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.


  1. I can't help but to think that some of these people have some other disorder. My son is a very picky eater, but he has Aspergers.

  2. Childs, from what I've researched, picky eating is so widespread in childhood that it's considered basically normal. But your thought is worth investigating; thanks for the idea.