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Picky Eating in Kids Associated With Depression and Anxiety

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Parents of picky eaters may see their child's behavior as just a phase, but new research suggests that mental health issues like depression and anxiety may be at the root of disordered eating habits.

The study, conducted by researchers at the Duke Center for Eating Disorders, found that more than 20 percent of kids between the ages of 2 and 6 are "selective eaters" - a condition that is characterized by restrictive intake of only particular types of foods. Children with this disorder often find it difficult to eat in social situations where their preferred foods aren't present, and they might also be repelled by the texture, smell or appearance of certain foods.

"The question for many parents and physicians is: when is picky eating truly a problem?" said lead study author Nancy Zucker, Ph.D."The children we're talking about are not just misbehaving kids who refuse to eat their broccoli."

Anxiety and depression

Children in the study with selective eating behaviors showed symptoms of anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. They were more than twice as likely to have a depression diagnosis and twice as likely to have symptoms of generalized anxiety than other children.

Kids with these patterns technically meet the criteria for Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID).

"These are children whose eating has become so limited or selective that it's starting to cause problems," Zucker said. "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 also found that parents with severe picky eaters often experience conflict when it comes to meal times - as children with selective eating habits may simply have an aversion to certain foods, but they can also develop anxiety when being forced to try a new food.

Zucker said that children who exhibit symptoms may outgrow the problem, but that parents can easily spot the behavior, which can make screening children for potential mental health problems much easier.

"It's a good way to get high-risk children into interventions, especially if the parents are asking for help," Zucker said.

The study is published in the journal Pediatrics.

Source: Duke University