Fussy eating – also referred to as “selective eating” in scholarly research – is incredibly common among children, with upper estimates placing the prevalence at 50 per cent. Despite this, many parents understandably fret when their kids avoid a lot of foods, won’t try new things and/or will only eat certain meals. They worry whether their child is getting enough vitamins and if their child’s fussiness is some kind of precursor to later more serious eating problems.
A new, small study in Eating Behaviors is the first to document how fussy eating develops in the same individuals over time into early adulthood and may provide a crumb (sorry) of comfort for anxious parents. It’s true that 60 per cent of fussy eating children in the study were also fussy eaters at age 23, but fussy eating young adults were no more likely to report signs of eating disorder than their non-fussy peers.
The researchers led by Meredith Van Tine at Stanford University School of Medicine managed to catch up with 61 individuals, now aged 23, who’d participated as children in a long-running study in which their eating habits had been scored by their parents at ages 2, 7, 9.5 and 11, including any signs of fussy eating (being a “selective eater”, having strong likes and dislikes, and only eating a limited variety of foods etc). The participants were now asked to rate themselves on whether they were selective or fussy eaters, and they answered questions about whether they engaged in behaviours related to eating disorders.
Just over half the sample had been rated as fussy eaters at some point. Developmentally, the pattern was for fussy eating to increase in prevalence through early childhood, peak at age 6, then decline through middle childhood (when rated at ages 7 and 9). In terms of continuity from childhood to adulthood, six of the ten participants who’d been scored as fussy eaters at age 3 also rated themselves as fussy eaters now they were young adults.
Duration of fussy eating as a child was also associated with likelihood of being a fussy eater as an adult; in fact, all the participants who’d been a fussy eater for more than six years as a child also described themselves as a fussy eater as an adult.
Some of the participants had acquired fussy eating habits in adolescence or later. Among the 17 participants now describing themselves as fussy eaters, 6 had shown no signs as children (so they must have acquired the behaviour at some point between age 11 and 23).
Perhaps most important, as 23-year-olds, there was no evidence that the fussy eaters in the group were any more likely to engage in behaviours, like purging or bingeing, that are typically associated with eating disorders, nor did they show signs of being underweight, overweight or obesity. This tallies with a recent larger survey of hundreds of adult “picky eaters” who were found to be at no greater risk of eating disorder-related behaviours than non picky eaters.
The new research involved a small sample and the mix of early parent reports and later self-reports wasn’t ideal, but on the plus side it’s the first ever research to chart fussy eating in the same people from childhood to adulthood.