Whether it’s eating nothing but macaroni and cheese or refusing to touch anything green, picky eating is a common trait among young kids. But for some, it can lead to health risks throughout childhood and even into adulthood.
Now it may be possible to determine whether a child will be a picky eater based on the presence of certain genes, according to a study published in the Journal of Nutrigenetics and Nutrigenomics,
“For most healthy children, picky eating is a normal part of development,” Natasha Cole, lead study author and a doctoral student in nutritional sciences at the University of Illinois, told Seeker. “However, some studies have shown that picky eating is associated with eating disorders, emotional and behavioral problems, and risk of both underweight and overweight.”
Cole wants to investigate picky eating behavior to make it easier for parents to remedy. Her team examined how the genes that respond to chemical stimuli, chemosensory genes, are related to picky eating behavior in children. They took saliva samples from 153 preschoolers to test their DNA and perform genotyping.
The results show that out of the five taste-perception genes tested, two are connected to picky eating. One gene was associated with the behavior in children of consistently choosing only a few different foods to eat, resulting in a diet limited in variety. The other gene was associated with the behavior of resisting parental authority, or struggling for control of food options during meals. Both genes — TAS2R38 and CA6 — may be related to a heightened perception of bitter tastes, which would explain why kids who have them tend to be choosier about their food. Further studies might determine the role of odor, color, and texture in children’s food preferences.
RELATED: How Eating Releases Opioids in the Human Brain
To draw conclusions about the behavior influenced by these genes, Cole considered previous research that studied how parenting style affects a child’s food choices. These studies looked at behaviors like refusing food often, having a limited variety in diet, and struggling for control during meals, as well as breastfeeding history.
Cole pointed out that a limited diet is one of the more concerning behaviors. “Picky eating behavior is often characterized as having a limited dietary variety, which could influence nutrient intake,” she said. “Some research indicates the behavior could persist later in childhood and adulthood.”
In a Journal of Sensory Studies analysis, researchers in the university’s nutritional sciences department identified four main categorizations of picky eating observed in children: sensory dependent, general perfectionists, behavioral responders, and preferential eaters. This was done to better understand how to remedy picky eating based on individual needs.
Another study published in journal Current Developments in Nutrition examined how different parenting styles influence picky eating habits. "Positive correlations were found between [an] authoritative parenting style and non-picky eating behaviors, as well as parent mealtime strategies that promote positive eating habits,” the study concluded. “Authoritarian and permissive parenting styles were positively correlated to child behaviors associated with picky eating and parent mealtime strategies that can negatively influence child feeding."
In other words: Being too strict or too lenient can cultivate negative eating habits in children.
RELATED: Children Internalize Gender Stereotypes as Early as Age Ten
Cole is currently researching how children’s genetic information — nature — is connected to the parenting styles and social environment — nurture — that picky eaters experience.
Previously, Cole conducted a review of picky eating in children under the age of 2, a critical time for the formation of eating habits. About 22 percent of children younger than 2, she found, are perceived by caregivers as picky eaters.
“It is important to understand picky eating,” she said. “It will help develop strategies for parents-caregivers during mealtimes and improve the eating behaviors, growth, and development of children.”
WATCH: Why Malnourished Children Might Never Recover