You know picky eaters: kids who demand the same foods day after day, or turn up their noses at foods they’ve never even tried. They can drive parents crazy. But most grow out of it. Every once in a while, though, I’ll run across a grown adult who is as picky as a toddler. Unlike the rest of us, who have a pretty short list of foods we’d rather not eat, these extremely picky adults have a very different short list—one made up of just a few foods they’re actually willing to eat. While it’s tempting to just dismiss this on the assumption that these folks are just choosing to be stubborn and rigid, research is suggesting that there may be other forces at work.
Typically, the food repertoire of adults who are picky eaters is so limited that it can actually interfere with their work or social life. Their food tastes lean towards bland, salty, processed foods—French fries, grilled cheese and vanilla ice cream, for example—and little else. Fruits, vegetables and spices are almost universally shunned, and their entire diet might be limited to only 10 or 20 foods. Many say that the majority of foods they’re exposed to are simply disgusting. An unappetizing appearance, texture, color or odor are all grounds for rejection. Understandably, many extremely fussy eaters try to avoid business functions and social occasions that involve food, so as to keep their condition under wraps which is pretty hard to do.
I had a client like this not too long ago. He was a successful investment banker, but business lunches were an absolute nightmare for him. He wouldn’t touch fish, poultry, salads, soups or vegetables, and he subsisted primarily on bread, rice, well-cooked beef and the one fruit he could stomach—canned pineapple.
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Duke University are trying to better understand this finicky eating, or what they are calling ‘selective eating disorder.’ They’ve set up the world’s first registry for picky eaters, the Food F.A.D. Study (Finicky Eating in Adults), in which participants are logging their eating habits and medical histories into an online questionnaire. It’s hoped that the information gathered from the nearly 10,000 registrants to date will shed some light on an issue that, for now, remains pretty murky.
It’s not clear whether extreme food pickiness is psychological in nature, or physiological or a combination of the two. It’s possible that finicky eaters might perceive flavors, odors or textures differently, since so many are deemed inedible based on odor or texture alone. In some cases, food allergies or swallowing problems seem to be at the root. Or extreme pickiness could be a form of food phobia. Some persnickety eaters say that many foods simply don’t look like food to them. A plate of spaghetti may just as well be a plate of worms.
At this point, research has yet to account for the basis of extremely finicky eating. Until it’s better understood, the best we can do is to try to help picky adults get over their extreme fear of new foods. And it’s a slow, step-wise process. I finally convinced my client to try a piece of fresh pineapple, which he did. But whether he’ll ever actually like it is yet to be seen.