The Evolutionary Wisdom of “I Don’t Like Vegetables”

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Approximately 25% of this meal was consumed. The vegetables were left in entirety.

BRK is always telling me she doesn’t like vegetables.  “Is it a vegetable?” is always the question when presented with a new food.  I now totally, TOTALLY get why my parents told me liver was “chocolate steak”, especially when they had two other kids at home to feed and were definitely not about to make two dinners or take any short-order cook requests.

BRK wasn’t always a fussy eater, and she’s still not too terrible.  But since she used to run, screaming into the kitchen with glee, at the sound of the blender, yelling “FISH YOGURT!!!!” (we’d mix canned salmon and plain yogurt), her incredibly shrinking palate is frustrating.

A fellow teacher at school — a biology teacher — has a daughter born on the same day as BRK and was telling me there was some evolutionary wisdom in kid food aversions.  So I was primed with interest when my mother-in-law sent me the following article:

“It’s Not Just Human Toddlers That Are Fussy Eaters”

The author describes the omnivore’s dilemma — the idea that in order to survive, our ancestors had to sample a wide variety of foods, but that some of these foods, especially plants in the tropics, could have contained poisonous toxins.  The author goes on to say that while at age 1 a child should generally be willing to eat whatever a parent provides, by age 2, a child’s behavior reflects the independence of a foraging child tens of thousands of years ago.  And that child’s odds of survival were much higher if that child was wary of plants, the notorious “vegetables” my daughter no longer likes.  The author goes on to say:

“Adults have mature biological systems for dealing with toxins in their food.  Eating the wrong plant might lead to an unpleasant stomach upset, but probably will not threaten their lives.  But in general, youngsters lack those systems, so eating the wrong thing at this age could result in death.   It would make sense for the omnivore’s dilemma to be at its most acute in toddlers — and almost non-existent in infants” (emphasis mine)

It’s a fascinating article loaded with studies and data in support of these points.  Two other notable parts:

1) According to the Utah Poison Control Center, the leading cause of poisoning among 6- to 18-month olds is eating houseplants.

2) Other species, such as gorillas and rats show a similar trend to what is observed in human toddlers: food aversions appear not in infancy, but later.

The author offers an alternative explanation for all of this.  It’s not that toddlers become picky eaters, Nicola Marples of Trinity College in Dublin says, but it’s that picky eaters in general make up most of the vertebrate population, whether we are talking about fish or quails or humans.  Such “dietary conservatism” should be advantageous to a population over time, but for maximum evolutionary fitness, a smaller proportion of the population should be composed of more “adventurous consumers”.  Marples thinks it may be advantageous for populations to contain both DCs and ACs.

Whatever the reason, it’s comforting to hear how “normal” it is for a baby who ate everything to suddenly gravitate toward to a smaller array of somewhat less healthy foods in toddlerhood.  And the next time someone tells me their 13-month old loves sautéed ramps with garlic, I would like to text them a picture of BRK eating raw onions and lemons as a baby with the message, “Just wait.”

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