This common eating habit could be harming your health

By Alistair Gardiner
Published March 8, 2021

Key Takeaways

When it comes to food, pickiness could be a bigger problem than you think. Of course, it’s fairly common in kids, but evidence shows that picky eating can carry over into adulthood, leading to a greater risk of certain diseases and poor health outcomes.

Here’s a look at how picky eating develops, the health issues it can cause, and what you can do to address it, based on the latest research. 

Health impacts

According to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, fussy or picky eating is associated with adverse health outcomes. 

The study used a cohort of more than 4,000 individuals from two datasets: the Finnish Dietary, Lifestyle, and Genetic determinants of Obesity and Metabolic syndrome (DILGOM) cohort, and the Estonian Biobank cohort. Researchers examined the relationships between picky eating (clinically known as food neophobia—or, fear of eating new or unfamiliar foods), and diet quality, health-related biomarkers, and the development of diseases, over an 8-year study period. 

Being a picky eater was significantly associated with several health-related biomarkers, including lower levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are vital for brain function and cell growth. Picky eating was also linked with lower levels of high-density lipoprotein, as well as higher levels of alpha-1-acid glycoprotein, an inflammation biomarker. In comparison, those in the cohorts who weren’t picky eaters had more favorable levels of these biomarkers.

In one of the cohorts, researchers also found that food neophobia was linked with fasting serum insulin concentrations and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes; in the other, picky eating was linked to increased risks of coronary heart disease.

“Food neophobia [was] associated significantly (adjusted P < 0.05) with health-related biomarkers [e.g., omega-3 (n-3) fatty acids, citrate, α1-acid glycoprotein, HDL, and MUFA] in the Finnish DILGOM cohort,” the authors wrote. “The significant negative association between the severity of food neophobia and [omega]-3 fatty acids was replicated in all cross-sectional analyses in the Finnish DILGOM and Estonian Biobank cohorts.”

In addition, food neophobia is also associated with the development of other eating disorders and a decreased intake of fish and vegetables, resulting in poorer overall dietary quality, the authors noted. 

“We suggest that by identifying individuals with higher food neophobia (e.g., in adolescence) and associated detrimental dietary behavior and reduced dietary quality, it is possible to prevent and reduce future risk of metabolic diseases,” the authors concluded.

This is not the first study to point out the pitfalls of an unbalanced or incomplete diet as a result of picky eating. One study, published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, concluded that picky eating is associated with psychosocial impairment and anxiety, and also typically involves a decreased intake of fruit and vegetables. 

Where food neophobia comes from

According to an article published in Pediatrics, picky eating tends to begin early in life. The article outlined the findings of a study in which researchers examined the dietary habits of children 4-9 years of age. They found that if food neophobia develops between these ages, it often persists into adulthood. 

The study also pinpointed factors that play a role in how children become picky eaters. Among them were the child’s temperament—children with greater emotional lability and lower emotional regulation were more likely to become picky eaters. 

Parenting also plays a role. The more a child’s parents were demanding or strict about what should and shouldn’t be eaten, the more likely it was that the child would develop food neophobia.

A review published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity collected the findings of 10 studies, and the authors came to the same conclusions. The authors found that fussy eating often developed as a result of emotional behaviors in the child, parents’ beliefs on eating habits, and mealtime emotions. The authors also concluded that food neophobia tends to stick around as the child gets older.

What to do about it

These conclusions don’t mean that you have to resign yourself to being a picky eater forever. There are strategies to break yourself of the habit. 

Getting past food neophobia starts with learning to enjoy what you’re eating. Don’t just feed yourself on autopilot—pay attention to what you’re eating and, at least at first, don’t put pressure on yourself to eat anything that you don’t want. The aim here is to rid yourself of underlying negative emotions related to eating.

You can practice by having regular meals with family or friends. According to nutritional experts, emphasizing the social aspects of eating can help you shed emotions that may have led to picky eating in the first place. 

Over time, you’ll likely start to feel more ready to experiment with new foods. You can start small by preparing small dishes with foods you don’t typically eat, and trying them without committing yourself to eating an entire meal.

This may be a lengthy process, but before you know it, you’ll be on your way to a more varied, balanced, and healthier diet—and a new appreciation of dining. You might even find there was a foodie hidden within you all along. 

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