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Fussy eating may be evolutionary adaptation

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by Cancer Research UK | News

7 October 2003

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Children who are picky about what they choose to eat have now been served with the perfect excuse – their fussiness may be an evolutionary trait, designed to protect them from harm.

Rather than being suspicious of all unfamiliar foods, fussy children are particularly wary of certain types – unsurprisingly their greens, but also fruit and meat – Cancer Research UK scientists have found.

Writing in the latest edition of the journal Appetite1, the authors suggest that infants may have evolved a natural suspicion of foods with the potential to upset their tender stomachs.

Understanding the reasons behind some children’s fussiness should help researchers develop strategies encouraging them to eat healthy, balanced diets, lowering their risk of cancer and other diseases.

Very young children are often happy to put almost anything in their mouths, but by the age of two, many become reluctant to eat foods they have not tasted before. Such behaviour is known as neophobia and almost all children show it to some degree, although some more so than others.

Scientists at the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Unit, University College London, wondered if children were reluctant to eat any unfamiliar foods, or whether they were selectively rejecting certain types – perhaps those most likely to pose a threat to heath. Early in human history, the presence of toxins within many plants made eating fruit and vegetables risky for children, while meat carried a high risk of food poisoning.

Researchers gave detailed questionnaires to 564 mothers of children aged 2-6, asking them about their own and their children’s eating habits, and used the data to identify children who were neophobic.

They found neophobic children often consumed very low amounts of green vegetables, meat and fruit, but ate normal amounts of other types of food, such as potatoes, cereals, biscuits, crisps and cakes. The fussier a child was, the lower their consumption of potentially dangerous foods. The authors conclude that neophobia is not a random phenomenon, but a carefully directed strategy to avoid particular food types.

Lucy Cooke of the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Unit, lead researcher on the study, says: “Plant toxins can be very dangerous to children, as could the effects of food poisoning from unrefrigerated meat. So it makes sense that humans may have evolved to be highly suspicious of certain food types as youngsters, and only to trust foods they have eaten before.

“The problem is that strategies which were sensible for children to adopt thousands of years ago are not such a good idea now, and may be contributing to the low levels of vegetable and fruit consumption in the British population generally.”

She adds: “Understanding the evolutionary basis for our children’s eating habits is very important, because it will allow the development of strategies to get children eating healthily. For instance, if children see their parents eating a particular food before having to face it themselves, they may be reassured that it is unlikely to do them any harm.”

Neophobia develops at an age when children are beginning to become more independent, with greater control over what they put in their mouths, and may act as protection during this vulnerable stage. But Cancer Research UK scientists stress there are a number of strategies parents can pursue to overcome neophobic behaviour.

These include:

  • Introducing children to a variety of foods at a very early age, in order to familiarise them with their tastes.
  • Persuading children to eat small amounts of a new food every day for two weeks, in order to get them used to its taste.
  • Turning tasting sessions into a game as an encouragement to try new foods.

Dr Lesley Walker, Cancer Research UK’s Director of Cancer Information, says: “Up to a third of cancers could be prevented with improvements in diet, with an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption the top priority. Unfortunately, people often form their eating habits very early in life and it can be difficult to persuade them to eat more healthily later on.

“The traditional family meal is becoming a thing of the past, with parents losing their opportunity to demonstrate the tastiness – and the benefit – of vegetables and fruit. This intriguing glimpse into the mind of the fussy child suggests that children need active persuasion that their greens really are good for them.”



  1. Appetite (2003) 41 (2) pp.205-206

Note to Editors:

In the UK, children eat an average of two portions of fruit and vegetables per day and adults three portions, compared with the recommended intake of five portions per day.