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Picky eating: farce or phobia?

Scientists are investigating whether being a “picky eater” is actually a eating disorder.

WE ALL know somebody who is a little “fussy” about their food – maybe they don’t really like fish or anything spicy. Some people are fussier again: they might not eat anything with vegetables, or fruit, or meat.

Then there are people who will only eat foods that are”safe”.

These “safe” foods tend to be the same for most extremely picky eaters; they are bland in taste, light in colour, and have a smooth texture – like potatoes, plain pasta and plain chicken.

What makes someone a fussy eater?

For those of us who have no aversions to food it can be difficult to understand why someone would refuse a perfectly good meal – because food brings us pleasure. And, even if we’re not overly fond of olives or mustard or salmon, it’s not the end of the world to pop a morsel into our mouths at a dinner party.

Being a fussy eater is more common in childhood, many children refuse to try certain foods or suddenly stop eating foods that they had previously enjoyed – sometimes for years. This could, very plausibly, be down to a child’s sensory perception being more sensitive or just a normal part of their taste development.

At best, then, being a fussy eater is seen as something that people will – and should – “grow out of”.

At worst, it’s seen as weird, rude, annoying behaviour that is willingly chosen by contrary attention-seekers.

Is it an eating disorder?

The next time you’re frantically scanning the fridge for a substitute to prawns, and quietly cursing the guest who has scuppered your dinner plans, think twice about writing off your friend as a self-indulgent noticebox.

Scientists at Duke University in North Carolina are currently putting together the first ever global registry of “picky eaters” in an attempt to get to the bottom of why some people have trouble with food. The registry, the Food F.A.D. Study (Finicky Eating in Adults), will look at a problem that some believe has been long-overlooked.

In fact, some experts feel so strongly that the problem could be a serious disorder that it is currently being considered for inclusion in the next edition of the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which will be published in 2013.

If  it is approved for inclusion, fussy eating will likely be classified as a type of eating disorder. However, as the problem has nothing to do with body image, it will be distinct from conditions like anorexia nervosa or bulimia.

As with all classified, clinical mental disorders the problem of fussy eating  would need to cause significant distress and interfere with a suffer’s everyday life.

That won’t be difficult for many adult fussy eaters – some of whom are so embarrassed by their behaviour that they refuse to go to friends’ houses for dinner, feign illness or allergies to avoid eating foods that scare them, or avoid any social gatherings where food may be offered (which, when you start to think about it, is most of them).

What are researchers looking for?

As research is still ongoing, it’s unclear exactly what results the Dukes scientists will eventually produce. Perhaps they will be able to pinpoint the genetic, environmental, or social causes of a food aversion – or recommend a method of treatment.

Either way, for fussy eaters who dread socializing because for fear they will be seen as weird or rude if they refuse food, this study could at least go some way in reducing the social stigma that they experience.

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