Genetic Link to Picky Eating

Finding a genetic link to picky eating
is like looking for the abominable snowman.

Duke eating disorders specialist Doctor Nancy Zucker says up until now, little research has been done on adult picky eating. Now she, along with researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, are launching the first national public registry for adult finicky eaters: The Food FAD (Finicky Eating in Adults). They are hoping to find what drives adult picky eaters, who can be isolated because of their eating habits.

A mom recently wrote me, “I just wanted to make your readers aware of severe picky eating in kids. I am a mom of three and I am a severe picky eater. My daughter is just like me and eats like me, so I was beginning to wonder about nature versus nurture. My two sons eat like normal kids. There is so much medical research going on now stating that there may be a genetic link to picky eating… Thank you for your input on this!”

I responded, “What we learn to eat is mostly cultural. If you have a picky parent, you are more likely to be a picky eater yourself. What we experience as toddlers can stay with us for a lifetime, unless there is a willingness to change or an intervention. Now, kids with sensory issues (like with autism, sensory integration disorder, and super tasters) have other problems to overcome, but they can be taught to enjoy whole foods. It most likely will take more time and patience.”

Things aren’t always as they seem. The next email revealed the real purpose for her comments, she wanted to educate me that picky eating is sometimes unchangeable. “I am part of a group of over 5,000 members of adult picky eaters. We are working with Duke and UPMC about an actual genetic/DNA link.”

Obviously, I needed to enlarge my definition of picky eating for this mom. Most children aren’t super tasters, have heightened tactile issues or have compromised taste receptors. Moms are interested in getting their kids to eat more veggies. If there is a specific issue or obstacle, they usually let me know right away, so I can address it.

Is There a Physical Component for Some Picky Eating?
Of course. If a child is Autistic or has Sensory Integration Disorder, it’s almost a given he/she will be a picky eater. Picky eaters are eating…something. If there’s a physical component to a child’s picky eating, it’s not an excuse for junk foods. Parents must teach their child how to enjoy whole foods. It’s done all the time with the help of physical therapists and of course, with the Baby Bites steps.

Many times adult picky eaters will eat only white food (simple carbs: sugar and white flour), devoid of nutrients. The people on the adult picky eating site confirmed this. They are eating unhealthy (mostly junk) foods. Bob’s comment about his picky eating is ambiguous, “I think I would like to change the way I eat. But sometimes worry a part of me would die if I ever did. It’s almost a badge of honor to me.” Doesn’t sound as if he really wants to change, now does it?

DNA, Genetics & Motivation
There’s more going on here than DNA or genetics. An adult picky eater has years of unhealthy patterns to overcome. A smoker knows that he/she is harming their health, but that alone isn’t enough to motivate change.  A smoker has to WANT to kick the habit…so does the adult picky eater. The health consequences are just as harmful for an adult picky eater as the smoker.

What  do I call a healthy adult extreme picky eater…lucky. I would never conclude smoking is benign, because a few smokers don’t get cancer or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Just as with the smoker, it may take years for junk foods to take their toll. Because a few extreme picky eaters are seemingly healthy, I don’t believe for one minute that most are. In fact, the ones who seem to be beating the odds, most likely have serious disease in their futures.

You can’t force anyone to live a healthy lifestyle. The adult picky eaters, who I have met, are comfortable in their discomfort. An adult must be willing to take the steps to initiate change. Parents have the advantage, because they control their child’s environment to expedite change.

Healthy eating is a learned behavior, even if there are physical obstacles. Challenges were made to overcome. Adult picky eating sites want you to believe that this is a condition they have no control over. As adults, most are like Bob, not really wanting to improve their diets. These sites deliver moral support and now they want public sympathy and approval for what they feel they cannot change. Obviously, it’s easier to learn to enjoy whole foods as a child. Learning to like whole foods as an adult takes determination. The same Baby Bite steps work for any age, because the cornerstone of the steps is multi-sensory learning.

If picky eating is named a disorder, I believe many parents will use that as an excuse for giving their children junk foods. I have not come across one child who has not improved when the parent has removed the junk foods from the home and implemented multi-sensory learning at the table.

I’m an optimist. I believe not only children, but adult picky eaters have the ability to transform their eating habits. People can change, when motivated. I’ve seen kids with Autism, sensory integration disorder and other issues become healthy eaters. Does that mean they eat everything? No. It does mean that junk food has been eliminated and their variety of accepted whole food has increased.

What would happen if a genetic link is found or if they call picky eating a disorder? Will it make people healthier? No! For optimum health, people will still have to learn how to eat whole foods.

There is hope. Even though there may be physical reasons for extreme picky eating, it doesn’t automatically denote change is impossible. Do adult picky eaters want to find a medical breakthrough that will enable them to enjoy whole foods? For many they want confirmation that they have a “disorder.” This will help them feel better about being a picky eater, but won’t change a thing.

By the time a picky eater reaches adulthood, eating patterns have been ingrained. It’s not impossible to change, but definitely it’s more difficult. The optimal time to transform a picky eater is in childhood. Adults must want to change; be willing to do the work. And it’s work to change a habit. More work if there are physical issues such as limited taste sensors or heightened sensory issues. I believe people always have the ability to change…but it takes more than wishes.

Next: How Parents Make Picky Eaters Worse: Click Here.

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