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Picky Eating Linked to Depression and Anxiety

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Author: Shernide Delva

My parents lucked out with me. I was never a picky eater. I ate everything they gave me and I rarely complained. Honestly, I just loved to eat (and still do!).

Looking back though, I don’t know whether my easy eating tendencies affected my emotional upbringing or not. My middle sister was a super picky eater and I definitely ended up with more emotional and anxiety issues than she did.

That’s why this new study is so surprising to me.

Most families treat picky eating as a phase but a recent study from Duke Medicine shows that moderate and severe picky eating is correlated to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

It has been estimated that 20 percent of children between the ages of 2 to 6 are selective eaters and of those, 18 percent are classified as moderately picky. Some children—about 3 percent, are so severely selective that it limits their ability to eat with others.  The study explains that picky eating can result in poor nutrition, family conflict and frustrated parents.

Children with both moderate to severe picky eating habits were found to be nearly twice as likely to have increased symptoms of generalized anxiety at follow up intervals during the study, which screen 3,433 children. Nancy Zucker, lead author of the study and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science elaborates on the condition:

“These are children whose eating has become so limited or selective that it’s starting to cause problems. Impairment can take many different forms. It can affect the child’s health, growth, social functioning, and the parent-child relationship. The child can feel like no one believes them, and parents can feel blamed for the problem.”

The study found that both moderate and severe selective eating were associated with significantly elevated symptoms of depression, social anxiety and generalized anxiety. Children with severe selective eating were found to be twice as likely to have a diagnosis of depression.

A new diagnosis called Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (AFRID) is used to describe moderate to severe selective eating children.  Children with this disorder suffer from

  • Anxiety
  • Malnourishment
  • Increase Tension in the Home
  • Failure to Gain Weight
  • Fear of Eating
  • Failure to Digest Food Propery
  • Avoidance of certain Textures/Colors of Food
  • Dependency on nutritional supplements and vitamins
  • Decline in Psychological Functioning

The study suggested parents who struggle with their children regularly over food find tools to address the problem.  Children who refuse to eat may be dismayed by smells, textures, and tastes of certain foods.

Through this negative experience, they develop fear and anxiety to try new foods.  If not addressed, this condition can sometimes worsen in adulthood.  It is nowhere near guaranteed but it is a definitely possibility.

“There’s no question that not all children go on to have chronic selective eating in adulthood,” Zucker said. “But because these children are seeing impairment in their health and well-being now, we need to start developing ways to help these parents and doctors know when and how to intervene.”

Therapy can help to demystify foods that cause anxiety in children. However, this may not be helpful for children sensitive to certain smells, flavors and textures. The findings suggest researchers to find other ways to address children with these specific issues.
Parents who have very picky eaters in their family can feel some peace in knowing that they are not the only ones to blame.  There obvious is more to picky eating than just disliking vegetables.

Picky eating can be a sign of mental health issues that need to be addressed as soon as possible. If you think you or your child is displaying signs of AFRID, find a profession who can help you come up with safe effective solutions. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free 1-800-951-6135.

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