Rhonda West’s picky eating began during breastfeeding. “I couldn’t have my mother’s milk, so they put me on cow’s milk, but I was allergic, so then they put me on soy,” she says. “When it came time for solid foods, I didn’t want any part of that.” In fact, most foods made her want to gag.
Now, 41 years later, West is a picky eating adult. She survives on toast, waffles, pancakes, simply cooked meats, and French fries. (Oddly, almost all adult “selective eaters” include French fries in their limited food repertoire). “I don’t like foods that are mixed-up together,” says West, who lives in the Washington, D.C.-area and is currently looking for work. No vegetables, few fruits, and absolutely nothing that’s too soft or squishy. “I equate eating pasta with eating a plate of worms.”
For picky eaters, most meals are unbearable, and nearly all foods make them nauseous. Failed relationships, lost work opportunities, and anxiety caused by the very thing others derive great pleasure from.
While childhood picky eating is commonly recognized, little has been done to understand people like West—until now. In July, Duke University and the University of Pittsburgh launched the first national public registry of picky eaters, known as the Finicky Eating in Adults study (eatingdisorders.mc.duke.edu). People can log in and complete a survey about their relationship with food and eating habits. It’s still early stages, but this study is designed to help researchers better understand “avoidant, restrictive food intake disorder”—which is currently under consideration as an officially recognized eating disorder, like bulimia or anorexia.
Marsha D. Marcus, chief of the Behavioral Medicine Program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and one of the lead investigators on the study says, picky eaters tend to fall into one of three groups: those with taste issues, those who have never had a real interest in food, and a third group who have had traumatic or aversive experiences with food.
Marcus says it’s too early to tell how many suffer from this disorder, but she’s heard of cases where one’s eating restrictions are so acute they survive by a feeding tube. Others avoid vacations, business meetings, dinner parties, and weddings—any event that brings them into contact with unknown food. Indeed, one American sufferer said that Thanksgiving is known among picky eaters as “Black Thursday”.
However, Marcus is careful to distinguish adult picky eaters from people with the food quirks most everybody lives with. “We’re not trying to pathologize people’s preferences,” she says. “We’re looking for people whose food restrictions are a source of impairment or distress or have led to a health problem.”
One interesting theory the researchers will explore is whether picky eating is genetic. “There might be a group of people who have different ways of tasting, so the food that tastes good to you or me tastes awful to them,” says Marcus.
According to picky eater West, this is a distinct possibility. “Picky eating is nature not nurture,” West says. “People are light, sound, smell, touch, skin sensitive—why not taste?” In fact, West insists that if she could change her palate, she would. “It’s high anxiety when you’re going to meet new people, especially for a job, and you have to explain why you’re not eating anything on the menu,” she says. When she summons the courage to go to a restaurant, she usually requests plain grilled chicken.
T.J. Haselden, a computer salesman living in Montreal, refers to himself as “the pickiest eater in Canada.” Of the disorder, the part-time comedian says, “I have learned to laugh about it, but the truth is that I’m really getting fed-up.”
Haselden eats only six foods: hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken, turkey, bacon, and French fries. He gags at the thought of tasting anything new, and also claims that this disorder began in childhood. “Everybody tries to say it’s my mom’s fault for not treating it the right way. I always say the only thing I can blame my mom for is that she was too accommodating.”
When he was a teenager living with roommates, Haselden would stay away from the kitchen. When friends ordered pizza, he’d tell them he was allergic to tomatoes to avoid confrontation. Now 30, he lives with his wife, Chantal, and has realized that his picky eating infringes on her life, too. “She can’t explore her taste buds the way she would want to.” For example, when she eats something as simple as pasta—a dish he abhors—the two have to sit at opposite ends of the dinner table. “I can smell the pasta so much I feel like I could taste it and it makes me want to gag.”
Haselden is undertaking a film project in the hopes that he can broaden his palate. He’ll document a 30-day journey of new tastes, attempting to try every food he’s been afraid of. “I want to use the power of the camera to overcome my fear and make people laugh.”
But can he and other picky eaters change their ways? Nancy Zucker, the director of the Duke Center for Eating Disorders who is leading the study with Marcus, says she hopes so. Her goal is to come up with effective coping strategies and treatment, and to distinguish selective eating from other eating disorders.
“People have a tough time having empathy for those who taste things differently,” she observes. “Even more profoundly, imagine you had an experience and you tasted something and thought, ‘this tastes like cardboard’ and people were mad at you for that, saying that you’re not experiencing what you’re experiencing. That’s what these people go through everyday. It’s time we explore and recognize what’s going on here.”