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It is well accepted that a parent’s eating habits can profoundly affect those of their children. However, new research would suggest that an adult’s mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, can adversely affect their child’s attitude to food.
‘Fussy’ eating is identified as a selective, but consistent, rejection of certain food groups. This trait can often be an indicator of weight problems and behavioural difficulties in infants. Alongside significance for the affected child, fussy eating can be a major worry for parents. The root cause of this problem is not well understood, and some experts believe the aetiology is multifactorial. In the past, there has been speculation about a genetic element. Research taken from ‘Generation R’, a population-based and prospective study based in Rotterdam, may be able to shed new light on the topic.
Beginning with a cohort of pregnant women (and a resultant 4,700 babies born), the team of researchers was able to investigate from foetal life onwards. They used a questionnaire to determine parental levels of depression and anxiety (so called ‘internalising problems’) during the pre-natal period, and later recorded children’s eating habits at the ages of three and four. Lisanne de Barse, who works at the MC-University Medical Centre in Rotterdam and authored the study, said: “We observed that maternal and paternal internalising problems were prospectively associated with fussy eating in pre-schoolers”. They found that roughly one third of infants were classed as ‘fussy eaters’, if their parents had suffered from internalising problems, even if they occurred in the pre-natal period.
The study design incorporated a measure of both fathers’ and mothers’ internalising problems, allowing researchers to guess about the “underlying mechanism” of fussy eating. In the case of anxiety, foetal programming was thought to be a more likely cause (as opposed to genetics), because paternal anxiety during pregnancy was not associated with an increased risk of fussy eating. In contrast, there is more support for a genetic component for depression, as depression in either parent during the pre-natal period was seen to influence a child’s eating habits.
The researchers suggested that “controlling feeding practices, such as pressure to eat” from parents with anxiety, could have an adverse effect on fussy eating by “contributing to negative affective reactions to food”. Diet has an immense role in development and growth, particularly in early life, and poor diet is thought to cause around 70,000 preventable deaths in the UK each year. Furthermore, a variety of problems arise from inadequate nutrition in childhood, including tooth decay, vitamin deficiency, and obesity later in life.
The study authors advised clinicians to be aware of even mild depression (and other internalising problems) in parents, as these can still influence a child’s eating habits and nutrition.