Picky eating at age 4 years is stable over an approximately 4-year period, research published in Pediatrics suggests.

A boy who refuses to eat Yuki KONDO/Getty Images

In addition, picky eating is associated with lower body mass index (BMI). The stability of picky eating suggests that “interventions to prevent or modify picky eating may need to start before the preschool years,” said Carmen Fernandez, MPH, a researcher and medical student at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and colleagues.

Whether picky eating is a stable trait and how it relates to weight status has been unclear. Furthermore, “previous longitudinal studies have not focused on low-income children, who are at elevated risk for being both overweight and picky,” said Ms. Fernandez and associates.

A stable trait

To examine trajectories of picky eating in a low-income population of children and how picky eating relates to BMI z score (BMIz) and maternal behavior, the researchers conducted a longitudinal cohort study. They recruited more than 300 mother-child dyads from Head Start programs in Southeastern Michigan between 2009 and 2011. Children were 3-4 years old at recruitment, and researchers collected data at five time points. Children had an average age of 4 years at the first time point and 9 years at the fifth time point. Investigators collected child BMIz scores at all time points, Children’s Eating Behavior Questionnaire (CEBQ) scores at four time points, and Child Feeding Questionnaire and Caregiver’s Feeding Styles Questionnaire scores at three time points. Mothers completed the Emotion Regulation Checklist at baseline.

Among 317 children, an analysis identified three trajectories of picky eating severity as measured by the CEBQ Food Fussiness subscale: persistently low (29% of the children), persistently medium (57%), and persistently high (14%). “Maternal feeding behaviors characterized by restriction and demandingness were associated with picky eating,” the authors said. In post hoc analyses, emotional regulation was higher and emotional lability was lower among children with low levels of picky eating, compared with children with medium and high levels of picky eating.

“High and medium picky eating was associated with lower average BMIz, in the healthy BMIz range, suggesting that picky eating could be protective against overweight and obesity, as others have proposed,” Ms. Fernandez and colleagues said. “We did not find evidence that picky eating was associated with being underweight, which is consistent with previous studies. ... Little is known, however, about the long-term weight gain trajectories of picky eaters into adulthood, and this is an important area for future research.”

The results from this cohort may not apply to other populations, the authors noted.

What to do about picky eating

“Health providers, researchers, and parents do not yet have a handle on the management and messaging of picky eating in children,” said Nancy L. Zucker, PhD, and Sheryl O. Hughes, PhD, in an accompanying editorial. “When a parent describes a child as often or always selective, it is beyond normative. … Roughly only 14% were described this way.”

The results suggest a need for early intervention, and age 24 months and younger may be when “children are more receptive to the exploration of new tastes,” said Dr. Zucker of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and the department of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University in Durham, NC., and Dr. Hughes of the Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Researchers should examine the impact of an authoritative feeding style, which combines elements of authoritarian and indulgent feeding styles, on a child’s willingness to explore foods, said Dr. Zucker and Dr. Hughes. This feeding style incorporates “structure and guidance while being sensitive to the child’s needs without being punitive,” they said. “According to theories of inhibitory learning ... we can think of children with elevated picky eating as having thousands of negative memories about food (e.g., conflict, unexpected tastes, discomfort). Thus, caregivers can work to create positive memories and experiences around food (e.g., cooking, gardening) to help picky eaters expand their preferences. However, in doing so, it is critical that caregivers let go of their need for a child to taste something and instead focus on accumulating pleasant experiences.”

Whether this approach reduces pickiness is unknown, but it may improve shared eating experiences, Dr. Zucker and Dr. Hughes said.

Ms. Fernandez and coauthors had no relevant financial disclosures. The study was supported by the American Heart Association, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Zucker received funding from the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Mental Health; Dr. Hughes had no relevant financial disclosures. The editorial was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

SOURCES: Fernandez C et al. Pediatrics. 2020 May 26. doi: 10.1542/peds.2019-2018; Zucker NL and Hughes SO. Pediatrics. 2020 May 26. doi: 10.1542/peds.2020-0893.