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04-28 Picky eating linked to parental anxiety, depression

Posted in Advocacy, Anxiety, Parenting

Picky eating linked to parental anxiety, depression

Almost all parents have to deal with their children who don’t want to eat dinner because they don’t like the broccoli, or the peas or the flavor of the sauce. It is not uncommon for children to cross their arms, curl their lower lip and say, “no,” to foods that they don’t find appetizing. Parents hope that their young picky eaters will grow out of this phase.

Pediatricians recommend introducing only one type of food at a time to prevent bad eating habits in children. Picky eating can lead to behavioral problems in children, functional constipation and weight gain. Although experts are not sure what creates a picky eater, a recent study was released that linked picky eaters with parental anxiety and depression.

Picky eating in children can cause impairments

Picky eaters, commonly known as selective eaters, are at risk for developing depression, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Health care professionals should intervene when selective eating becomes moderate in severity. “Eating problems among preschool-aged children are so pervasive that clinicians and researchers often treat them as developmentally normal,” the authors wrote.

“Particularly prevalent is picky or selective eating (SE): 14 percent to 20 percent of parents report that their preschooler (ages 2-5 years old) is ‘often’ or ‘always’ selective with food. Yet, the fact that a behavior is relatively common does not mean that it is harmless. SE has been associated with impairment in emotional, physical, and social domains. Both researchers and clinicians need to understand the level of severity at which SE causes impairment, so that practitioners can know when to intervene.”

Parental anxiety can harvest picky eating

Studies have shown that maternal and paternal anxiety and depression can harvest picky eaters in children. Parents who are stressed, depressed and anxious often internalize their feelings because they do not want to express these emotions around their offspring. Depression during pregnancy and postpartum depression also showed a close relationship with picky eaters.

“The researchers said they discovered a link between mothers who internalized their problems during pregnancy and up to three years after birth and children who were fussy eaters. They also found indications that dads with emotional stress had a similar effect on their children.”

The study included approximately 4,000 mothers and their children and 4,000 fathers. Mothers were asked to assess their level of anxiety and depression during their pregnancy and to re-asses these three years later by filling out questionnaires. In conjunction, these mothers were asked to assess their child’s eating habits at the three-year mark. Results showed that elevated levels of maternal anxiety correlated with an increase in their child’s picky eating habits.

The importance of self-care for parents

Although there is no direct cause-and-effect relationship between parental anxiety and depression with their children’s eating habits, it can be inferred from the data in the study that there is some correlation. Self-care and mental health are important aspects of parenthood. It is important to recognize and acknowledge if you are feeling overly anxious or depressed and seek care.

Sovereign Health Rancho San Diego is a leading behavioral health care provider that specializes in treating adolescents with mental health disorders, including mood and anxiety disorders, alcohol abuse and drug abuse, and co-occurring conditions. For more information, please call our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Kristen Fuller, M.D., is a senior staff writer at the Sovereign Health Group and enjoys writing about evidence-based topics in the cutting-edge world of medicine. She is a physician and author, who also teaches, practices medicine in the urgent care setting and contributes to medicine board education. She is also an outdoor and dog enthusiast. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at

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