It’s not often that I wake up to the morning news and hear about picky eating - exciting times (if you’re a geek like me).
The story was in relation to some new research by scientists at UCL, UK. The data is taken from the Gemini study, the largest cohort of twins ever to participate in research, so not a paper to be sniffed at.
The findings were reported as “Picky eating down to genetics and not bad parenting, scientists conclude” (in the British paper, the Telegraph) but is this what the researchers were really saying?
When I’m not writing about picky eating or working with families, I can be found hiding away working on my PhD at university. I’m researching how mothers approach feeding, so feeding research is - as they say - my bread and butter.
Here’s what I discovered when I dived in:
The researchers found an almost 50/50 split between the levels of influence of genes versus environment. So headlines like the one in the Telegraph are really misleading. And this isn’t new - we’ve known for some time that there is a genetic component to picky eating.
What these researchers were really interested in is whether food 'neophobia' (fear of new foods) and what they termed ‘food fussiness’ (a child’s tendency to be very choosy about which foods they will eat) have similar causation in terms of genes and environment. Put simply, are food fussiness and food neophobia influenced by genes and environment to the same degree?
The researchers found that in early life, food fussiness was more influenced by environment than food neophobia. In other words, of these two constructs being examined, a fear of new foods is the most strongly driven by genes.
I find this fascinating because I am very interested in how temperament impacts eating. We know that traits like shyness are highly heritable (passed to children genetically) and I feel that being naturally cautious is an important factor to consider when thinking about picky eating.
Headlines like the one in the Telegraph are annoying because they imply that it is an ‘either-or’ situation; that picky eating is either caused by bad parenting or genetics, so come on.. which is it?? AND they imply that parent-blaming is a useful thing to do. Something that really riles me.
I write a lot about how, while it is really important to acknowledge that there may be things you would do differently, (if you were the proud owner of a time machine) never forget that as parents, we are pretty much just doing the best we can with the information we have available to us at the time.
Guilt and blame are not constructive emotions and energy is so much more usefully invested in moving forward. If you ever feel guilty about your child’s relationship with food, read this post about moving on from this blame mindset
Having moaned about silly headlines, it’s fantastic to see picky eating being taken seriously enough to merit large scale studies and articles in the national press - the more we talk about it and learn about it, the more empowered parents will become when it comes to tackling childhood feeding challenges.