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Sporadic photos and notes from a Psyche-midwife, cheerleader, anthropologist--aka clinical social worker in therapy practice. Photos are usually mine except for those of historical events/famous people. Music relevant to the daily topic is often included in a web video embedded below the blog. Click on highlighted links in the copy to get to source or supplemental material. For contact information, see my website @ janasvoboda.com or click on the button to the right below. Join in the conversation.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Picky Eaters: Spoiled, Weird or Simply Supertasters?

persimmons:  love em now!
You may know one:  a friend or relative that turns their nose up at the dish you've lovingly prepared.  You may be one:  afraid to accept an offer to dinner because you don't want to offend the host by picking at your food.

I was one.  As a kid, I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for more meals than I could count.  Here's a short list of the foods I would not get near before adulthood.  Pizza, tacos, any Italian or Mexican outside of crusts and tortilla chips.  I'd have spagetti, but only with butter.  White rice with sugar and milk for breakfast, but if you added anything else to rice, I was out of there.  Salad was too "mixed up".  Same with casseroles, meatloaf, all Chinese and Japanese foods-- anything with more than a couple of ingredients.  I couldn't stand mayonnaise or salad dressing (still can't-- well, that may be changing thanks to the noselessness deal); olive oil was much too strong.  I had my first slice of pizza (cheese only, of course) at 20, and my first burrito at 21.

A couple of decades later I was a nearly full blown foodie.  There were still things I couldn't bear-- the smell and taste of coffee, even in desserts; olives in any form.  But I loved, or maybe learned to love, exotic cuisines with all their layers of taste and fragrance and textures. My weight sure tells the difference-- I was 115 lbs when I graduated high school, and it wasn't anorexia.  I just didn't like most food.  But boy, did I learn to!

I have a niece who's just starting to expand her palate as she nears 20.  For years she lived on white rice, egg whites, plain noodles, american cheese.  She's still not a fan of most fruits.  Like me (ok, a former me, and if you are lost, read the last two blogs) she's a super-taster.  And for those with hyper-developed olfaction and taste, foods that perfectly palatable to others are wholely horrible to her.
RoadKill Birthday Cake:  Thanks, Rosie!

There have been some informative articles recently about picky eaters.  Long thought to be a childhood problem, adults are coming out of the white-food closet to tell their stories.  There is even a website devoted solely to information and support: pickyeatingadults.com/

True supertasters have a lot more papillae (taste-bud structures) than the average Joe. They taste bitter flavors with a much higher, and less pleasurable, intensity.  Counterintuitively, a study found ST to love salt-- and perhaps it is because it changes the taste sensation of foods to which it is added.  If American, they're unlikely to love exotic cuisines, because the chances of avoiding a bitter vegetable or component in a sauce is small.  Other STs are actually SSs:  super smellers.  Since about 80% of taste is actually interpretation and response to odor, these people are also getting three-ring circuses when you are getting the one clown with the big flower.  It's just too much information.

fungi are not everyone's cup of tea
There are other reasons for food aversions.  For many, it's the textures that get them, and these people may also have more complicated responses to clothing (can't stand tags, elastic, certain materials) and touch.  Swallowing disorders and certain genetic conditions make up most of the rest of the picky eaters, though I would argue that the latter (including persons with Asperger's, autism, and Tourette's) are likely having sensory issues as the root problem.

It may seem like a small deal, but food aversion issues can be pretty problematic.  There are social consequences, from teasing to relationship/marital conflict.  It can be hard on self-esteem.  I have worked with clients who years later have issues with eating related to punishments they received for not finishing the food on their plate-- being served the same cold vegetable only for every meal until it was eaten, for example.  Such misplaced "cures" can turn picky eating into full blown eating disorders that last a lifetime.
The Foods That Scare Us

Like many individual differences, picky eating is usually no more a choice than eye color.  Understanding this can be a boon for those of you that love someone who won't eat what you serve.  Instead of arguing, let them choose (and perhaps prepare) their own meal.  If they are a child, limit the choices to healthy ones that are nutrient dense and consider use of supplements. If they are an adult and you are worried about their health, avoid criticism and empathize the concern.  Ask them to reassure you they are getting adequate nutrition.  Encourage them to see a dietician to find out how to protect their body while they are trying to appease their palate.  But don't take it personally.  We often feel that reality is what is true for us, and variations from that are resistance to it.  But each of us pops into the world with very individualized tastes.  Learn to savor the differences.


Anonymous said...

Nonsense. Adult picky eaters are just overgrown spoiled, selfish children. Try finding a "picky eater" in a country where there is not enough food to go around.

Jana Svoboda, LCSW said...

Your last sentence seems valid to me. However, it's also true that people dying of dehydration in a desert will drink their own urine, and even gasoline; and starving isolated persons will resort to cannibalism. Primal drives can overcome all sorts of revulsion. And persons with food aversions can train out of them with repeated exposures, but most will need some support to do it. The revulsion they feel is real.