Friday, July 30, 2010

Are we all "Picky Eaters"?

My son qualifies as a picky eater. He'll eat anything as long as it's pasta, cheese pizza, French Fries, (sometimes called "chips," if in "Fish 'n") and maybe a bagel with marinara and mozzarella.

According to a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, he's got a handicap that may just qualify for its own entry ("selective eating disorder") in the next DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual that psych clinicians use to put a label on the weird and disabling behaviors of clients.  For now, he can log into a new registry created by Duke University to study the quirky eating habits of those whose palates enjoy the whole range of options from A to...B.

"Picky eaters tend to gravitate to certain foods, including blander products that are often white or pale colored, like plain pasta or cheese pizza," writes Shirley S. Wang. "For reasons that aren't clear, almost all adult picky eaters like French fries and often chicken fingers, health experts say."

(Should chicken be eaten with the fingers?  No, the fingers should be eaten separately.)

Bob Krause has made a bit of a career out of his pickiness.  His first and last names were the two opening words of a January, 2007 Psychology Today article about the condition that heretofore was considered a passing phase of toddlers, like diapers.  His idiosyncratic diet earned its own sidebar in the Wall Street Journal piece of a couple of days ago.  And he pops right up if you google "picky eaters," with his "picky eating adult support" website, on which he admits his aversion to normal meals has caused such angst in "Social Settings" (sic) that "On some occasions, I have become so depressed the thought of ending it all has gone through my mind."  He even blames his eating habits for his two divorces.

Thankfully, Bob doesn't let his affliction hold him back, heading a business with 35 employees and, naturally, planning to make his "hard to imagine" adventures coping with restricted appetite into a Movie (sic).  He suggests tactics to help the similarly-burdened handle dreaded food-centric Social Settings, most involving deception, though the last one, presumably for ladies only, employs what is likely an effective distraction: "13. Offer sex to a man who wants to take you to dinner."

While picky eaters  like Jill Bloomfield, (who does picky-eating consulting and went on to write a kids' cookbook) can enlarge their menus with deliberate effort, they may never appreciate the range of tastes most folk enjoy.  An August, 2007 study by Cooke, Haworth and Wadle teased out the amount of pickiness caused by environment and training, versus what's inbred.  Turns out three-quarters (77% to be exact) of pickiness is inherited; parents who self-blame for a child's unbalanced diet are likely saddled with their own quirky food repertoires.

Pickiness isn't just a casual choice, either.  Unacceptable foods are downright repulsive, either due to texture, taste, smell or a combination thereof.  "You wouldn't put a handful of grass in your mouth and chew it up," says Amber Scott, 29, in the WSJ article. Yearning to acquire a new taste, she ventured to try an apricot last summer, but it made her stomach churn: "I really wanted to like it, but my body wouldn't let me."

Readers of this blog might recall two posts in which I excoriate cilantro.  Its odor is repugnant, its taste so abhorrent that even a smidgen is immediately detectable and expectorated.  Just about everyone, even folks who blithely claim to "like everything," have at least a few foods they avoid.  Cooked liver? (barfable!) Oysters? (no aphrodisiac for me!)  If you really want to taunt nausea, read the Olive Magazine list of top ten hated foods in Britain, a nation whose gastronomy adds insult to injury.  It begins with tripe ("edible offal made from the stomach of cow, sheep or pig"), heads south through jellied eels to Marmite ("a dark brown yeast spread, by-product of the brewing industry") and concludes with beetroot in vinegar.

Just last night while waiting out my husband's screening of a violent movie, I stumbled upon the grand opening of Seafood City, a huge Filipino supermarket in Seattle's Westfield Southcenter mall. Its Asian fast-food joints had lines down the block, swaying to the unintelligible words of a rock band, but the real attractions were inside, where the produce department exploded with weird prickly, bumpy, nasty-looking vegetables, the shelves were filled with mushy, spherical and often brown items with no English on their labels, and a full third of the store held ice-lined tables with whole, colorful fish, their dull eyes shimmering.  A long queue formed at a counter called something like "kill and cook" where purchasers could wait for their selections, if from tanks, to be murdered, and if from the ice tables, to be prepared to their specifications.

All I could think was, "eeewwww!"

Meanwhile, those eager customers were thinking, "yum!"

Admittedly, the difference here was cultural.  But within families, even, some members crave certain flavors that others just plain eschew.  I've always wondered how individual food preferences are shaped.  I don't like the taste of mango, but everyone else in my clan loves it.  Onions give me, sorry, stomach repercussions, but the others in my home gobble them down to no reprisal.  Two of the five of us adore spiciness, daring the other to consume ghost peppers and bottled hot sauce; the remaining three like flavor, but dishes even slightly inflamed send us to the fire hydrant.

