Fussy eaters: nature or nurture?

This is a scientific shout out to all you parents out there who deal with fussy eaters. Day in, day out. And worry, and feel guilty. I can’t help you with the worry, but maybe this will make you feel a teensy bit less guilty. I hope so.

So, a few weeks back I detailed the weird and wonderful eating habits of dear Boybug, and at the end, I wondered whether our attitude to food was an inherent part of who we are, or whether it was learned from what we saw.

Predictably the answer is a bit of both. Certainly, if a child is only given a limited range of foods then it’s likely that their tastes will be limited. And I also know even the least fussy child can use food and food-refusal to exert power over their parents. But it gets much more interesting than that. What the mother ate while pregnant may play a part in a child’s food preferences, and two other major factors are at play. A child’s personality (itself shaped by so many different things), and their genetics. Turns out, your child’s DNA is really having an influence on what they taste [Most of the rest is taken from this great review].


Some kids just aren’t fussy: Girlbug’s first seafood platter

Taste is a complex process, and when you look at it it’s no wonder some kids struggle. On your tongue, you have tongue papillae, made of hundreds of taste buds. And each of those 2000-5000 taste buds has 50-100 taste cells, each of which has a receptor that interacts with the food, and gives us “taste”.

And there are reasons for kids not liking bitter things. A lot of bitter things are poisonous, so it makes good evolutionary sense for small children to be wary. Boybug is missing this adaption (technically described as a “non-taster”), and is well known for giving anything a try. Including my espresso, beer, berries, leaves…It would be useful for him to have some aversion to bitterness. But some kids have too much of an aversion – they are “super tasters”. And, they often grow into adults who don’t like their greens, and don’t drink alcohol or smoke. So if your kid doesn’t like brocolli, it’s not all bad! While we don’t fully understand the genetics, there are clear markers for how much a person enjoys bitter flavours.

And it’s not just bitterness. In mice, scientists have found a gene that you can tweak to alter how much they like fatty foods. The more fatty food tastes to them, the less high-fat foods they like. No one likes their food to taste too greasy, after all. And the taste bud cell receptors that control how sweet something tastes have many genetic variations. Some are found far more often in obese adults, or those with Type 2 Diabetes. Maybe there’s no such thing as a sweet tooth, but there does seem to be a sweet taste bud cell. There are also links between variations in genes for taste bud cells and the perception of sour, umami and salt.

But your genetic predisposition to not like a flavour can be over-ridden. A baby may first screw up their face at brocolli, but grow to like it eventually. The ability to over-ride your taste preferences is even stronger in adults. How many adults do you know who didn’t like beer on first consumption (maybe they are super-tasters) but have grown to drink it in large quantities?

And it’s not all genetic. Obviously a child’s environment and upbringing plays a role, but also their personality. Some children are more sensitive to rewards than others, and those who are very sensitive to rewards in general, are often found to be more attracted to sugary foods. On the other hand those that like bitter flavours identify themselves as “everyday” sadists – they like rollercoasters and horror films. Risk takers may be more ammeanable to trying new, or unusal foods.

There are so many determinants of what a child likes, and they are changing all the time. One thing that I think almost certainly wont play a role, is whether you did baby led weaning. Baby led weaning is often touted to produce less fussy kids. I don’t believe this. A positive, fun attitude to food along with a bit of luck genetically, and a child with an out going nature produces a good eater. While baby led weaning does lend itself to exploring new flavours and textures in a fun way, this can be done with traditional weaning too. Do whatever works for you, I say.

But get rid of the guilt. If you feel like you’ve done everything you can, and they are still fussy, it may well be just who they are!



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