Food and Behaviour Research

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When it comes to food, it's not helpful to believe in the genetics of behaviour

Jane Ogden, Professor of Health Psychology, University of Surrey


This article provides a refreshing balance to the usual media tendencies to exaggerate the role of 'genetics' in complex behaviours - in this case, so-called 'fussy eating' (or 'selective eating').

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18 October 2016 - The Conversation 

A recent study concluded that fussy eating was genetic and that parents shouldn’t be blamed for their children’s eating habits. In the past few decades we have also learned that there are genes for a multitude of physical and mental health conditions and even for behavioural traits such as ADHD and ASD.

For a few such problems the evidence is clear cut: have the gene for sickle cell or Huntington’s and you will get these diseases. But in the main the evidence is at the level of “predisposition” or “increased risk”. What does this evidence actually mean? Is it useful? And could it even do harm?

We are born with a few inherited food preferences which served us well when food was sparse and obtained through hunting and gathering. But from the moment we emerge into the world (and probably before) we start to learn what foods we like and don’t like from our environment. We learn through simple exposure, with familiar foods becoming more desirable; we learn by watching our parents, siblings and peers, and we learn from the language used to describe and manage the food we are given.

So if we are told “eat your vegetables and you can have ice cream”, we quickly learn that vegetables are boring but ice cream is special.

Or if a parent says “now you have done your homework, you can have some cake”, cake will be what we reach for when we need to treat ourselves as adults.

If we only see our parents eating ready meals and fizzy drinks then this is what we will believe is a normal diet and anything else will seem an effort or boring.

And, within all this, food takes on many meanings other than hunger. It is a way to manage our emotions. It is central to our social lives and becomes a powerful form of communication. So children often announce random likes and dislikes as a means to disrupt the equilibrium of family life.

Toddlers may throw their broccoli on the floor or shout “I don’t like pasta”. Some refuse to have their food touching the plate while others want everything smothered in ketchup.

Perhaps some of these are genetically based. But chances are if parents persist rather than give up, praise children when they try something new, ignore them when they don’t, eat well in front of them and sit them with friends who eat well then, over time, the toddler will no longer be a toddler anymore and will learn how much more rewarding it is to just fit in with everyone else.

Is it useful?

Research can be blue sky and abstract. But as public sector employees, researchers should also produce research that is useful to society. Genetic data may lead to gene therapy for those rare conditions that have a specific problematic gene. But in the main, the genetics of obesity, diabetes, lung cancer or fussy eating help us to understand why the conditions develop while health recommendations remain the same. Even if you do (or don’t) have a genetic predisposition for lung cancer, doctors will still advise you not to smoke.

Whether or not obesity runs in your family, the advice is the same: eat less and do more. And if your child is genetically a fussy eater I would still suggest the same as I would to any parent: be a good role model, manage their environment and say the right things around food.

Don’t collude with their fussy eating by only giving them what they like, telling them and everyone around them that they are a fussy eater and limiting your own diet so that you look like a fussy eater yourself.

Knowing it is genetic (or not) may make a parent feel less to blame, but it shouldn’t change what they do about it. And if it does then this knowledge about genetics might even be doing harm.

Can it do harm?

The benefit of any genetic model is that it takes away blame. Blame for obesity, diabetes or cancer is not a nice feeling and blame for tricky children can lead to guilt and shame. Yet genetic models also take away responsibility which is necessary if we are to manage our own health and parent effectively. And believing that our children’s behaviour is genetic could do harm if it stops us from taking responsibility for the adults our children will grow up to be.

Fussy eating may have an element of genetics in it. So may any health problem or behaviour. But knowing this is mostly not useful as it doesn’t change how we should behave and what we should be doing to stay well. And publicly telling others that it’s all about genetics may do harm if it stops them from feeling responsible for their own behaviour or their behaviour towards those they are caring for.