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The Underground World of Adult Picky Eaters

By Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen

Picky Eater

It’s practically expected that kids will be picky eaters.  In fact, food neophobia (fear of new food)  is a normal part of development that peaks between the ages of 2 and 6 and gradually declines with age.

But what happens when someone reaches adulthood and the fear of food and fussiness doesn’t go away? I’m not talking about the dislike of a few items, but the inability to eat at a friend’s house or go out to dinner because you can’t bring yourself to eat most of the food there.

That’s adult picky eating, and its more common than you think.

Taking Picky Eating Out of the Closet

“Experts are hesitant to put a name on it or call it a disorder,” says Stephanie Lucianovic, author of Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate. “So many books out there discuss kids, but there are many adults experiencing picky eating or recovering from it.”

She explains how picky eating can “affect social interactions” and when limited enough, it can impact nutritional adequacy and health. But the embarrassment and shame people feel may be the worst part about it. Many adult picky eaters only eat bland, processed foods, avoiding many meats, fruits, and vegetables. And it’s not only taste but the smell and texture of food (sensory qualities) that causes such adverse reactions.

Lucianovic speaks from direct experience. In her book, she tells her own story of how she lived as a picky eater until her late twenties, when she slowly and successfully overcame it  She interviews experts and other adult picky eaters to get to the bottom of why some people are so revolted by food. Throughout the book, she relates humorous personal anecdotes about her experiences as a picky eater which she hopes will make adult picky eaters laugh while also realizing that they are not alone.

Experts aren’t sure how many adult picky eaters there are. To give you an idea, researchers at Duke University launched a registry of adult picky eaters, the Food F.A.D. Study (Finicky Eating in Adults), and so far they have 30,000 people, ten times more than they predicted.

The Parent Connection

Is this another problem we can pin on parents?  Lucianovic says “there’s nothing my parents could have done.” In this post on the Motherlode blog, she explains why she believes picky eating in children is not parents’ fault.

“It’s become one of the yardsticks of judgment for parents,” she says.  “Some parents get glib about their adventurous eaters — leaving others to have unrealistic expectations of what their kids will eat.”

If there’s one word of advice she would give to parents, it’s to keep meals pleasant and don’t force the issue. Only in a relaxed environment can selective eaters feel comfortable enough to try new foods, as too much tension can create negative, physical reactions. She believes her book can help parents better understand their picky eater, which is paramount when learning how best to respond to it.

There can be a variety of reasons that some don’t outgrow pickiness, including undiagnosed medical conditions such as reflux disease, food allergies, sensory processing disorder, or early and unpleasant experiences with foods such as gagging, vomiting, and ultra-tense eating environments.

Treatment

Because adult picky eating isn’t a recognized disorder, there is no known treatment for it.  In Suffering Succotash, Lucianovic discusses what has worked for her. “There has to be a driving force to make a change,” she says. “For me it was not disappointing my adventurous-eating boyfriend, now husband.”

She explains how the process was a slow one, starting with taking tiny bites and gradually eating more and more. Once picky eaters have success with eating something that no longer repulses them, it’s easier to keep upping the ante. She also learned to love cooking, which even led to a culinary degree.

She has also learned that if you don’t like the flavor of something you can change it. For instance, she didn’t like butternut squash initially, but roasting it, mashing it, and using it as a sauce for pasta went over well.  She has learned to use quality ingredients to elevate flavors of food — no steaming or boiling vegetables! And last, but most important, is to stay relaxed at meals with a glass of wine and a nice atmosphere.

“If I wasn’t the picky eater I was, I wouldn’t be the foodie I am today,” she admits. “I turned a hate into a love.”

Has picky eating affected your life in some way? Share your experiences in the comments below.


Photo: iStockphoto
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