If we could, we would eat avocados all day. And while I’m only (half) joking, stubbornness when it comes to nutrition is no laughing matter. “Food neophobia” refers to the fear of trying new foods, and the condition can have some pretty serious health implications. Now, new research suggests food neophobia in kids is mostly a result of genetic, as opposed to environmental, influences Child food neophobias heritable, associated with less compliant eating, and moderates familial resemblance for BMI. Faith, M.S., Heo, M., Keller, K.L., et al. Department of Nutrition, Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill. Obesity 2013 Mar 20.. Moreover, kids whose parents have high body mass indexes (BMIs) are more likely to be overweight if they struggle with food neophobia.
It’s a reminder that certain people may struggle with health and nutrition from the outset and may need more guidance than others when it comes to their dietary choices.
What’s the Deal?
In the study, scientists looked at 66 sets of identical and fraternal same-sex twins who met the criteria for child neophobia (according to their parents’ responses on the Child Food Neophobia scale) Child food neophobias heritable, associated with less compliant eating, and moderates familial resemblance for BMI. Faith, M.S., Heo, M., Keller, K.L., et al. Department of Nutrition, Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill. Obesity 2013 Mar 20.. After asking the ’rents some questions about their children’s feeding practices, researchers measured the kids’ BMI and body fat.
Turns out food neophobia wasn’t just a result of a bad experience with spoiled spinach. Researchers found the condition was up to 72 percent heritable (meaning 28 percent related to environmental factors). Moreover, kids whose parents had high BMIs were only more likely to have high BMIs if they were picky eaters. The study authors suggest it’s important to come up with potential solutions to food neophobia to help prevent obesity.
When it comes to the prevalence of food neophobia, it’s hard to find exact stats, but research suggests the issue is most common among kids ages two to six. Lots of kids in that age group are picky eaters, squeamish about sushi or stalks of broccoli, but food neophobia is more about the fear of trying absolutely anything new. And while some kids grow out of their fears, the issue can sometimes follow people into adulthood.
Is It Legit?
Probably. The sample size in this study was pretty small, but lots of other research on kids and adults suggests that genetics play a huge role in food neophobia. Still, it’s important to note that the study doesn’t determine why exactly kids who exhibit neophobic behavior are more likely to be overweight; it merely shows a correlation between the two factors.
As is the case with most aspects of human behavior, it’s hard to pinpoint a specific cause of food neophobia. Some experts say the behavior is a result of evolution, since humans once had to be extremely cautious about trying a new mushroom they found in the woods. Heritability is also a huge factor, and this study is hardly the first piece of research to suggest that the condition, in kids and adults, has a lot to do with genetics Genetic and environmental influences on children's food neophobia. Cooke, L.J., Haworth, C.M., Wardle, J. Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Unit, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, London, United Kingdom. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2007 Aug;86(2):428-33. Food neophobia in young adults: genetic architecture and relation to personality, pleasantness and use frequency of foods, and body mass index—a twin study. Knaapila, A., Silventoinen, K., Broms, U., et al. Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia, PA, USA. Behavioral Genetics 2011 Jul;41(4):512-21. Food neophobia shows heritable variation in humans. Knaapila, A., Tuorila, H., Silventoinen, K., et al. Department of Technology, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland. Physiology & behavior 2007 Aug 15;91(5):573-8.. Studies of adults have found that heritability accounts for up to two thirds of the variation in food neophobia Food neophobia shows heritable variation in humans. Knaapila, A., Tuorila, H., Silventoinen, K., et al. Department of Technology, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland. Physiology & behavior 2007 Aug 15;91(5):573-8..
That makes sense according to other research that suggests our eating habits are largely a function of genetic influences. People who are highly sensitive to bitter tastes, for example, are generally much less likely than to eat their veggies than the rest of the population. Perhaps as a result, those sensitive to bitter tastes are also at significantly higher risk for health issues such as colon cancer.
Picky eating in general can lead to nutritional deficiencies and health conditions that include bone and heart problems. This new research suggests food neophobia in particular can be a risk factor for obesity. And while it’s unclear exactly why the fear of trying new foods might contribute to weight gain, it’s possible that certain people stick to a regimen of familiar but not-so-nutritious foods and avoid other items that might be more healthful.
Were you ever fearful of trying new foods? Share your stories in the comments below or tweet the author at @ShanaDLebowitz.