Healthbeat Report: Picky Eating

March 4, 2011 11:03:29 AM PST
Many say their picky eating, also called selective eating, isn't a choice. It's a burden that can impact daily life.

It's a secret many adults may be keeping because they're too embarrassed to admit it.

This is not simply about disliking one kind of food or another. These are people who can eat only certain foods, most of which tend to be bland. The diets sound like something you order off a kid's menu.

"It is so intense on my tongue in my palate that I just can't handle it. It is too much for me to take," said Stefani Barcal.

Barcal's earliest memories of food were more about a struggle than the enjoyment of home-cooked Italian meals. Her staples: pasta with butter, macaroni with cheese, toast and dry cereal.

Her family tried just about everything to get her to eat a variety of foods. Concerned, they threatened to hospitalize her and even tried bribery.

"I have a $100 dollar bill in front of my face and I am not going to eat that cheeseburger," said Barcal.

Everyone assumed she would grow out it. She's now 30 and her diet is still fairly limited. Until now it wasn't something she openly discussed.

"If it is something I don't like my throat closes up and I can't swallow. I have to spit it out. It just won't happen no matter how hard I try it just won't happen," said Barcal.

It was the discovery of the website that has helped her realize she is not alone. She remembers the day she found it.

"I cried, I just couldn't believe I was not the only one," said Barcal.

The founder of the website says Stefani's reaction is typical. It's a subject the general public and a lot of health professionals don't know about. It's not a traditional eating disorder and there's no true definition. But these food restrictions do seem to affect personal and professional relationships which is said to be an indication of a disorder.

"I think there are a certain number of adults that struggle with this that really experience a difficult impairment from it," said Nancy Zucker, Ph.D., Duke Center for Eating Disorders.

Dr. Zucker has helped to start the first national public registry on adult picky eating. The goal: to determine how many adults struggle with this and why. She theorizes it could be a variety of factors including biological predispositions, learned experiences or personal sensitivities.

"This is not a matter of I kinda don't like this, this is like, I find this really aversive," said Dr. Zucker.

Here's what adult picky eaters seem to have in common: they tend to eat only between 10-15 types of foods with an emphasis on bland and processed food such as French fries, breads, cereals and plain pastas.

Picky eaters may appear physically healthy but their limited food intake can be emotionally draining. They are often criticized for their childlike palates and tend to avoid social situations involving food.

Winnetka eating disorders specialist Abigail Natenshon says it likely starts in childhood. She adds the problem is more widespread than we might believe and it's misunderstood.

"It has been under the rug for too many years now," said Natenshon. "These kids are not fooling. They mean it. They are terrified and they cannot face these foods."

Natenshon says just because your children don't want to eat certain foods doesn't mean they have a longterm problem. The best thing parents can do is to gently continue to introduce new foods. That's what Barcal is doing to help herself now.

"Know that your child doesn't know any more than you do as to why they are like this. Be patient," she said.

Barcal says her picking eating has not affected her health and she has always been fairly athletic.

Dr. Zucker says the registry has found that people tend to be cruel to adult picky eaters. She suspects that since our society is built around socializing with food many people almost feel threatened.

Picky Eating Support Site:

Duke University
Nancy Zucker, Ph.D.
Picky Eating Registry

Abigail Natenshon, LCSW
Empowered Parents - A Family Approach to Healthy Eating