Picky eating could be in your genes, new research reveals.
Two genetic variations that code for picky eating habits have been identified for the first time by scientists.
Both genes are related to bitter taste receptors, but one is linked to children who just don’t like the taste of certain foods, while the other is associated with fussiness and meal-time power struggles.
This new understanding of how children’s tastes develop could help the researchers from the University of Illinois’s Transdisciplinary Obesity Prevention Program (I-TOPP) develop strategies to help parents introduce healthy diets to their children.
These findings dispel the notion that poor parenting is solely to blame for picky eating. Instead, it’s caused by a combination of parent’s genes and environmental factors.
Scientists have identified two genes that are associated with picky eating. Both genes make children more sensitive to bitter tastes, but one is linked to a limited range of preferred tastes, while the other was found in children that throw mealtime tantrums
The study, conducted at the university’s Urbana-Champaign campus, examined children between the ages of two and four.
At this stage, picky-eating is common, but for some children it can develop into a more lasting issue that makes a healthy diet harder to maintain.
Some studies have even linked picky eating during childhood to problems with being over or under weight, or struggling with eating disorders later in life.
Lead study author Natasha Chong Cole and her team have been studying picky eating from both ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ angles.
In previous research, they were able to make the distinction between the three kinds of picky eaters, those that were taste-particular, those that were behaviorally temperamental about food, and those that refused meals.
They used the markers of each kind to develop questions about meal time behaviors, past breast-feeding habits, and how much variety the 153 children they studied would tolerate in their food.
Once they’d separated the children into three groups, based on their caregivers’ answers, the researchers used saliva samples to compare the genetic make up of one group to the other.
Cole and her team chose five genes related to taste perception to examine. Of these, two genes divided the group, though there were no genetic consistencies among the children that refused meals.
Scientists discovered two genes associated with picky eating in children, both of which make their bitter taste zones, at the back of the tongue, more sensitive
The children who were only interested in a limited variety of foods were identifiable by a variation of the TAS2R38 gene, while trying to exercise control through picky eating was associated with the CA6 gene. Both genes mark a sensitivity to bitter tastes.
But Cole doesn’t see the habit of picky eating as being quite so simple. She says that children’s narrow tastes are a result of nature and nurture, and that this study really only explores the nature component.
‘The long term goal is to look at how the two jointly influence the behavior,’ says Cole.
She says that the next phases of her research ask: ‘even if you have children who are predisposed to be picky, because of genes or temperament, what is the balance in trying to develop [better] eating behaviors?’
Further studies are needed to see how children’s preferences are influenced by the look or smell of food.
Cole is also interested in understanding how picky eating starts in children under the age of two.
Most research, including this study ‘completely misses the window of time when children are transitioning from breast milk to food that the rest of the family is eating,’ she says.
She wonders if different methods of introducing food could have different effects on how open to new foods children might be.
When introducing new foods to young children, Cole says she’s ‘a big proponent of the “one family, one meal” concept.’
‘You just need to be patient sometimes. The last thing you want to do is be a short order cook for a picky eater.’
Cole says the other key is to try, try again with picky eaters. She says that sometimes children need to be exposed to a new food as many as 15 times before they’re willing to give it a try. She says to offer new foods, but don’t force them.