Which brings me back to pickiness.  Something internal, independent of will or environment, determines what comestibles we devour or detest.  Similarly, another internal mechanism tells us at any given time what appeals, and what's yukky.  Is pickiness really a disorder?  As a psychologist, I'd say that when it interferes with normal life--like Bob Krause's devious means to avoid shared meals--something's wrong.  Otherwise, I'd consider a limited array of desires as simply the tail of a normal distribution along the continuum of food preferences.  The true omnivore who equally enjoys every edible would occupy the other tail, and everyone else fits somewhere in the middle.

One's niche on the consumables continuum would be a snapshot frequently shifting, from meal to meal, moment to moment--and I believe it reflects one's nutritional status at any given time.  Your body is talking to you, by those strangely non-verbal cues it sends, telling you that you're hungry, and what would be most satisfying.  If, for example, your body is short on certain amino acids when sitting down to a dignified restaurant dinner, you might order a steak.  If, instead, your body wants the vitamins found in greens, you might go for a big salad.  Think about it:  With a large, tempting menu in front of you, how do you know what you "feel" like eating?

Unfortunately, American society and family life overlays all sorts of messages on the cues our bodies send, and too often, those externals override internal signals.  We're bored, so grab something munchy from the candy machine.  Mom made that special dish, and we eat it to reassure her we love her.  We read magazine articles insisting our diets look like pyramids, and so construct them and imbibe them, brick by brick.  There are many external "authorities" and reasons we ignore those quiet but correct messages from our bodies, but when we do, well, we end up with a "national epidemic of obesity."

It's only an epidemic in that we "catch" it by listening to external sources, not from being true to our bodies' natural, but subtle messages.

So, despite sounding a bit snide in describing my son's narrow food preferences, actually I honor them.  I don't understand where they come from; I don't know if it's good or bad that they're there, but ultimately, listening to them determines whether he has a positive or negative relationship with the food he eats.  And I see that his limited set of delicacies is merely a shortened form of my own picky-list (which, btw, includes papayas, black coffee, lite beers, toffee and at least a hundred other disdainables).

Bottom line? Respect your palate.  If only buttered noodles earns your salivation, that's the entree for you. Instead of merely denoting a new disorder, researchers could more profitably trace the causes of everyone's food love-hates, and find out how these can address the "national epidemic" in a way Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" campaign can't touch.

 Erasing the stigma of "picky" eating to enhance respect for individual food preferences might be an excellent preliminary step toward fixing the Fat Heads in our country.  Eat what you want, and at the same time empower yourself.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Wedding Announcemet as Immigration Editorial

Is a wedding announcement the right place for a political statement?

With the feature about Perla Farias and David Portugal, Jr.'s nuptials last week, the New York Times certainly thought so.  The couple, 21 and 22 years old, lamented that the undocumented immigrant members of their extended family of 400 were too skittish to attend their Goodyear, Arizona wedding.  It wasn't travel, expense or illness preventing their attendance--but fear of deportation occasioned by the recently-adopted state law empowering law enforcement to verify immigration status.

The bride and groom sound like great, idealistic kids.  They're both in college and met through their Catholic church.  They bonded in their youth group, soon spending Sunday afternoons "taking long walks, discussing the book they were reading--or immigration raids."  His early gift to her was a portrait he painted from a photo in which she's wearing a t-shirt emblazoned, "Think: It isn't illegal yet."

Their relationship matured as they became "partners in community activism."  The new Mrs. Portugal's family came to the US illegally, but received "amnesty under a 1986 federal immigration reform bill."  (That would have been two years into the second term of Pres. Reagan, about three years before she was born.)  Mr. Portugal is a fourth-generation Mexican-American from Los Angeles.

Not only do I congratulate the young couple and wish them well, but I have no problem with The Times highlighting their interest in pro-immigrant activism.  What I found surprising, however, was the article's unrelenting slant--opening with "The marriage of Perla Farias and David Portugal Jr. in Goodyear, Ariz, was marked as much by those who didn't attend as it was by the more than 250 guests who did." It leaps from there into a lament about the two dozen undocumented-immigrant relations of Ms. Farias too nervous about the not-yet-enacted Arizona clamp-down to show their faces at the celebration.

Personally, I don't think the new Arizona law was a good idea, for a variety of reasons, and I sympathize with the hard-workers who risk everything coming to the US for a better life. (I also think the federal lawsuit against the Arizona bill is a waste of taxpayer money, since the law's sure to be challenged anyway.)

Illegal immigrants would gladly come legally if they could--but receiving documentation for average people to emigrate from Mexico to the US is nearly impossible, given Mexico's corruption greased by bribery at each step of the process.  The people who leave family behind, take our least-desirable jobs (and are even willing to live in the shadows) are not unlike those in generations past who boarded crowded ships with similar hopes--they share the American spirit of self-determination founded on willingness to take chances and put in effort.

The mothers of "anchor babies" want those children to live where they have the best chance for success and the most opportunity.  Is America the greatest nation on God's green earth? Ask them.

