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I arrive early and anxious to the business dinner. Never mind that I've attended hundreds of these banquets. Never mind that I'm a well-known, successful real-estate agent. I'm about to join colleagues for a meal and I'm practically trembling. During cocktails I hold a glass of wine in one hand and a cracker in the other, happy for props that help me fit in. After an afternoon of meetings, I'm starving. But then, as everyone finds a seat, I steel myself, wondering if I can pull off the charade again.
I push peas from side to side as my tablemates dig in. I talk louder and faster as the meal progresses, bantering with my colleagues to camouflage my growling stomach and distract them from the uneaten food on my plate. I carve a bite of steak and spear it with my fork, then set it down when no one's looking. Thirty minutes later, when the plates are gone, mine is full under the napkin I've spread on top. I only hope no one's noticed that I've consumed nothing but buttered bread.
Here's the secret I try to hide every day: I'm 53 years old and I eat like a toddler. Forget the four food groups. Basically, I eat four foods: bread, French fries, potato chips, and milk. I've never had a slice of pizza or a hamburger, and other than sampling orange juice as a child and drinking cranberry juice during my pregnancies, I've never tasted a fruit or vegetable (unless you count wine).
It's not that I don't like to eat. I love it! Give me a basket of fries and I'll happily devour them all. But I don't look at food as food and never have. You can put spaghetti, dog poop, and escargots on a plate and to me all are equally inedible. I gag if I'm forced to try anything outside my plain, white "safe foods." My diet is one most women would consider a nightmare: All carbs, all the time.Disorderly Eating
I can almost see you rolling your eyes, convinced that I have an eating disorder. And you wouldn't be entirely wrong: I'm what's known as an adult picky eater. But my food "issues" have nothing to do with body image or weight and my eccentric habits surfaced long before puberty, when anorexia and bulimia typically appear. As a child I refused cupcakes at birthday parties and carried the same lunch to school every day: plain potato chips and two slices of buttered bread. I'd eat the chips with a carton of milk and throw the bread away because the butter made it soggy. I stopped going to summer camp after a counselor forced me to eat a bite of meat. It felt like the sole of a shoe in my mouth and made me throw up.
My parents, who raised three normal eaters alongside me, tried everything under the sun to "cure" me. We had regular family meals with a variety of healthy foods. I wanted so badly to please my parents and felt terrible when they'd shoot anxious looks at each other across the dinner table.
When I was 4 my mom took me to a doctor who told her to give me a multivitamin and withhold dessert until I cleaned my plate. That was no help, since I never touched dessert anyway. When I was 6 my dad promised me a pony if I would merely try six new foods. I loved horses, so I was determined. He let me count orange juice so I got off to a good start. But when I put a tiny slice of hot dog in my mouth, it felt like chewing a goldfish. I gagged and spit it out.
Though they never stopped encouraging me, my well-educated parents came to believe that forcing me to eat foods I didn't want was as futile as forcing an insecure child to be confident. Meanwhile I felt cursed. I was a Girl Scout, I got good grades -- why couldn't I eat like everyone else?
Adolescence was the worst. At slumber parties I stashed crackers in my duffel and got very animated when the pizza arrived, so no one would notice I wasn't having any. Like a wizard flashing bright lights and loud noises to deflect attention, my silly antics kept my food habits hidden.
But they masked deep insecurities. I wrote to Dear Abby at 12 and Oprah at 30 pleading for answers. (Both told me to seek professional help.) I even wrote to medical schools offering myself as lab rat. Have you heard of a condition like mine? Are there other grown-ups like me? I would have signed up for treatment in a heartbeat -- if someone had just diagnosed me.The Social Stigma
Funnily enough, I've always been healthy. My weight is normal, my blood pressure and cholesterol ratios are excellent, and a recent 14-point blood panel showed me to be in perfect health. My doctors have never asked me what I eat, and whenever I bring up my weird habits, they shrug. The few who've responded say I probably get the nutrients I need from potatoes and milk.
But if my doctors aren't concerned, everyone else seems to be. Anytime I get so much as a sniffle, friends and relatives nod knowingly and say, "That's because of the way you eat." I swear, if I live to be 105, someone at my funeral will announce, disapprovingly, "I knew her eating habits would kill her."
Don't get me wrong: I'm not recommending my diet. I'd give anything to eat like everyone else. My life would be a million times easier and a lot more fun if I could meet friends for lunch at the local Asian fusion restaurant or join my husband for a romantic dinner. But I can honestly say that this is not something I can control. I did manage to add four foods to my repertoire in adulthood: baked potatoes, garlic bread, cheesy bread sticks and extra-crispy bacon. But in truth they're not really new foods, just safe foods prepared differently. After all, extra-crispy bacon and potato chips aren't dissimilar.
