Food Neophobia: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Food neophobia consists of resistance or aversion to trying new foods and is more common in children. Learn more in today's article.
Food Neophobia: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment
Leticia Aguilar Iborra

Written and verified by la psicóloga Leticia Aguilar Iborra.

Last update: 13 April, 2023

Food neophobia consists of resistance or aversion to trying new foods. The level varies according to a number of factors such as gender, age, culture, and socioeconomic status. It tends to occur more frequently in children, altering sensory perception.

The refusal to try new foods can have serious consequences, leading to malnutrition. Children with food neophobia consume less variety of fruits, vegetables, fish, and grains.

The characteristics of food neophobia

The level of food neophobia depends on each person. Some have a total reluctance to try new foods, while others may try unfamiliar ones. Then there’s an intermediate term in which the rejection of certain categories of food that aren’t familiar to them and the acceptance of others come together.

It’s also known as the omnivore’s dilemma. That is, it’s considered a strategy to protect the body from trying new foods to avoid poisoning. However, human beings have other protection strategies, such as imitation of other people’s diets.

From the age of 2-3, children usually show a certain aversion to new foods. In addition, the palate of human beings has a greater preference for sweet and salty flavors, something that ultra-processed foods satisfy.

In contrast, some fruits can taste very sour, while certain vegetables taste bitter. Therefore, the diet usually ends up being less healthy, showing preferences for foods that don’t provide the necessary amount of vitamins and minerals.

A black child turns away from his mother as she offers him a fork full of vegetables.
In childhood, food neophobia is a problem that can be addressed at home with healthy nutritional behaviors.

The causes of the development of food neophobia

Child food neophobia goes hand in hand with the nutrition of those closest to them. The consumption of fruits, vegetables, and grains among the adults with whom the child shares their home is linked to the probability of the child wanting to try new foods.

Otherwise, if the family diet consists of choosing ultra-processed foods, the risk of developing neophobia for healthy foods grows exponentially. Children from 2-3 years old develop a preference for certain foods and an aversion to others.

Ultra-processed foods are characterized by having a high consumption rate and a powerful flavor due to chemical ingredients, such as glutamate. Fruits, vegetables, and grains don’t stimulate the palate in the same way.

If the child gets used to eating ultra-processed foods, it’ll be difficult for them to try foods that at first may seem bitter or acidic or have a different sweetness than that provided by refined sugars.

The consequences of food neophobia

The lack of consumption of fruits, vegetables, cereals, fish, and vegetables favors the development of adipose tissue. Therefore, the risk of childhood obesity is higher than in other individuals, but not only that. The growth of adipose tissue and fat storage in the body increases the risk of type-2 diabetes.

Inevitably, the possibility of developing other chronic diseases increases. In the most serious cases, malnutrition may appear due to the absence of substances necessary for the body. This can cause growth delays and other diseases that will need further treatment.

What’s the treatment for food neophobia?

Gradual exposure to new foods is the first-line treatment. In this way, familiarity with the product is increased, ceasing to be unknown and with a greater preponderance to being ingested. The disposition to consume healthy foods is also favored if the child has simultaneous pleasant experiences after consumption.

Endless tasks can be done so that the child agrees to try new foods. However, it’s usually not an easy task. On many occasions, if the diet at home is based on the consumption of ultra-processed foods, you should start by establishing changes in their entire context, reducing the risk that they’re used as reinforcement strategies.

Sensory education programs

Children may have a mental image of what acceptable foods are like. Many times, influenced by the marketing of ultra-processed foods, this image is biased. Ultra-processed foods have more striking colors and textures than natural ones.

Increasing curiosity for each of the foods, associating colors and health benefits can be an exercise that stimulates the optimal choice. What’s more, if they’re combined with modeling techniques (seeing a person of interest consuming them), the rate of choosing them can be much higher.

Another task that can be included in the sensory stimulation exercises is the involvement of children in the kitchen. Being participants in the choice of dishes, the combination of foods to prepare them, the cutting of foods, and their mixture.

Garden activities

Garden programs can help reduce food neophobia and increase healthy food choices. Knowing the origin of certain foods and being responsible for their care and growth stimulates a sense of achievement and responsibility.

Garden activities can be a great ally if combined with cooking classes. The global quality of the diet is associated in numerous studies with the participation in gastronomy classes in which fruits and vegetables are included.

A father trying to offer his daughter a spoonful of soup.
Certain association strategies improve the acceptance of new foods.

Schedule meals

Before giving a new food to try, the child should have come into prior contact with that food, at least visually. Otherwise, the food you offer will be unfamiliar and will most likely be rejected. At home, food neophobia can be dealt with from the following points:

  • Establish a meal schedule and a certain time limit: If the child doesn’t finish their plate in 30 minutes, it’s removed. It’s also important not to give them any other type of food during the hours between one meal and the next.
  • Don’t yell, scold, or show anxiety if the child doesn’t consume the food: These behavior patterns can be associated by the child with the food itself.
  • Don’t give ultra-processed foods between meals.
  • Offer small portions on a large plate: Even more so if these foods are prone to rejection.
  • Consume the same foods that you want your child to include in their diet.
  • Avoid distractions.

Food neophobia is more common in children than in adults

It’s true that food neophobia occurs more frequently in children and is somewhat less common in adults. In the latter, eating behavior patterns are much more restrictive, being confused in some cases with forms of disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.

However, a differential diagnosis is of special interest to corroborate the presence of food neophobia. In any case, in adults, it can be treated through systematic desensitization programs or exposure with response prevention.

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