Still, I blanched seeing the blatantly political message featured on the wedding announcements page.  Just another reminder that the press has become as openly biased as anyone else, and doesn't mind inserting its editorial content everywhere it can.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Your Internet Time-Wasters--Revealing the Inner You?

Hey, suitors who want a neat way to evaluate your potential mate! Hey sorority ladies trying to determine the best candidates during "rush"!  Hey Moms, Dads, kids who want the real scoop on family-members--here's a quick route to discovering anyone's inner soul.

Ask how he wastes time on the Internet.

In the "old days," people frittered away time talking on the phone, watching TV or reading magazines, pulp romances or sports statistics.  Nowadays, they spend hours following click-leads to sites that reflect their idiosyncratic self-indulgences.

I confess: I check out cameras. I'm looking for the camera that meets all my criteria. It hasn't been made, yet, but that doesn't keep me from searching, comparing, evaluating, reading reviews. For hours (and then hating myself for it).

My daughter loves shoes. She goes on all the online shoe sites trying to find ones she adores on sale.  She buys them, then takes them back to stores near her if they're not right.  My other daughter's passion is pets. Puppies, actually. She scours Craigslist for adorable candidates, squealing and lapsing into baby talk when a photo particularly captures her fancy.

My son checks out comedy.  College Humor is his haunt, and when he finds something hilarious or catchy, he switches to YouTube to see its prequel, sequel, take-offs, permutations and all the campy songs written about it.  (Double rainbow--it's so intense!)

Every news outlet notes that porn gets the most hits on the web.  But how often do you see stories about people addicted to...well, stereo power cords?

My husband, the audio-phile, spends hours comparing the virtues of various stereo inter-connects. Yes, those pieces of wire and connectors that hook together components like amplifiers, CD players and speakers.  Did you know that some of these cords and connectors can cost as much as $40,000 each? (um, which should I get, a fancy car or the two-inch-long Siltech Emperor Crown connector?)  The Nordost White Light glass fiber optic cable is a comparative bargain, at just $33,000.

My man, however, gets his jollies by chasing down the best deals on his audio equipment. He's looking for the most resonant bang (and Olufsen?) for the buck, wondering if a $300 power cord is really just a tenth as good as its $3,000 counterpart.  Recently, we got a parcel on our front porch.  Minutes later, there appeared to be a scary black snake coiled behind his amplifier, working its silent magic on Schubert.  Hubby was thrilled, and raced back to his computer for some idyllic time checking out further electronic enhancements.

As a psychologist specializing in relationships, I've always been fascinated by individuals' quirks and affections.  I'm going to have to research what internet time-wasters say about a person's mental health.  But until my definitive study, there's no harm in replacing the age-old pick-up line "What's your sign?" with "what's your site?"  And it could end up being a lot more revealing.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Fireworks on the Space Needle

Today my husband and I were taking some visiting friends on a tour of Seattle, and despite dreary drizzle, decided to orient them to the surrounding neighborhoods from atop the Space Needle.  We were unprepared for what lay ahead.

Built for the 1962 World's Fair, the Space Needle remains the quintessential symbol of Seattle, distinctively separate on the skyline, allowing its 360-degree view of Puget Sound, Lakes Union and Washington, and the city, surrounded by the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges, and Mts. Rainier and Baker.  On a clear day, there's nothing more magnificent than watching cruise ships boarding for Alaska, ferries shuttling cars to the San Juan islands, sea planes landing close by, and bridges carrying scurrying cars north and south.

On this damp July 4th, undeterred tourists waited near the elevators clutching their $18 tickets, many accepting digital photos with a costumed Lady Liberty and Uncle Sam. A holiday air, perhaps enhanced by the International Beer Fest at the Needle's base, defied the ominous weather. 

After the 30-second elevator ascent, we passed through the noisy indoor exhibits out to the circular balcony.  Our friends were awed by the view, strolling the perimeter, listening to my husband's encyclopedic descriptions of neighborhoods, landmarks and history in each direction.  About two-thirds around, a young man approached, reverently asking my husband if he was, indeed, the talk host he most admired.  Thrilled, he and his young lady asked for a photo with my husband, which I gladly took.  We engaged them briefly in conversation, discovering Eli is a recent police academy graduate who works as a ranger on Blake Island, a forested Washington State Park in Puget Sound, clearly in our view.
We offered to take a snapshot of Eli and his girlfriend, Melissa, just the two of them, with the panorama of Seattle as backdrop.  As he handed me his camera, he whispered in my ear, "I'm going to do something special."

At that, Eli dropped to one knee, pulled a small box from his pocket, and asked Melissa to marry him.  I kept pushing the shutter as, taken aback and clearly moved, she shed a tear and eagerly accepted.  Still on his knee, Eli slipped the diamond onto her finger, to the applause of gathered tourists.

In a chorus of congratulations, Eli and Melissa shared some private words, then blended once more into the throng sharing a moment in the clouds. And we went on to enjoy a rainy July 4th illuminated by fireworks and the stirrings of the heart, both patriotic and personal.