Why are some kids picky eaters? It may be in their genes.

March 21, 2013

No matter how much parents plead, cajole or entice, some children just won’t try new foods. However, researchers now have found that the reason for the push-back may have more to do with what’s in the children’s genes than what’s on their plates.

Dr. Myles Faith
Dr. Myles Faith

A recent study led by Myles S. Faith, PhD, associate professor of nutrition at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, found that, among 66 pairs of twins who were between four and seven years of age, genes accounted for 72 percent of the variation (individual differences) in children’s tendency to avoid new foods.

These and other findings appear in “Child Food Neophobia is Heritable, Associated with Less Compliant Eating, and Moderates Familial Resemblance for BMI,” published online March 20 in the journal Obesity [PDF].

“Food neophobia, or the avoidance of trying new foods, is strongly influenced by genetics in early childhood,” Faith says. “In this regard, it’s similar to child temperament or personality. The home environment certainly also has an influence on these factors, but nature has a strong say in the ultimate outcome.”
A predisposition to avoid new foods does not necessarily mean children can’t change their behavior and become less picky, or at least, less averse to new foods.
“Although genes have an important role, genetics do not equal destiny,” Faith says. “Parents can serve as role models and provide repeated exposure to new foods at home, and there are specific actions that parents can take to increase children’s acceptance of new foods.”
In fact, previous research has established that parents shape the home environment and many of their children’s food preferences. Further, parents who more often tried new foods had children who were less food-neophobic. However, Faith and his team wanted to investigate whether food neophobia is, in general, inherited or a product of the home environment.
While the study is in no way definitive, the results were striking. The findings are also consistent with emerging evidence that genes have impact upon many eating behaviors by children, including food avoidance, eating in the absence of hunger, and overall 24-hour dietary patterns.
“On the environmental side, we also found that unique food-related life experiences that were not shared by siblings also affected food neophobia,” Faith says. “The parents’ greatest influence could be in how they treat each child differently rather than similarly.”
Faith notes that strategies aimed at changing food avoidance may need to be partially tailored from child to child, even among twins. This ultimately may be more successful than a uniform strategy for all children.
“One child may respond immediately to a parent’s modeling, that is, showing the child how much they enjoy the food item being avoided,” Faith says. “But this strategy may not work as well for another child in the family.”
As a result, a variety of individualized approaches may have to be attempted until success is found with each child. “Research needs to examine new interventions that take into account children’s individuality,” Faith said. “This includes genetic uniqueness.”
The researchers also found no link between food neophobia and parents’obesity. That is to say, children of obese parents were not more likely to be food-neophobic compared to children of non-obese parents. There was an unexpected finding that heavier parents did not tend to have heavier children, but only for children low in food neophobia.
Faith does caution, however, that the findings are preliminary.
“This is just a first step at looking at genetics as a factor in food neophobia, feeding relations and obesity,” he said. “We were intrigued by the results, but we believe more research is needed to examine this issue more extensively.”
The study abstract and complete article are available online.

Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu.