Science Says

Finally, A Viable Scientific Theory For Why Kids Basically Live On Carbs

An evolutionary anthropologist explains every kid’s taste preference.

Written by Elizabeth Narins

Despite my toddler's endless appetite — and I mean e-n-d-l-e-s-s — his fervent preference for carbs makes me wonder where I went wrong. Because toddlers will be toddlers, his diet has devolved from breaming with fat, protein, and produce to almost exclusively centering on breads, oatmeal, and pasta (plus raisins, if they count?).

Luckily, his selective eating habits don't appear to be messing with his growth, health, or behavior. And while I might find it frustrating when his chicken sits untouched or he decides to boycott almond butter immediately after I've just spread it on his toast, it turns out there's a reason why kids gravitate toward carbohydrates, the food group our generation has been taught to (unjustly!) demonize.

The Ol’ Energy Boost

One theory suggests that this pediatric preference toward carbs is developmentally appropriate since kids need quick energy always. (Literally, do they ever stop fidgeting?!)

However, some evolutionary anthropologists call B.S. on this: "A kid that's adapted to get as much energy as possible should eat everything available," says Herman Pontzer, Ph.D., professor of evolutionary anthropology and global health at Duke University.

He believes the whole carb hullabaloo can actually be traced even further back to sugar, a simple carbohydrate found in greater parts than fat or protein in breastmilk: "Kids, like all mammals, are born ready to drink milk," he explains. "It's quite likely that neonatal taste preferences are sugar-oriented to reward them for drinking [it]."

Changing Tastes

Admittedly, my kid likes sweet berries even more than he likes bagels. But IMHO, this theory would make more sense if my kid graduated from guzzling mother's milk to chugging the cow counterpart. (Nope!)

It's why I like another theory that Ponzer shared with me: Around the time when humans become old and able enough to forage for food on their own — typically, in the late teen and early twenties, he says — their tastes change, and their ability to taste sugar increases. "If anything, the ability of the people actually getting the food to discern what's good strikes me as a likely adaptation," Ponzer explains.

If your toddler is anything like mine, who once woke up before me, opened the fridge, and stealthily ate the entire contents of the lunch I'd packed for him to bring to school, they may already be old enough to forage and thus discern what's good. So, can you really blame them for choosing Goldfish over tuna?!

This Too Shall Pass

The good news is that no matter what foods your kiddo will or will not touch today, it's probably just a phase. Research shows that pickiness peaks between ages 2 and 6, and repeated exposure to all the foods (yes, even the ones they reject repeatedly) can expand their palate in the long run.

At the same time, studies show that restricting food early on can teach your kid to feed their feelings — not ideal! At the end of the day, their obsession with carbs is natural and a thing that will probably pass soon-ish. No harm, no foul! In the meantime? Just pass them the bread!