Don't think I don't know how absurd all this sounds. Any parent who's watched a 2-year-old refuse to eat broccoli probably suspects me of being a drama queen and nothing more. But, in my experience, a normal child might whine, "Do I have to eat this?" whereas a true picky eater will have an involuntary physical spasm and gag violently or throw up.
Luckily, I'm married to the most understanding man in the world. When Carlos and I were first dating, I'd always suggest a movie or concert and ask if we could just go to a drive-through on the way. I'd get fries and Carlos would wolf down a couple of burgers. He didn't suspect a thing, so when I sat him down one day and told him we had to talk, he was scared I was breaking up with him. The truth was such a relief that he promptly took me out for fries!
My picky eating is a huge problem in my professional life. Real-estate sales are based on relationships, and those are formed over meals. So early on I tried hypnosis, figuring that my career would take off if I could just learn to eat a salad. Twice a week a hypnotist instructed me to imagine a beautiful, peaceful place where I was enjoying a variety of foods. Eyes closed, I would picture myself on a beach in Hawaii biting into strawberries, grilled fish, my mom's meat pies. Under hypnosis I ate slowly and savored the flavors.
After six weeks I felt ready to meet a client for lunch. I walked tall to the salad bar and filled my plate with a few pieces of lettuce (and croutons, of course). I sprinkled cheese I had no intention of eating off to one side to add color and credibility. As I stabbed at a single piece of lettuce with my fork, it dawned on me that the only foods I ate regularly that required a utensil were pancakes, waffles and cereal. Just wielding a fork made me feel more grown-up.
The lettuce tasted somewhat bitter, but after hypnotherapy, I believed I could eat it if I concentrated. The food stopped at the back of my throat, and I had to gulp to swallow. But swallow I did, and for a few seconds I felt victorious. But then panic and the bite of lettuce rose in my chest. I felt like I might projectile-vomit. My face turned red and I dabbed my napkin to my mouth. I fought the feeling and was relieved that the food stayed down, though my entire body shuddered. I didn't attempt another bite.Like Mother, Like Son
Like all moms, I vowed my kids would not have it as hard as I did. During both pregnancies I drank cranberry juice and took prenatal vitamins. I encouraged Carlos to become an even better cook so our sons would imitate him. But I knew my older son took after me when he gagged on baby food and then struggled with having foreign objects in his mouth during a preschool dental exam. My younger boy, like his dad, eats everything. I'm not a doctor, obviously, but watching my firstborn's food habits evolve has convinced me that the two of us might be wired differently from other people. I hope having a parent who's also a picky eater has helped my son feel less ostracized, more understood, but at 21 he's still defensive. Eskimos eat mostly meat, he notes, while Mediterraneans eat mostly plants. Both apparently get the nutrition they need. He also points out that even though he and I don't eat foods considered essential, neither do we eat stuff that's bad for us, like caffeine, soda and high-fat sauces. I know he's thinking: Why won't everyone just butt out?
My son is a big reason I finally found the courage to come out of the closet. And the Internet has shown me that we're not alone. Seven years ago I googled "picky eating in adults" and was thrilled to discover that there are many others like us. I joined an online support group, consulted with the Duke University researchers who are studying the condition (see below) and made a YouTube video with other adult picky eaters to demonstrate that we are not freaks.
And you know what? I feel a lot better about myself now. I have a happy marriage, two healthy children, and a thriving career. Why should I let my unorthodox eating habits define me or erode my self-esteem? But I won't pretend it's easy. I still face criticism every single day. My son once said, "Telling us we should eat something because it's delicious is like saying to a person in a wheelchair, 'Wow, skiing is awesome! You don't know what you're missing!'"
Believe me, we do.
Fear of new foods, or food neophobia, is common in children between 2 and 5 but little was known about the number of adults affected until Duke University launched the Finicky Eating in Adults (F.A.D.) registry in 2010. In its first year 29,000 picky eaters signed up.
For most adult picky eaters, food aversions appear to begin in childhood. Many report that they had difficulty breastfeeding or transitioning from first-stage baby foods, and nearly all believe they are wired differently from other people when it comes to food. A 2007 British study of identical and nonidentical twins concluded that about 80 percent of cases of picky eating are inherited, while 20 percent arise from environmental factors.
Severity, however, varies widely -- from adults who avoid certain foods or tend to make special requests ("hold the onions," "dressing on the side") to extreme picky eaters who eat 10 or fewer foods and suffer significant social stigma as a result. Only a relatively small percentage of picky eaters fall into the latter category, and they gravitate toward bland, processed carbohydrates and grains and generally shun meat, fruits, and vegetables.
Researchers believe sensitivity to smell and texture as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder or personality traits like shyness may play a role in adult pickiness. And the American Psychiatric Association is considering adding Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder to its 2013 diagnostic manual. -- K.K.A.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2012.