Toddlers who eat “the colours of the rainbow” are less likely to be fussy eaters, new Flinders University research suggests.
The study shows that toddlers with greater levels of food neophobia – a fear of new foods – have lower diet quality, with less variety of fruit and vegetables and a greater intake of junk foods.
The research analysed data from 330 two-year-olds who were part of the wider obesity prevention study NOURISH. The National Health and Medical Research Council funded study, led by Flinders and the Queensland University of Technology, monitored nearly 700 mothers and babies from birth to five-years-old.
Flinders Nutrition and Dietetics Research Associate Chelsea Mauch said based on parents’ perceptions, children who ate a variety of fruits and vegetables were less afraid to try new foods, highlighting the importance of a balanced diet incorporating each food group.
“Previous research has shown that kids will eat greater quantities of fruit and veggies if they’re less neophobic but we found that they’ll eat a greater variety as well,” Ms Mauch, a researcher involved in the study, said.
“Variety is just as important as quantity because it opens your palette to different flavours and textures,” she said.
“The take home message for parents is to introduce your children to the colours of the rainbow.
“Even if a child eats punnets and punnets of strawberries they could still be quite fussy eaters – even as adults – if they’re not exposed to a variety of foods, particularly different flavours and textures.”
Among other key findings, toddlers with higher levels of food neophobia were also likely to have a higher proportion of daily energy intake from junk foods.
“Fruits and vegetables can be quite bitter, sour and texturally challenging which is why children with food neophobia tend to consume more discretionary, or junk, foods.
“Kids generally have a natural liking for sweet and salty flavours, which are usually found in junk foods, so too much exposure to junk foods will only reinforce their preference for these foods.”
Ms Mauch said although food neophobia is innate, the behaviour can be modified through repeat exposure to new and novel foods.
“Food neophobia is something that everyone has to some extent but it’s generally strongest between two and six years.
“It’s a protective mechanism – it’s there to prevent children from consuming toxic or unsafe foods, peaking of course at an age where they’re most likely to put non-food items in their mouth.
“Parents offering a variety of foods over and over again will eventually reduce their child’s fear of new foods, with current research showing that it may take up to 15 exposures to a food to convince them to like it.”
The study has been submitted to the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity, and is hoped to be published in the coming months.