serving those brussels sprouts — it may take as many as eight to 10 exposures of a new food, Lee says. Some kids have an innate avoidance to novelty, and parents tend to give up after two to three tries, she adds. However, avoid the common approach: If you eat your broccoli, you can have dessert. “Having to go through the punishment” of eating something healthy in order to get the reward “is not a long-term positive strategy,” Lee says.

The good news? Picky eating is something that can be easily “unlearned,” says Rachel Goldman, a New York City–based psychologist and a clinical assistant professor at NYU School of Medicine. But it’s best to tackle the situation early on, and keep dishing out those parsnips. “If we think about ‘neophobia,’ the fear of new foods, the longer individuals avoid those new foods, the more anxiety-provoking it will become,” Goldman explains. Exposure is a great tool for any kind of anxiety-provoking situation — but in small increments. And something to keep in mind is to not pressure too much. “Be patient and persistent,” Goldman says.

Still, picky eating can also just be your toddler’s way of asserting independence. Offering a few healthy food choices while the phase is playing out can be helpful. Acting as a positive role model at the dinner table — and eating your own peas — also sets a good example.

Beyond all else, the study may give hope to parents of picky eaters. Rather than give up, they should keep at it — and be more understanding throughout the struggle.


Numbers and factoids — fodder for your next cocktail party.