Neophobia – Extremely Picky Eating

Many American children will only eat some foods like pizza, french fries, pancakes, and grilled cheese sandwiches. For a small group of adults, the preference continues and is called neophobia or Selective Eating Disorder.

Many American children will only eat a select group of food items. Pizza, pasta, French fries, pancakes, grilled cheese sandwiches – these bland foods are so popular that some children will eat little else.  Most children who are picky eaters graduate from this restricted diet and learn to eat all types of food.  For a small group of adults, the preference for the bland comfort foods of childhood never disappears.

Although pickiness has not yet been officially recognized as a mental disorder, the American Psychiatric Association is considering its inclusion in the next edition of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the official compendium of emotional and mental disorders.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Duke University are studying the problem of extreme picking eating, also known as Selective Eating Disorder (SED); it’s also referred to by experts as food neophobia.  Nancy Zucker of Duke University first became aware of the disorder when adult picky eaters came to Duke’s Center for Eating Disorders seeking help. According to Zucker, this is a real disorder. “People who are picky aren’t doing this to be stubborn.”

Adults with selective eating disorder experience food differently from other people. Instead of avoiding one or two foods, they have such a limited list of acceptable food that their eating interferes with almost every aspect of their lives. Most people with this eating disorder are very embarrassed by their behavior in relation to food and do everything they can to keep it hidden. In addition to the embarrassment caused by this disorder, doctors are concerned that a limited diet of foods that are low in nutrition can lead to long-term nutritional deficiencies and health problems that can include heart and bone problems. This eating disorder is not as dangerous as anorexia or bulimia but it can still cause long term health problems.

Causes of Selective Eating Disorder (SED)

The causes of SED are unknown. Some experts theorize that it may be caused by a traumatic childhood experience such as choking on food with a certain texture, while others suggest that it may come from a fear of the unknown. Another theory is that it may be linked to an extreme sensitivity to the smell or texture of food that is often associated with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or autism. Dr. Andrew Weil of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine thinks this is a uniquely American problem tied to the custom of feeding children different food from adults. Our culture has popularized child-specific foods that are for the most part nutrient-poor concoctions of salt, sugar and fat. This may explain why most extreme picky eaters like to eat French fries and chicken fingers.

Bob Krause, 63, of Virginia runs an online support group called Started in 2003, the site has more than 10,000 members that include picky eaters as well as concerned loved ones. Krause limits his own diet to milk, toast, crackers, popcorn, peanuts, French fries, grilled cheese sandwiches and plain milk chocolate bars.  Since childhood, Krause has avoided visiting friends at mealtime to avoid being offered food. Krause attributes the failure of two marriages to his eating disorder and says that if he could snap his fingers and change, he would.

Nancy Zucker and other scientists at Duke University are developing treatment plans that include slowly introducing people with selective eating disorders to new foods. Treatment also focuses on helping picky eaters overcome their embarrassment about their food preferences and not letting their disorder interfere with personal and business relationships.

Read more about Anorexia.

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