Nature vs. Nurture: Are Kids Born To Love (Or Hate) Their Fruits & Vegetables?

Wednesday, October 4, 2006 - 1:07pm

By Allison Stevens, MS, RD

A recent scientific study out of the UK demonstrates that both genetic and environmental factors influence our children's eating preferences. These findings place a greater significance on the role of parents and caregivers in ensuring their children develop a taste for healthy foods early on. How can you leverage this study's findings to ensure your little one develops the best eating habits possible?

Are food preferences genetic or learned?

The study began with scientists posing a classic nature versus nurture question: "Are tastes for certain food groups genetic or can they be learned?" 1 The study then compared the food preferences of 214 sets of twins between the ages of four and five. This twin study is unique because in the past most studies examined a child's tastes in comparison to his parent's tastes. In this way, researchers determined if taste preferences were hereditary. However, the problem with these studies is that adults have more sophisticated palates than children. With twins, comparisons could be made between two same-aged kids who had the exact same genes, providing more accurate results.

Findings for fruits and veggies

This study found that whether or not a child likes fruits and vegetables is influenced somewhat by genes; however, there is also a strong environmental effect. Essentially, although children may not initially like the taste of certain foods, when environmental factors are controlled children can learn to like them anyway. This is great news for parents. It means that you can help to positively influence your child's diet by providing a healthy eating environment.

Characteristics of a healthy eating environment

Researchers identified several environmental factors that significantly influence children's food preferences:

  • Provide a good example. One environmental factor noted by the researchers as affecting a child's food acceptance is "what they [kids] see other people eating." This means that you can set an example! For instance, if kids witness you munching on some carrots they are more likely to try carrots (and like them!).

  • Offer healthy choices. Another factor noted to be influential is "what foods they [kids] are offered." Again, this is an environmental factor where parents and caregivers have the control. Offering a wide variety of nutritious foods will not only ensure that kids will learn to like an array of healthful foods, but it will also provide a larger assortment of nutrients.

Findings for meats and fish

Although the liking of fruits and vegetables was not strongly related to genetics, the study found a strong connection between genetics and meats and fish, meaning that the tastes for these foods may be inherited. Additionally, the liking of these foods was not shown to have as strong as an environmental effect as was found for fruits and vegetables. However, this does not mean environment has no effect on whether or not kids will like these foods. Environmental factors are always going to play a role in food intake. Making sure you offer a variety of healthful lean meats and fish is still necessary; for example, how will you know if your child likes baked cod unless you offer it to her?

What you can do get your child to eat fruit and vegetables

Remember that this was only a small study and one of many that has tried to better define how tastes and food preferences are developed. However, the fact that tastes can be learned is promising. It puts more responsibility on parents and caregivers to provide a strong nutrition foundation for kids early in life. The best way to do this is to make sure mealtime provides an environment in which healthful foods are being offered and eaten. And it is in this healthful environment that, yes, kids can learn to eat their fruits and vegetables!

For more information on getting children to eat fruit and vegetables see the following articles from TheDietChannel: Getting Your Child To Eat Vegetables and Making Fruits and Vegetables Fun To Eat.

Source: 1 FM Breen, R Plomin, J Wardle. “Heritability of food preferences in young children. Physiology & Behavior. 2006 July 30; 88(4-5): 443-7.