When you were younger, can you remember how many battles were fought over a green thing on your dinner plate? Whether it was a tiny pea, a smelly brussels sprout or boiled broccoli, you would rather go to bed kicking and screaming without dessert than put those veggies in your mouth.
Looking back, was it worth it? All the screaming and crying and sweets you missed out on? If you’re on The Hearty Soul, chances are you actually love leafy greens and other healthy foods you would have pushed away as a kid. Surprisingly, there is a convincing theory that explains you no longer see vegetables as an enemy – or other bitter tasting things such as beer, wine, and coffee for that matter.
The Scientific Reasons Why People Avoid Bitter-Tasting Foods
According to Russel Keast, a professor of sensory and food science and director of the Centre for Advanced Sensory Science at Deakin University, there are evolutionary reasons why we, kids and adults alike, tend to avoid bitter things. That’s largely because, over years and years of evolution, we think things that taste bad us could potentially be dangerous.
“A lot of work we’ve done in terms of how people develop liking to foods has been based around caffeine and the role it has,” said Keast in an interview with The Huffington Post Australia.  “Caffeine is a bitter compound and it’s naturally found in coffee, tea, and chocolate. It’s also an additive to certain cola beverages. That’s interesting because bitterness by itself is one of these warning signals.”
When you see a kid fighting to avoid eating vegetables, parents or caregivers may want to take it easy instead of forcing food – literally – down their throat. It could simply be their evolutionary traits trying to keep them safe. The reason why this happens with vegetables is because plants were usually the food that contained potentially harmful compounds.
“[More] bitter foods, like brussels sprouts or olives, triggered natural protective responses long ingrained in our DNA… Sensitivity [to bitter compounds] is a little bit higher when we’re young. Within this spectrum, there’s also huge amount of variation between people.” 
But, Why Do Kids Specifically Dislike Vegetables?
Before almost everything was covered in concrete and steel, one thing there was always an abundance of was plants – edible and inedible. Because plants were always there, Keast says, “we have had no reason to develop an overt liking response to them… Now we have supermarkets with foods developed to our liking, so we don’t need these primal responses, but they are ingrained in our DNA and it will take thousands of years for them to evolve out.” 
However, kids change and usually grow up learning to love vegetables, but not because their taste buds change. (That’s a common misconception!) It’s not the most exciting answer, but they usually develop a taste for once-bitter vegetables through gradual exposure.
Although foods like broccoli or drinks like coffee may still taste bitter regardless of age, they can have powerful health benefits! Even if you dislike the taste of these things, your body will likely remember the positive effects that the caffeine and vegetable nutrients had on it.
Maybe you felt more alert, more energized, less bloated… Whatever the case, if you keep trying these bitter foods or drinks again and again, not only will you feel healthier but you might actually start to like them!
“[Trying bitter foods repeatedly] gives the nutrients in the food a chance to influence your liking system – if the nutrients provide energy, perhaps the other positive effects in your body, your liking system will remember, the next time you eat the food you may start to enjoy it.” 
What Happens If Kids Don’t Eat Food Thy Don’t Like (Even If It’s Healthy)
In June 2002, a study published in the journal Appetite surveyed 407 college students about forced food consumption growing up. Based on their responses, the surveyed revealed that 69 percent of them could remember a time in their life when an authority figure (e.g., a parent or teacher) forced them to consume a novel, disliked, or aversive food. 
If you have ever forced someone, or been forced, to eat a certain food, you may find the results below surprising. On top of experiencing feelings such as disgust, helplessness, fear, anger, confusion, lack of control, and humiliation…
- 55% got nauseous
- 49% cried
- 20% vomited
These numbers are alarming, especially when it comes to someone wanting their child to eat healthy foods. If not approached in the right way, a parent, teacher, or caregiver could put a kid off of certain vegetables for a very long time (if not a lifetime). Think we’re overexaggerating? Well, 72 percent of respondents claimed that they would not willingly eat the foods they were affected by today. 
Maryann Jacobsen, a registered dietician, has studied feeding literature for years. She has noticed that, more often than not, “forcing and pressuring causes kids to eat less and dislike certain foods.” 
Point is, anyone who has young ones to feed needs to realize that their pickiness and aversion to certain foods will likely pass. The more you try to force foods on them that they don’t want to eat, the longer they will remain picky and unwilling to eat consume them.
How to Know If Your Kid Is Getting Enough Nutrition
Malnutrition does not just occur in underdeveloped countries! Thankfully, parents should know exactly what is going into their kid’s body. But, if kids are picky and unwilling to consume healthy foods, things can get problematic. During childhood, failing to get the right and sufficient amount of nutrients can negatively impact growth and development. Here are the most common signs and symptoms of someone who might be malnourished, as outlined by KidsHealth: 
- Fatigue, low energy
- Poor immune function
- Dry, scaly skin
- Swollen and bleeding gums
- Decaying teeth
- Slowed reaction times, trouble paying attention
- Poor growth
- Muscle weakness
- Bloated stomach
- Bones that break easily
- Problems with organ function
- Problems learning
So, How Can Parents Help Ensure That Kids Are Eating Healthy?
- “Sneak” healthy foods into recipes by adding delicious seasonings, juicing or blending them into soups, turning them into pictures or faces (yes, playing with food is okay sometimes)
- Look like your really truly enjoying the same foods or drinks
- Ask kids what they don’t like (e.g., is it the flavor or texture?)
- Bring them grocery shopping; they may not pick broccoli but could pick carrots
Have you tried anything different that you’ve found success with!? Starting to do these things day after day should help kids learn to like (and maybe even love) eating healthy foods! Remember, patience is key, so don’t worry if they aren’t leafy green advocates from birth. Just think of when you were a kid.
Read Next: How to Sneak More Vegetables Into Every Meal
 Steen, J. (2016, December 12). Hated Veggies As A Kid? These Are The Scientific Reasons Why. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2016/12/08/hated-veggies-as-a-kid-these-are-the-scientific-reasons-why_a_21622833/
 Batsell, J. R., Brown, A. S., Ansfield, M. E., & Paschall, G. Y. (2002, June). “You will eat all of that!”: A retrospective analysis of forced consumption episodes. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12071687
 G., J., A., Vye, B., H., M., . . . TIffany. (2017, November 26). What Forcing Kids to Eat Looks Like 20 Years Later. Retrieved from https://www.maryannjacobsen.com/2012/07/what-forcing-kids-to-eat-looks-like-20-years-later/
 Gavin, M. L. (Ed.). (2015, September). Hunger and Malnutrition. Retrieved from https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/hunger.html
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