Picky, Picky :: Do Selective Eaters Have a Disorder?

by Ashley Solomon

Putting a pea in front of my mother’s face produces a similar reaction as one might expect from hiding a rattlesnake under someone’s pillow. Her face quickly contorts and she draws back in horror, afraid the small, green ball of poison might… shudder… touch her. The thought of putting it in her mouth and swallowing elicits panic. You’d sooner get her to sell one of her children (likely me, following this blog post).

My mother is what we commonly refer to as a “picky eater,” or what scientists, including psychologists, are now calling, a “selective eater.” Her preferred diet includes an extremely narrow repertoire of American foods, sprinkled with the occasional pizza or pasta. Interestingly, scientists have observed that picky eaters tend to have a not only small, but similar catalog of food choices. They tend to select items that are paler in color, such as white bread and pasta or pizza with cheese (hold the spinach!).  Also noteworthy, some scientists have found that almost all picky eaters like french fries (although, really, who doesn’t?).

A recent Wall Street Journal article suggested that the American Psychological Association is considering recognizing “selective eating” in the upcoming revision of the diagnostic manual. This new issue would, reportedly, be classified under the category of Eating Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified, a term used for individuals with symptoms that do not meet criteria for a major disorder. The WSJ article led to some hot debate on whether pathologizing people with picky palates is going too far. However, the DSM-V draft website makes no mention of selective eating as a potential inclusion.

While it’s easy to get frustrated with my mom for limiting our restaurant options to three places and for not being willing to try the beautiful appetizers I’ve made, researchers and clinicians point out that selective eating is often not voluntary. Many selective eaters feel desperate to expand their tastes, reporting extreme embarrassment and shame over their pickiness. These individuals are not the friend who has an aversion to green olives. These are people who limit their social engagements and feel anxiety around major events due to their distinct and restricted preferences. And for most individuals, these eating habits began even before they began feeding themselves.

Typically problems begin in childhood, a period during which some narrowness of food choices is expected. However, for adult selective eaters, their comfort level never expands. They continue eating stereotypically “childlike” foods, such as cheese pizza and chicken fingers. Researchers at Duke University and the University of Pittsburgh are currently trying to enhance our understanding of selective eating, recently launching the first national registry of picky eating. The public is asked to log on and describe their peculiar eating habits so that scientists can explore the phenomenon.

Currently, many researchers believe that selective eating is related heavily to aroma and texture. This makes sense to me as I consider my mom’s description of peas (her most loathed food) as slimy, slippery, and mushy (said in a disgusted tone). Makes anyone want to recoil, right? She, like many other selective eaters, cannot get beyond the texture of the food. Forget taste. She would have to actually be willing to touch them to determine whether the taste was acceptable. Evolutionary psychologists tell us that we are in fact wired to prefer foods less that evoke images of morbidity or bodily functions (in color, texture, etc.). I’ll leave this topic at that.

Fortunately, there may be hope for selective eaters. Duke University, like many other institutions, offers treatment for picky eating that is based on cognitive-behavioral principles, particularly exposure. Selective eaters are encouraged to develop improved assertiveness skills (to handle people like me, who harass you for not wanting to try the thing on the menu that you can’t pronounce), as well as methodically incorporate new foods. While there is limited evidence currently demonstrating the effectiveness of the treatment, results will be forthcoming. If the evidence suggests it works, which it is likely to, my mom will be on the next plane. But don’t offer her gourmet snacks onboard. She’ll just take the pretzels.


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6 Comments to “Picky, Picky :: Do Selective Eaters Have a Disorder?”

  1. “slimy, slippery, and mushy”

    Sounds like mushrooms to me. Does your mom like mushrooms? They are criminal! And they smell bad when grilled, too!

    Hehe, okay, obviously I’m a bit of a picky eater too, but I hardly have a disorder. I think labeling “selective eating” as a disorder might be pushing things a bit… Does EVERYTHING need a name?

    And as the “treatment” in the last paragraph suggests, (non-disordered) picky eaters can learn, over time, to expand their palettes. I have! I still hate raw tomatoes, but I’ve come to see that artichoke can be quite delish, as can (sorry, Ashley’s mom) peas and carrots in stews or pot pies. I don’t think that trying to stay open-minded is a “treatment”; it’s just a good mentality.

    However, if someone has anxiety about social events due to food, or similar stresses, I do think that’s something worth exploring and addressing. I would guess it has less to do with food and more to do with something else, though… But then again, I’m not an expert!

  2. Hey ash-
    I just read your blog for the first time and as expected I wish I would have started earlier…. This was really interesting for me- I went to a seminar on autism and nutrition and the thing that I took away was about when a kid is a picky eater and when it is problematic. So many of the kids are only able to eat food of certain textures (which we see at work all the time). They also discussed using CBT to expand their food options and how if they are traumatized by the forceful introduction of a food then often it is off the plate for life.
    As always you get me thinking….

    • Les – First, thanks for checking this out! You make a really good point about kids with developmental delays and other issues and not forcefully introducing the foods. I think that’s probably important for parents and others to consider.

  3. One of the things that bothers me a lot (actually, lots of things do, but this is on top of the list), is ethnic restaurants that have pizza, french fries and chicken fingers on the kids menu! I can’t even tell you how much i hate that! we just assume that kids have a limited palette and can only appreciate fried bland things. of course it’s going to be much harder to try new things later in life when you are used to having fried thing covered with ketchup every time you go out! Introducing kids to a variety of food should be a responsibility of a parent, but restaurants should have smaller portion sizes of their normal items on the kids menu.

  4. Les, that’s very interesting, i still don’t like most of the things i didn’t like as a child: thick vegetable soups, raw onion, cooked carrots.

  5. Without making this blog all about your mom, She, as a baby sitting in her highchair would not eat most veggies and very little fruits. To this day she doesn’t eat very many fruits or vegetables. She was my worst eater. Picky, Picky.

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