Picky eaters fight stigma

Researchers help finicky adults

Staff WriterAugust 9, 2010 

If a restaurant doesn't serve potatoes of some kind, Amy Wilson won't eat.

She munches on French fries at almost every meal. To accommodate her peculiar eating patterns, she and close friends spent their high school prom dinner at an IHOP.

When Wilson was younger, her parents took her to doctors and nutritionists, all of whom predicted she would grow out of her picky food preferences. Now, the 24-year-old classics major at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro is seeing a hypnotist because she feels she has run out of options.

"I really want to be normal," she said. "I want to be able to eat different foods. But there's something in me that won't let me."

Wilson isn't alone.

Nearly 2,200 "picky eaters" are now catalogued in the first national registry of picky eating, a collaboration between Duke University and the University of Pittsburgh. The registry, known as the Food F.A.D. Study (Finicky Eating in Adults), aims to understand a phenomenon that researchers say has long been overlooked in medical and mental health circles.

The database is not looking for those who simply eschew broccoli.

What researchers call adult picky eaters are the handful of people who face an uncontrollable, instinctive disgust reaction to new foods, as if someone were suggesting that they gorge on garbage.

Picky eaters share some striking similarities. The limited assortment of "safe" foods they can tolerate are typically white foods with bland textures. Bread, French fries and pasta are common favorites. And they say they have grappled with their extremely restricted food inclinations their entire lives.

Heather Hill, a Web designer from Raleigh, says her penchant for picky eating has been with her for as long as she can remember. Hill's mother recalls the struggles she faced trying to get her daughter to eat.

Now 39, Hill lives on a diet primarily of carbohydrates, with the exception of a few "safe" fruits and vegetables. She describes her reaction to unfamiliar foods as an overpowering feeling of repulsion.

"When I bite into something I'm not familiar with, it's as though it sends a trigger to my brain that says, 'Panic, there is something foreign in your mouth,'" she said. "Ieither gag or spit it out. If I swallowed, I'd probably vomit."

But Wilson says the thought of letting a piece of plastic touch her palate, for example, doesn't faze her.

"It is very specific to food," she said.

A new eating disorder?

The disorder that has mystified clinicians and nutritionists for years is in consideration for inclusion in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, due for publication in 2013.

If approved, picky eating will likely be classified as a type of eating disorder, but it will be distinguished from better-known ones such as anorexia or bulimia because it has nothing to do with body image.

Getting in the way

To be considered a clinical mental disorder, a behavior must cause significant distress and interfere with functioning in everyday life. Many picky eaters feel that's certainly the case.

"The older I get, the more embarrassing it is," said Wilson, who now tends to avoid food-related events entirely. "People ask me all these questions about it."

A common question, she says, is: Where do you get your nutrients? Wilson depends on multivitamins. A few others have found clever solutions by fortifying their "safe" foods with healthier ingredients that can slip past their sense of smell and taste buds.

For Hill, the impact of being a picky eater didn't really hit her until she joined the working world in her 20s. Probably the worst experience is going to someone's house for a meal, she said.

"They'll go through everything in their cupboard, trying to make you feel comfortable," she said. She often has to reject it all. For hosts who are very into food, she said, a guest's refusal to eat can be taken as a personal affront.

Weddings are the worst

Hill says fancy gatherings such as weddings are extremely difficult. "Usually, you're at a table with people you don't know," she said. "And usually, there's nothing on your plate you can touch."

When they can't get out of events involving food, Hill and Wilson draw from a similar arsenal of excuses around new people: "I'm not hungry." "I just ate." Once, Hill fibbed that she was fasting for a medical test.

Cheryl Curry, 51, a picky eater from Raleigh with a special aversion to fruit, says some disbelieving members of her own family accuse her of just wanting attention. She has always dreaded summer family gatherings because watermelon is the main event. Eventually, she just stopped going.

She described the typical reaction she faces as unfair. "If you don't eat meat, you are trendy. If you don't eat fruit, you must be from Mars," she said.

Looking for support

Dr. Nancy Zucker, director of the Duke Center for Eating Disorders, says one of the first aims of the F.A.D. database is giving the overlooked group a feeling of validation.

"When someone is wearing eyeglasses, no one would ever say, 'Oh, really, you can't see? You're just doing this for attention,'" she said. "Most people derive such pleasure from food that it's hard from them to get their minds around the idea of different sensory experiences."

Indeed, until very recently, many picker eaters say they thought they were the only ones dealing with their particular problems.

Through online forums, Hill now communicates with other picky eaters. For many, finally talking openly about their disorder with like-minded peers is a form of therapy.

"Finding out that I was not the only one changed my life," she said.

ilanay@nando.com or 919-829-4881

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