Hate fish? Can't eat veg? Doctors study picky eaters

Shopping with picky eater Rhonda West: 'The list of what I can't eat is so long'

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How many people can't stand the texture of fish, can only stomach grilled chicken or refuse to eat their vegetables?

Scientists at Duke University in North Carolina are compiling the first global registry of "picky eaters" in the hope of discovering why some people have trouble with food.

They believe it may help find a genetic reason for some eaters' intense dislike of certain foods, like broccoli, or beans with a "fuzzy" texture.

They note some eaters' pickiness is so deep-seated it interferes with their jobs, their relationships and their social lives.

"This is an area that is vastly under-explored," says Dr Nancy Zucker, director of the Duke University Center for Eating Disorders.

Veggies "People think this is something you choose, but I don't have a choice," says picky eater Heather Hill

"We have no idea how prevalent it is and how it affects people's lives."

The findings have given heart to picky eaters who say they are not taken seriously because most omnivores consider their fussiness a choice or a childish habit, not a medical condition.

Neither is picky eating socially acceptable, in the way that vegetarianism or other voluntary diets are.

"The worst thing about being a picky eater is other people," says Rhonda West of Virginia.

"They're just mean. It starts with your family thinking you're doing this on purpose, that you're trying to gain attention or just being a difficult child - but it's none of the above. They're asking us to do something that's equivalent to eating dirt every day."

Rice swallowed whole

Ms West, 42, says she began rejecting food as an infant, refusing to breast feed or accept substitutes.

Start Quote

Taste differences are a combination of genetics and personal characteristics, but there are other variables - some of it might be psychological”

End Quote Professor Beverley Tepper Rutgers University

As an adult she only eats fruit, white rice swallowed whole because she doesn't like the texture, French fries, and plain meat.

"Texture is just as important to me as taste, because if something is slimy, like pasta or sea food it sends my senses to the moon," Ms West says.

"Tomatoes look good but I can't get past the squishiness. It's like biting into a big fat maggot."

Eating pasta is like "having a live worm in your mouth", she says.

Research into obesity, food cravings and how people perceive different tastes has raised the possibility that genetics are responsible for picky eaters' finicky tastes.

Professor Beverley Tepper, of Rutgers University in New Jersey, is part of a group researching why people react differently to chemical compounds in food.

She says the ability to detect bitterness is inherited and contributes to people's preferences for some foods rather than others.

"Taste differences are a combination of genetics and personal characteristics, but there are other variables - some of it might be psychological."

Fish "It's hard to accept this about myself," says James Matta of his food preferences

"Maybe there are genes out there that cause picky eating. We don't know yet."

Ms West is convinced she was born with her food preferences, although she says they were compounded by constant childhood battles with her parents, who tried to force her to eat foods she didn't like.

Jenny Nikolaisen of Virginia also believes genetics play a role because she comes from a long line of picky eaters. For the most part, she eats only plain meat and potatoes, baked or fried, and has the same meal of hamburger and chips for lunch virtually every day.

"A lot of times when I try something new, it causes me to gag," says Ms Nikolaisen, 34, adding that at times she can talk herself into eating foods not on her usual menu.

"I tried broccoli once and it felt like little trees in my mouth," she says.

"It was a really weird feeling and I never tried it again."

Like many picky eaters, Ms Nikolaisen feels excluded from social situations because people criticise the way she eats.

"When you say you don't want this or you don't want that," she says. "They think you're closed-minded and that you're like that in every area of life, and that's just not the case."

Influence on children

James Matta of Rhode Island lives off white carbohydrates - bread, pasta, pizza and potatoes.

Veggies One researcher cites picky eaters' "biological vulnerabilities"

He doesn't like chicken or green vegetables but will eat some fruit. He prefers processed, pre-packaged meals.

"It's hard to accept this about myself," says Mr Matta, 47.

"This issue has been a problem for me throughout my entire life. I think it's psychological, from being told to eat food I don't like and having the obsessive thought that I'm going to throw up. But I would like to know whether it is a medical condition."

Some picky eaters are so convinced that their behaviour is genetic that they're frightened of passing it to their children.

Start Quote

A lot of times when I try something new, it causes me to gag”

End Quote Jenny Nikolaisen

"My daughter and I are both picky eaters even though I have done everything in my power to make her unlike me," says Heather Hill of North Carolina.

"I wouldn't even eat in front of her because I didn't want to mess her up."

They eat macaroni and cheese, crackers, chocolate milk and French fries, but Ms Hill, 40, says they're fit and healthy.

"People think this is something you choose, but I don't have a choice," she says.

"Could I physically do it? Eat something I don't like? Probably. But I would vomit."

Thousands of picky eaters have already taken a Duke University survey, but Dr Zucker says it's too early pinpoint any single reason for their food preferences.

Even if the research doesn't find a medical reason why some people can't stand certain foods, picky eaters hope it will at least give them some scientific recognition and help lessen the social stigma.

"There are people with definite biological vulnerabilities, influenced by experiences that have shaped them," Dr Zucker says.

"I think we can pretty safely say it's going to be many things. We're also hoping to learn from the people who are struggling, what they have found that helps them.

"That will fuel intervention strategies for people who want to expand the range of foods they eat."

