Mitchell L. Gaynor M.D.

Your Genetic Destiny

Is Picky Eating a Sign of Mental Illness in Kids?

Certain habits are associated with greater risk of anxiety and ADHD.

Posted Sep 10, 2015

Mitchell Gaynor, M.D.
Source: Mitchell Gaynor, M.D.

If your kindergartener doesn't like, say, broccoli, there's no reason to be alarmed. But if your child will eat only 10 foods or can never find anything that he or she likes on a kiddie restaurant menu, you may want to consider having a psychological counselor evaluate his or her mental state.

Kids who are severely selective eaters—about 3 percent of all children—are more than two times as likely to be diagnosed with depression or social anxiety, compared with kids who will eat anything on their plates, according to a study that was published last month in the journal Pediatrics. Kids who are moderately selective eaters—about 17 percent of all children—are more likely to develop symptoms of anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). For this study, the scientists examined over 3,000 children between the ages of two and six.

How is picky eating potentially linked to mental illness? Little ones who are sensitive to certain foods tend to be sensitive to lots of other things in the world, such as smells, noises, and visual cues, the researchers found. So they're more likely to have "intense emotional experiences," according to lead researcher Nancy Zucker, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, and an eating disorders specialist.

Luckily, many kids will grow out of this, but there are things that you can do, as a parent, to improve your child's relationship with food. For example, you don't want every single meal to be a battle, of course, but once a day or even just once a week, try introducing your kid to a new food that's healthy. And really try to sell the food. Mention, for instance, how a carrot has a fun, bright orange color and a satisfying crunch to it. Then eat one yourself and show your child how much you like it by smiling and saying, "Yum!"

And don't be afraid to get creative. For instance, if your child loves rooting for the New York Mets, try arranging orange slices and blueberries on a plate that reflect the baseball team's orange and blue colors. Or if your kid's favorite color is green, show her how eating spinach will match her favorite green shirt. Or if your little one is obsessed with the Sesame Street character Elmo, mention that Elmo loves to eat celery. Whatever you can do to get your kid excited about eating the food may help.

Something else to consider is how you prepare and present the food. Maybe your tot will learn to love broccoli once you drizzle olive oil and breadcrumbs over it or dip it in ranch dressing. Are steamed veggies too mushy for your child? Perhaps raw ones will do the trick. Maybe if string beans are hidden within a casserole or if peas are puréed and snuck into tomato sauce, your kid will be none the wiser. For healthful and tasty recipes that the whole family will love, check out my new book, The Gene Therapy Plan.