Picky Eater Syndrome

Did you know that a lack of nutrients could affect children's physical growth and neurological development? We'll tell you all you need to know about it in this article.
Picky Eater Syndrome
Leonardo Biolatto

Written and verified by the doctor Leonardo Biolatto.

Last update: 27 May, 2022

Picky Eater Syndrome is a mental health disorder. Basically, when a person has this disorder, their regular diet doesn’t include a healthy variety of foods and they reject incorporating new elements.

To be diagnosed as a syndrome, a person must have eaten less than ten different foods in total, throughout their diet, for at least two years.

If these criteria are met, then we’ll be faced with this odd pathology. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders includes it as a disease with its name official name: Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFIV).

Let’s dig deeper.

Picky Eater Syndrome and its relation to other disorders

Picky Eater Syndrome can be the gateway to other eating disorders such as

  • Anorexia: Weight loss caused by the patient, even if they have low body weight. This occurs due to an excessive fear of weight gain.
  • Bulimia: The succession of impulsive behaviors called binges, consisting of large intakes of food in a short time and then expelling them through unnatural mechanisms such as induced vomiting.
  • Orthorexia: The obsession to consume only foods considered healthy by the patient, at an irrational level. In other words, the individual excessively worries about what they eat.
  • Vigorexia: The pathological obsession to maintain a muscular body. To achieve this, people who suffer from it do too much exercise and alter their diet to an extreme.

Who does Picky Eater Syndrome affect?

While the disorder can appear at any stage of life and affect anyone, it usually affects two specific population groups.

The two most affected groups are children and athletes. Let’s take a closer look at each one.

Children and Picky Eater Syndrome

Child with Picky Eater Syndrome.
Picky Eater Syndrome is common during childhood. It has a prevalence of about 15% in children under 6 years of age.

Parents know that with children it’s difficult to incorporate food. Something called food neophobia appears in the little ones: the fear of trying new items in their menu.

Given that, according to this study from the University of the Basque Country (Spain), this usually develops between the ages of two and six and is normal: it’s part of the process of growth and development. Adults should understand that this is something that’s normal in preschool age.

However, when the child takes it to an extreme, we can talk about Picky Eater Syndrome in a child. It’s estimated that about 15% of children under six years of age suffer from it, and it’s usually more frequent among females than males. Approximately, for every boy who has this syndrome, there are four girls who have it.

In addition, the long-term problem is that it can be perpetuated into adulthood. Many times, parents become persistent with the incorporation of food in a counterproductive way and children enter an anxiety cycle that stimulates the disorder even more.

The presence of the syndrome of selective dining in childhood has been associated with certain characteristics of the personality that persist in the adult age:

  • Social fear
  • Inability to adapt to change
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders
  • Anxiety

You may be interested in: How to Reduce Anxiety in Children

Picky Eater Syndrome in athletes

When those who play sports become professional or perform them more and more frequently, they run the risk of becoming obsessed. This obsession can become evident in the preparation of the diet, especially if the sportsman or woman only wants to increase their muscle volume or bring their performance to the maximum. They often don’t even think about the price that comes with pushing their body to these extremes.

Menus based solely on proteins are common, and also a diet based on chicken and tuna in the three daily meals with alternation of pasta.

This little variety forces the body to work metabolically in atypical ways. This is harmful in the long term, and can generate metabolic illnesses that will become evident over the years.

Sports and diets.
The athlete’s diet is at risk of becoming too selective. This, in turn, leads to medium and long-term health consequences.

The consequences

The lack of nutrients is specifically serious for the human body. Macronutrients and micronutrients are undoubtedly vital for the body’s cells and tissues to work, develop, grow, and repair.

Minimal deficiencies can affect the healing process, according to the nurse Carmen Carrera, from the Virgen del Rocío University Hospital in Seville (Spain). In growing children, there won’t necessarily be an alarmingly low weight but there may be low height associated with the deficit.

In addition, and as this research from the Institute of Neurology and Neurosurgery of Havana (Cuba) states, children’s nervous systems are unquestionably and particularly sensitive to the syndrome.

There may be a substantial difference in IQ between children who suffer from the syndrome and those who don’t. Of course, this will affect school performance.

The social interference that the disorder has isn’t minor either. People with selective eating syndrome avoid attending social events where there’s food (birthdays, for example).

They know they’ll be exposed in those situations. For that reason, they’re more and more withdrawn and spend more time in solitude, making the possibilities of external help difficult.

It’s essential to ask for psychological help

When someone has this syndrome, the good intentions of loved ones are not enough to reverse the diet. They’re likely to fail if there isn’t any proper counseling.

In conclusion, it’s a mental health problem, and as such requires professionals in that area. On many occasions, it’s a combination of disorders, so it’s essential to consult psychologists or psychiatrists to characterize the situation.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Marquillas, J. Bras. “El niño mal comedor.” Pediatr Integr 19.4 (2015): 277-88.
  • Peroseni, Isabela Mateus, and Marta Fuentes Rojas. “Neofobia alimentar infantil.” Revista dos Trabalhos de Iniciação Científica da UNICAMP 26 (2018).
  • Mammel, Kathleen A., and Rollyn M. Ornstein. “Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder: a new eating disorder diagnosis in the diagnostic and statistical manual 5.” Current opinion in pediatrics 29.4 (2017): 407-413.
  • VV.AA. (2014).Neofobia y otros trastornos restrictivos alimentarios en la infancia y consumo de frutas y verduras: revisión. http://scielo.sld.cu/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0034-75312009000200008
  • (2009). Repercusión de la nutrición en el neurodesarrollo y la salud neuropsiquiátrica de niños y adolescentes. http://scielo.sld.cu/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0034-75312009000200008
  • Carrera Castro, Carmen. (2013).En la naturaleza está la respuesta: “Micronutrientes: las vitaminas, agentes terapéuticos en las heridas”. http://scielo.isciii.es/pdf/eg/v12n31/revision1.pdf
  • Manual Diagnóstico y Estadístico de Trastornos Mentales. (2016). https://dsm.psychiatryonline.org/pb-assets/dsm/update/Spanish_DSM5Update2016.pdf

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.