Please send your comments on this story using the form below.

I understand that some people may not be able to control their pickiness - but I do think it strange that the foods they are able to eat seem to revolve around the less healthy foods - hamburgers, chips,chocolate milk for instance, and the foods they 'can't' eat are those which are healthier. It seems to me there must be an element of choice in there somwhere.

Sarah, Surrey

I'm a picky eater myself but wouldn't necessarily agree that there is a genetic or medical reason for it. I think it is entirely psychological. I started getting better when I left home and started cooking more meals for myself. The real turning point though has been having our son, who I would hate to grow up to be a picky eater - simply because I wouldn't want him to get the grief that I do on a regular basis! One thing I will never, EVER be able to eat though is baked beans... Yuk!

Catherine, Somersham

I am a picky eater, and it does cause problems, my husband and i rarely eat the same meal. Also when we go on holiday it causes a lot of tension. I have a problem with what food looks like and also texture. I would eat cucumber cubed but not sliced - what is this all about? I have started trying a few new things but it's quite a big build up for me, mind over matter, but it's very difficult.

Mrs Gill Jones, Evesham, Worcestershire

Growing up as a fussy eater who could spot a piece of onion in the mince from 20 paces; it felt like vertigo every time I looked at food I didn't want to eat. I began increasing my diet after working in fine dining restaurants and once I had the freedom to cook for myself. However, my husband still bribes me to eat broccoli and I pretend to have an allergy to avoid eating fish.

Elizabeth, Cambridge

I don't want to be insensitive, but this is preposterous. How could you possibly be genetically forced to eat burgers and chips - foods that didn't exist when the human race was evolving! Funny how this 'condition' has zero sufferers in countries where food is scarce. These people should just get over it and eat their veg like everyone else.

James, Cambridge

The person in the article keeps likening the consumption of certain foods to eating bugs. This shows that she has a negative association with those foods (ie. it's in her head). Perhaps forcing her to actually eat a live worm would show her that it is nothing like pasta.

Chris Mann, Birmingham

I come from a line of fussy eaters. My dad won't eat certain foods, my brother different types, my sister and my mother all eat different foods. Afnd yet I seem to be a break in the cycle. There are very few foods I dislike.

Martin McKee, Richmond UK

Finally! I've been pretty much tortured my whole life about not eating properly and other people just don't understand that generally it's more the texture of the food rather than the taste that makes me picky. I absolutely cannot eat something if I look at it and it makes me want to vomit and unfortunatly that includes a lot of things. I would rather not eat something than risk throwing it back up. I hate it and I constantly feel awfully rude. I actually cried once when out for the first time with a boyfriend's family.

Alex, England

I was a very picky eater until I was about 18. I would always worry endlessly about eating away from home. And it was always the texture, rather than the taste of foods, which put me off. I'm not entirely what caused me to change, but I learnt to accept that something new I tried was going to feel different as I ate it, and rather than be repulsed by that, I became fascinated by it. Many foods I still can't stand because of their texture (e.g., mushrooms), but I've learnt that if you're in a difficult social situation sometimes it's best to just cut everything up really small, eat the nasty stuff in the same mouthful as stuff you do like, and make sure you have a supply of tissues on standby!

Jamie, Brighton UK

I'm a picky eater, but I seem to be in the minority here as it's purely taste for me, usually. It's also never a case where it can make me vomit though, I can eat most things to be polite, but I won't enjoy it.

Andrew, Abergavenny, Wales

I agree it could be genetic. I am a very picky eater, certain smells and textures make me feel ill. If I eat meat, I have to make sure there are no veins because the veins are stretchy and just thinking about it makes me shiver. I have two sons, one will eat anything, the other is worse than me. He told me he does not like the way it feels in his mouth. He has been saying that since he has been able to talk. It makes things very difficult because dinner at my house has to please 2 people's idiosyncrasies while my husband and son suffer with a bland, limited meal.

Anonymous, USA

I am a picky eater, it's very embarrassing. I cannot eat cooked vegetables. I can eat most vegetables uncooked, even if I don't like them much. But cooked vegetables? No matter how much I try to force them down, I gag and gag. If I manage to actually swallow them, I usually end up suddenly vomiting within two minutes. Cooked carrots and cooked broccoli are particularly repulsant - which is strange, because I love them raw.

Yulia, USA

Comments: Tomato’s are the one food I cannot eat raw. To me, my brother and grandfather it was like eating a acrid chemical. However give me salted Liquorice, which none of my friends enjoy.

R Cohen, Sydney Australia

The comment "They're asking us to do something that's equivalent to eating dirt every day" really sums up what the various "picky eater skeptics" don't seem to get. I try new foods and manage to eat a relatively varied diet, thankfully, but the fact remains that a lot of popular foods are about as appealing to me as a late of styrofoam peanuts, and others are simply nauseating. It isn't something that one can "just get over."

Matt K, Lakewood, Ohio. USA

My 8-year old son is a picky eater, a lot of which revolves around food texture. This began when he was about two and at four he was diagnosed with sensory integration disorder. Through weekly sessions with a therapist specializing in this disorder he has gradually increased the number and types of foods he eats.

Andy, Chicago USA

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