Think your child’s picky eating is just a phase? There might be more going on than what isn't meeting his or her mouth. In a new Duke University study, scientists who analyzed 917 children aged 2 to 6, then interviewed parents about kids' eating habits and signs of psychiatric issues, found about 20% were picky eaters. Of those, nearly 18% were moderately picky and 3% were considered severely selective, reports Smithsonian. Moderately picky eaters showed a spike in symptoms of ADHD and separation anxiety and were more likely to show signs of social anxiety and depression. But severely selective eaters were seven times more likely to have social anxiety, twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression, and twice as likely to have behavior problems, report the New York Times and Guardian. When researchers followed up with 187 participants after two years, they found picky eaters were twice as likely to show increased symptoms of anxiety.
This means "selective eating isn't something that should just be disregarded," a researcher says, noting picky eaters could be diagnosed with an eating disorder known as Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. Still, most parents don't need to panic. "The children we're talking about are not just misbehaving kids who refuse to eat their broccoli," a researcher notes in a press release. Instead, they require separate meals or are unable to eat outside the home, like at birthday parties or a cafeteria. She adds there's no proof that picky eating actually causes psychological issues, only that there's a link between the two. Researchers say some children’s fussy eating may stem from heightened senses and warn that parents forcing kids to eat certain foods or worrying too much about what they eat can be harmful. It's important to create positive experiences around food, they say. If parents have "tried everything," professional help could be an option. (You might want to avoid midnight snacks.)