Bob Krause kicks off each day with waffles and a glass of milk, preferably chocolate. Lunch is a package of Lance Toasty Crackers, and dinner is usually a grilled cheese sandwich (sans what he calls "the evil pickle"). Krause is not a balky toddler, but a middle-aged Virginia Beach business owner. "I have a very keen sense of smell and taste and I have a hair-trigger gag reflex," he says. In other words, he's a picky eater.
It's not known how many severely picky adult eaters are out there. For one thing, food preferences run on a continuum and an official cut-off has not been established. Nor is the condition a recognized eating disorder, says Marcia Pelchat, research scientist at The Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.
Pelchat has found that certain textures are an even bigger turn-off than tastes for many picky eaters. Take the tomato: "It has numerous offensive textural problems; the skin is slippery, the flesh is grainy and slimy, and the seeds are a big discontinuity," she says. Others cringe at "inclusions," such as nuts or raisins embedded in muffins—even if they enjoy eating such snacks in their pure form.
The adult picky eater was almost always a choosy child, Pelchat's research shows. Parents excessively concerned with food—whether positively or negatively—are more likely to have picky eaters, she says. And those who harshly punish non-plate-cleaning children, or, at the other extreme, cater to the child by fixing them exactly what they request, exacerbate the situation.
Finicky eaters tend to score higher on OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) screenings, and Pelchat says that some may benefit from treatment such as anti-depressants. While picky kids are often underweight, those who continue the pattern into adulthood have higher-than-average body mass indexes, since the foods that they do tend to enjoy are calorically dense. Pelchat's experimental subjects rated sweet solutions as sweeter and bitter solutions bitterer than did controls, which suggests a possible physiological root to the condition. But no anatomical differences in the groups' taste buds were found.
Though most picky eaters manage to get the nutrients they need, their habits cause dramatic social consequences. "Imagine if you lived in a world where at every occasion, every wedding, every restaurant, people served raw liver. That's how it is for us," Krause says. While happily married now, Krause blames the dissolution of his first two marriages at least partly on his eating habits. Back when he was dating his first wife, her parents took them out to a fancy Italian restaurant. "I ordered a grilled cheese sandwich," he says. "Her father went ballistic."
Pelchat suspects that picky eaters can broaden their palate, if they are highly motivated, by gradually trying and getting used to new foods. But this desensitization technique has only been tested with foods perceived as slightly negative. It's not clear what the method could achieve with foods that are wholly unappealing.
Krause is even more skeptical: A few years ago he started the Web site pickyeatingadults.com, to find and reach out to gustatory kindred spirits. "I've heard from hundreds of picky eaters, only one of whom claims to have been cured. I know that I could eat certain things every day until I die and would never like them." While Krause says he and his fellow picky eaters don't like being the way they are, he thinks the condition has shaped his outlook positively in one way: "My food preferences are so out of my control that in areas where I do have control, I'm very driven. I don't think I would have been able to build a successful business otherwise."