New research suggests that food neophobia, a fear of trying new foods, may impact quality of diet and have serious health consequences like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
A study done by the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare, the University of Helsinki, and the University of Tartu in Estonia sheds some light on this behavior.
The eating behaviors in food neophobia include a trait wherein a person declines to try or eat unfamiliar foods. The Finnish study evaluated the effect of eating behavior, particularly food neophobia, on the quality of ones’ diet in addition to lifestyle diseases and their risk factors. To date, little research has been conducted in this area.
Food neophobia may be genetic. Studies on twins have found that up to 78% of it may be hereditary. Using the Food Neophobia Scale (FNS) questionnaire, the trait can be measured very simply. The scale includes ten questions monitoring the respondent’s eating behavior. Quantity of fear regarding new foods could also be measured using the FNS questionnaire.
Children and older people often experience food neophobia. Picky or fussy eating, traits associated with food neophobia, also occur in various age groups in the adult population. This eating behavior may profoundly impact quality of diet and, subsequently, health. Different characteristics associated with eating behaviors have overlapping traits, which makes it difficult to distinguish a clear problem.
In the study we're exploring today, individuals between 25 and 74 years old in the Finnish FINRISK and DILGOM groups and an Estonian biobank cohort were monitored over the course of 7 years.
The researchers found that food neophobia is associated with poorer quality of diet such as reduced intake of fiber, protein, and monounsaturated fats and increased consumption of saturated fat and salt.
In addition, an important link between food neophobia and fatty acid profile and higher levels of inflammatory markers in blood was observed. Because of this, food neophobia raises the risk of developing cardiovascular disease ad type 2 diabetes.
The effects of this eating behavior and eating pattern on health were previously considered to be due solely to weight changes. However, in this study, the effect of food neophobia was demonstrated independently of weight, age, socioeconomic status, gender, or living location.
The results reinforce the idea that a healthy diet that includes a variety of foods is an independent key to good health. Interventions for children or youth exhibiting deviant eating behaviors should be employed early. This may help reduce potential future health problems, according to Research Professor Markust Perola from the National Institute of Health and Welfare.
Perola also notes, "Hereditary factors and our genotype only determine our predisposition to food neophobia. Early childhood education and care and lifestyle guidance in adulthood can provide support in the development of a diverse diet."
Below are tips for dietitians and other health care providers to suggest to families dealing with food neophobia:
- Start with savory over sweet foods. A child’s palate adapts to the first foods offered. Provide a variety of different tastes and textures when introducing solid food.
- Keep meal time positive. Kids can sense anxiety. Try to remain calm and positive when serving meals.
- Don’t coerce or force your child into eating. This may make your child tense or upset and fussy traits may be exacerbated.
- Be encouraging. Try not to say things like, “you probably won’t like this,” which may set up a self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Offer one bite of a new food, but don’t force your child to eat the whole plate. A child may refuse a new food due to fear of disliking texture, taste, or smell. Have them try one bite to start.
- Be a role model. Make meal time fun with a variety of foods. Smile when you eat different foods and your child’s curiosity may overcome his/her anxiety or dislike of the food.
- Offer nutrient-dense foods cut in interesting shapes and sizes. Kids may be more likely to try a crinkle carrot or melon ball over traditional shapes of fruits and vegetables.
- Give some praise for trying new foods. Kids need positive reinforcement to build confidence in overcoming neophobia.
- Don’t reward eating with more eating (i.e. desserts). Kids will see eating foods they dislike as a means to an end when dessert is offered. They may not even taste or experience the food. Offering treats as reinforcement may also influence emotional eating.
- Be patient. It can take 10-15 trials of a new food before a child prefers it. Don’t give up!
By Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD
Heikki V Sarin, Nele Taba, Krista Fischer, Tonu Esko, Noora Kanerva, Leena Moilanen, Juha Saltevo, Anni Joensuu, Katja Borodulin, Satu Männistö, Kati Kristiansson, Markus Perola. Food neophobia associates with poorer dietary quality, metabolic risk factors, and increased disease outcome risk in population-based cohorts in a metabolomics study. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2019; DOI: 10.1093/ajcn/nqz100
Stephanie Ronco has been editing for Food and Health Communications since 2011. She graduated from Colorado College magna cum laude with distinction in Comparative Literature. She was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2008.