Faddy food habits – all in the genes?

Do your kids balk at unfamiliar foods? Do you despair at their predilection for biscuits over beans, or Cheerios over cherries? Well, before you tell them off too severely, think again. It could be your fault!

Why does my child turn his nose up at my lovingly prepared meals?

New research suggests that genetic factors have a big part to play when it comes to our food preferences. The research, by Lucy J Cooke and her colleagues from University College London, reports that food fears – why some children try to avoid unfamiliar foods - are 78 percent inherited. Shared environment has no effect at all, as non-shared environmental factors account for the remaining 22 percent.

“Parents can be reassured that their child’s reluctance to try new foods is not simply the result of poor parental feeding practices, but is partly in the genes,” reports Cooke, in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Researchers studied 10,780 pairs of eight to ten-year-old twins to assess their fears of unfamiliar food - what is called “food neophobia.” Traditionally such fears may have been to do with evolution, as people automatically tried to avoid exposure to something potentially dangerous.

The results for identical twins (which have the same DNA) and fraternal (which don’t) were then compared. Identical twins were far more likely to have the same amount of new-food phobia, suggesting a very strong inherited influence.

“This is a very interesting approach to how we encourage children to eat a wider variety and more of the healthy foods,” says Lizzie Vann, founder of the children’s food company, Organix. “Our experience backs up the research. If you want to encourage young children to try new foods, the two biggest areas to focus on are:

1. Being calm – make the introduction of a new food just part of a normal everyday occurrence. If your child turns it down, don’t make a fuss, just try again, a couple of days later.

2. Eating as big a variety of healthy foods yourself as possible, from the moment of conception! Whilst you are pregnant, and if you breastfeed, your child is what YOU eat – they will be exposed to all the flavours of your foods, and this will impact hugely on what they want to eat themselves. And of course, in the early years, children copy their mums and dads – so if they see you eating lots of fresh fruit, they will feel comfortable doing the same.”

It’s quite a mixed message for parents, as the research suggests that when we fail in our attempts to make our children try new foods, it is our fault – but due to genetic factors, rather than bad parenting! Still, we parents shouldn’t despair too much. The study says that it is possible to reduce new-food fears, if we try hard enough. As Dr Cooke says:

“New foods can become familiar and disliked foods liked, with repeated presentation.”

It sounds like the old mantra: if at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

Related links

Control those cravings - for you and your baby! New research suggests that a craving for junk food can begin before a baby is born. Is it time to finally ditch the idea that if you’re pregnant you should be eating for two?

Protect your child from obesity: Around 2.4 million British children are overweight or obese. How can you avoid dangerous food habits and stop your child from becoming another statistic?

Coping with a Fussy Eater: Here’s one issue that has many parents tearing their hair out with frustration: how to get a child to eat anything near a balanced diet? With tension mounting in the kitchen, the Supernanny website offers solutions straight from the lips of parents…

The Snack Jar Technique: This is used on Supernanny to limit a child's consumption of unhealthy snacks, so they have a healthy appetite when a good meal is on the table...

Discipline for Twins: Discipline is one of the greatest challenges faced by parents of twins. Twin children may seem to be conspiring against you - particularly when you're outnumbered two to one! The Supernanny team has this advice for weary Mums and Dads.

Find out more

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

Organix: make organic baby food and organic food for children

Related Advice