7 Definition of picky eating

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Picky eating (also known as fussy, faddy or choosy eating) is usually classified as part of a spectrum of feeding difficulties. It is characterised by an unwillingness to eat familiar foods or to try new foods, as well as strong food preferences. The consequences may include poor dietary variety during early childhood. This, in turn, can lead to concern about the nutrient composition of the diet and thus possible adverse health-related outcomes. There is no single widely accepted definition of picky eating, and therefore there is little consensus on an appropriate assessment measure and a wide range of estimates of prevalence. At present there is no single widely accepted definition of picky eating, and therefore little consensus on the appropriate measure of assessment.

The range of 7 definitions of picky eating used in research settings, include, for example:

  1. Consumption of an inadequate variety of food through rejection of a substantial number of foods that are familiar, as well as unfamiliar; this may include an element of food neophobia, and can be extended to include rejection of specific food textures (Dovey et al., 2008).
  2. Restricted intake of food, especially of vegetables, and strong food preferences, leading parents to provide a different meal from the rest of the family (Mascola, Bryson, & Agras, 2010).
  3. Unwillingness to eat familiar foods or try new foods, severe enough to interfere with daily routines to an extent that is problematic to the parent, child, or parent–child relationship (Lumeng, 2005, cited in Ekstein et al., 2010).
  4. Consumption of an insufficient amount or inadequate variety of food through rejection of food items (Hafstad et al., 2013).
  5. Limited number of food items in the diet, unwillingness to try new foods, limited intake of vegetables and some other food groups, strong food preferences (likes/dislikes), and special preparation of foods required (Horst van der, 2012 ; Horst van der et al., 2014).
  6. Other studies have developed definitions of aspects of picky eating from analysis of responses to questions on eating behaviour. For example, Northstone and Emmett (2013) used a questionnaire item that was part of a series of questions on feeding. Using a focus group approach for parental definition of picky eating, Boquin et al. developed four categories of picky eating in which the overarching characteristics were unwillingness to try new foods and consuming a limited type and amount of foods (Boquin, Moskowitz, Donovan, & Lee, 2014). Tharner et al. used a latent profile approach with data from the Child Eating Behaviour Questionnaire (CEBQ) (Wardle, Guthrie, Sanderson, & Rapoport, 2001) to identify a fussy eating profile comprising high food fussiness, slowness on eating and high satiety responsiveness, combined with low enjoyment of food and food responsiveness (Tharner et al., 2014). Some studies have identified slow eating as a feature of picky eating (e.g. Mascola et al., 2010 ; Reau et al., 1996). ‘Flags’ for identification of picky eaters are: child eats only preferred food, drinks most of his/her energy intake, uses distractions when eating, eats food camouflaged in other foods or liquids, and has lengthy mealtimes (McCormick & Markowitz, 2013).
  7. It is important that an understanding of the definitions used in studies is reached in order to enable comparison of studies. This is necessary to facilitate the identification of children at risk and to identify any adverse health outcomes that may be associated with being a ‘picky eater’. A consensus around a definition would enable the development of interventions to avert poor health outcomes. We support the definition of Lumeng (2005) cited in Ekstein et al. (2010) as it includes elements of lack of dietary variety, neophobia and persistent behaviour: ‘unwillingness to eat familiar foods or try new foods, severe enough to interfere with daily routines to an extent that is problematic to the parent, child, or parent–child relationship’.
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