The Science Behind Picky Eaters And What Makes Them Eat That Way


We all have certain childhood memories that continue to make us feel ashamed. Many of mine revolve around picky eating.

I was a terribly picky eater when I was a kid. Unless a meal consisted of chicken nuggets, pizza, macaroni and cheese or skittles, I usually refused to eat it. It drove my parents absolutely insane, and I feel guilty about it to this day.

Fortunately, I eventually grew out of this habit. Much of this had to do with maturing and realizing the importance of trying new things. I also discovered how much I'd been missing out in terms of the amazing array of food out there.

Living, traveling and working in developing countries certainly didn't hurt either.

When people welcome you into their homes and offer you a meal that's come entirely from their yard, you realize how lucky you are to be afforded so many choices in terms of food in the developed world.

At this point, I'll eat just about anything (within reason). Food is one of the most wonderful parts of life. It grants you sustenance, fills you with warmth, brings you together with other people and even teaches you about different cultures.

For all of the above reasons, I've always tried to encourage people to try foods they've never had before. I tell them they don't know what they're missing out on.

Hypocritically, I tell them to stop being so picky. In other words, I attempt to shame them into being more openminded about food.

I've come to realize how wrong that is. This is not to say that we shouldn't encourage kids to eat their vegetables, or pressure reluctant friends to explore new horizons in terms of cuisine.

Yet, if you know someone who habitually exhibits picky-eating habits, don't make him or her feel ashamed. It could be a sign of a much deeper problem.

Picky Eating Can Be A Sign Of An Eating Disorder

A lot of children are picky eaters. It's part of being a kid, and for the most part, it's kind of cute. Most children grow out of it, but that's not the case for everyone. There is no age limit for picky eating.

You might be quick to view an adult picky eater as a spoiled, close-minded or entitled individual. In truth, however, they could be suffering from an eating disorder known as Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), sometimes referred to as Adult Picky Eating or Selective Eating Disorder.

According to the DSM, a psychiatric reference book, ARFID can be defined as:

An eating or feeding disturbance (e.g., apparent lack of interest in eating or food; avoidance based on the sensory characteristics of food; concern about aversive consequences of eating) as manifested by persistent failure to meet appropriate nutritional and/or energy needs associated with one (or more) of the following:

- Significant weight loss (or failure to achieve expected weight gain or faltering growth in children).

- Significant nutritional deficiency.

- Dependence on enteral feeding or oral nutritional supplements.

- Marked interference with psychosocial functioning.

In other words, picky eating is not simply a matter of choice for some people. It can become so serious that it impacts a person's physical and mental health, as well as his or her ability to eat in social settings.

People with ARFID avoid certain foods out of anxiety or fear. They might feel anxious over the texture of the food, or they might fear it will cause them to vomit or choke.

As the Center for Eating Disorders notes:

Individuals with ARFID may have problems at school or work because of their eating problems – such as avoiding work lunches, not getting schoolwork done because of the time it takes to eat, or even avoiding seeing friends or family at social events where food is present. A good example would be a young boy who almost choked on a hot dog one time, but now refuses to eat any type of solid food and can't eat school lunches or even enjoy a taste of his own birthday cake.

Indeed, due to the ridicule they might experience from family members or peers, individuals with ARFID avoid eating in public or sometimes just don't eat at all.

More commonly known eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia, are often a product of issues with body image. This is not the case with ARFID, but that doesn't mean it's not a real eating disorder.

No one should be made to feel ashamed for something he or she cannot control. Not to mention, people often suffer from ARFID because they are already anxious about people judging them for their food choices.

With that said, this doesn't mean every person who's picky about food has an eating disorder. Still, this is a healthy reminder that we can never really fully understand why people are the way they are.

We're all a product of our own individual experiences. Some of our preferences or behaviors are a consequence of childhood traumas long forgotten.

Humans are inherently complex, and we should not be judged for any single behavior, thought, belief or action. We all have the capacity to change and grow.

Citations: ARFID (Center For Eating Disorders), Is Picky Eating an Eating Disorder Living With Selective Eating Disorder and No Vegetables (Huffington Post), (Wall Street Journal ), What is ARFID (Center for Eating Disorders )