Let's face it: We all have foods that we just don't really like to eat.
For me, I just can't embrace celery like everyone else, not even with a schmear of peanut butter and cute little "ants." For my husband, it's goat cheese. For others, it's root beer, olives or white chocolate.
A willingness to try new things is a virtue, and food is no different. No one wants to seem like an uncultured swine for not liking pork belly, but let's be honest, a chunk of seared pork fat has a texture that might not be for everyone.
And it's no wonder we don't like everything. With thousands of ingredients that can be combined in an infinite number of dishes, it's easy for your taste buds to feel overwhelmed. Eating involves all of our senses, so if the taste, texture, color or smell of a certain food isn't particularly pleasing, we tend to reject it. At least at first.
There's some truth to the old adage about having to try something 20 times before you like it, but for some people, especially children, sometimes you have to present it to them 20 times before they'll even think about trying it, says Lea Gebhardt, a registered and licensed dietitian with Nutrition Therapy for Kids who also works at Cedar Springs Austin, a clinic that specializes in treating people with eating disorders.
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What causes pickiness?
With kids or adults, not liking a certain food can be a sign of a mild allergy or intolerance to that food. Some foods might make your mouth or lips tingle or cause your throat to itch, which are symptoms that an adult can verbalize, but small kids might just reject it but not be able to say why.
(But it often goes the other way, too. My brother-in-law jokes that he's allergic to eggs, onions and just about everything else he doesn't like because he knows it's more culturally acceptable to be allergic to something than to simply not like it.)
Pickiness in kids can be about control, but not always. "It's pretty rare that a kid is being picky just to be defiant," Gebhardt says. "They try to control two things — sleeping and eating — and if they have a good bedtime routine, there's usually something more to the pickiness."
Sometimes kids have neophobia (fear of new things) or sensory issues that extend beyond the mouth. In other kids, they have psychological issues around food that can stem from family or social problems or traumatic experiences, such as near-choking. Claiming not to like certain foods also can be a way to cover up other, more well-established eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia.
The next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is slated to come out in 2013, will likely contain about a half a dozen eating and feeding disorders, including sensory food aversion and post-traumatic feeding disorder. Officially recognizing some of these disorders will help professionals across the country learn how to treat them more efficiently and effectively.
Pickiness in adults
More research into severe pickiness in adults can't come soon enough for Bob Krause, who thought he was the only adult who suffered from it until he started an online support website, pickyeatingadults.com, in 2003. Since then, he's found thousands of other adults who struggle with the social, physical and psychological effects of not being able to eat "normally."
"Most foods do not look like food to my brain," he says. "My intelligence says, 'Yes, that is food,' but then part of my brain knows that it is way too complex or the wrong texture. I have a severe gag reflex that can make 'just take a bite' a very unpleasant experience." Even though Krause has become an advocate for adults in his situation, it wasn't until last year that he was able to bring up his eating disorder to his doctor. "He was just dumbfounded," Krause says.
Little is known about extreme pickiness in adults. Researchers with Duke University and the University of Pittsburg are conducting an online survey about finicky eating in adults (http://bit.ly/pickyeaterstudy) in an effort to understand unusual eating habits in adults.
Compulsive eating and food addiction found a home on cable TV in 2010, when TLC first aired "Freaky Eaters," a series about people who were addicted to or had aversions to certain foods or food groups. The subjects, in true reality TV style, were all "cured," but in real life, treatment isn't as easy as a 12-step program. Some adults try hypnosis or occupational therapy to work on swallowing and desensitization, but this hasn't worked for Krause, who believes his difficulties stem from Asperger's syndrome.
Krause is hoping that this Duke study will lead to expanded treatment for adults and an ability to identify children whose eating issues extend beyond normal food fussiness. "Food is such a big thing in society," says Krause, whose abnormal eating habits have contributed to two failed marriages and struggles in the business world. Krause, who runs his own business now, just booked his yearly Thanksgiving trip to Delaware with his wife to avoid what is otherwise a holiday full of anxiety.
The power struggle
Many in the medical community are treating severe pickiness in kids differently, but at home, well-intentioned parents (and grandparents, relatives and friends) often use potentially harmful tactics that can lead to even bigger problems in adulthood.
Power struggles are a normal part of parenting, but trying to exert total control over your kids' eating habits is dangerous. "A child needs to feel like they have a choice," says Austin psychologist Andrea Zeddies, who often works with kids who have sensory issues. "Once the parent starts demanding control, there's the potential for eating disorders to develop."
Forcing them to sit at a table until they eat every bite on their plate is more likely to cause emotional trauma that could lead to eating disorders or negative relationships with food in adulthood. Kids are generally really good at self-regulating how much and even what kinds of food to eat to provide their bodies what they need, Zeddies says.
It's hard to watch your child not eat or eat very little because it feels like you're failing as a parent, says Zeddies, who has dealt with this first hand with her own three girls. "It's such an emotionally charged thing," she says. "You feel like you're not providing for your child." Because parents feel like they don't have control over the situation, they often overreact and overmonitor food intake. "If you starve them or insist on them eating certain things, that can end up backfiring" and make the child less likely to want to try something new, she says. Making a big deal out of it also can egg on attention-seeking kids who have figured out that not eating is a way to get your attention.
Parental anxiety about a child's eating habits inevitably makes them worse, Gebhardt says. If both kids and parents are anxious about yet another dramatic night at the dinner table, kids can start to associate eating with that tension, which can haunt them for a lifetime.
It's especially tough on parents and kids when they have worked out a healthy eating environment and routine at home, but then face scrutiny from family members or friends who want to impose their own standards or expectations, especially at the holidays or family gatherings.
Too much pressure from parents can exacerbate kids' pickiness, which sometimes then extends into adulthood, but they are often following external cues.
"We do a really nice job in America for making kids picky," Gebhardt says. "We've created this entire food landscape for children that is just ridiculous."
We want and expect kids to have diverse palates, but how can they when we feed them unseasoned, puréed baby foods from birth and, as they grow older, offer them a "kid's menu" of chicken fingers, pizza or pasta no matter if we're at a restaurant or at home.
Gebhardt know that it's easy to get into a rut, but their palates aren't going to develop if you feed them the same thing every day. Parents have to lead by example, too. "If you eat the same thing all the time, your kids will, too," Gebhardt says.
In Gebhardt's office, kids play games, sing songs, make teams — anything to reduce the anxiety they've come to feel when it comes time to eat. She uses something called a learning plate, where kids aren't asked to actually taste the food, just explore it with their eyes, hands, noses and, if they choose to, their tongue. For kids with oversensitive palates, sometimes a small, rotating brush can be used to desensitize the inside of the mouth before eating.
It's not just about learning about new flavors. Kids need to learn what these different foods will provide their bodies, which inevitably brings up bowel movements. Kids are very aware of what comes in and what comes out of their bodies. Gebhardt recalls a child who recently discovered that he liked oranges, not just because they tasted good but because they helped him feel better when it was time to go to the bathroom.
Teaching both kids and adults to have an open mind is the most important thing, Gebhardt says. Accept that you're not going to like every single thing you ever put in your mouth, but that just because you haven't liked Indian food doesn't mean you won't like it in the future.
"Everybody is going to have a different palate, different preference, different taste," Gebhardt says. "You have to be the steward for your own palate."