Too Old for Fussy Eating

Picky eating in adulthood is a continuation of eating patterns from childhood.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published September 7, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

My question concerns food and health, but I think my problem is entirely in my head. Check out the site I hate that word picky, but I am just like these people. I have made strides in what I eat entirely by sheer willpower. I cannot stand most fruits and vegetables and literally have to force back the gag reflex. I've done that by what I'll call visualization combined with a desire to be someone who eats healthfully. However, I fail constantly and I just hit the obesity level on the BMI scale. I am convinced that my problem is in my head. I have to tackle all kinds of hurdles just to stomach, say, a salad. I have to overcome depression, embarrassment, frustration, feeling satiated, hunger pains, the list goes on. Is there anything that can be done? Should picky eating in adults be an eating disorder? Is it a mental thing? Would hypnotism help?

A picky eater who is obese? That is almost a contradiction in terms. You have a long history of food aversions and I don't doubt that fruits and vegetables make you gag. So whatever picky eating is—and there is no need to see it as a special disorder to think clearly about it—it is real and it has real effects on your body. I don't think visualization or willpower (whatever that is) is powerful enough to overcome the longstanding forces arrayed against healthy eating or the visceral sense of revulsion you get.

Let's, for the moment, put fruits and vegetables aside. There are still lots of healthy foods you can consume that promote feelings of satiety long before you're in the obesity zone. Grains like buckwheat (buckwheat noodles in a simple broth, kasha, cereal) and oatmeal contain nutrients and are generally well tolerated. Foods like yogurt, especially the Greek type, can be highly satisfying without providing an excess of calories. So there is a lot of healthy eating you can be doing if you never eat another vegetable or piece of fruit. But you should be eating veggies and fruit; they contain important nutrients and contribute to health in a variety of ways. Plus they usually do not have a high density of calories.

When I read the accounts of picky eaters, certain patterns stand out. Most obvious, it is certainly impressive how picky eating in adulthood is a continuation of eating patterns from childhood. Most of the disliked foods seem to trigger unhappy memories of childhood and there are very strong negative emotions tied to these memories. Most of them also involve issues of control. We all develop behaviors that help us survive childhood but that don't serve us so well later in life. And over the course of time we learn to give up the dysfunctional habits in favor of actions that are more in line with current needs. We adapt, and a certain amount of adaptability, of flexibility, is a cardinal feature of mental health. Your behavior with regard to food has rigidified and you are stuck not merely in an infantile pattern but one that is threatening your health and your looks.

Many young children have very distinct food preferences, and wise parents work around them, realizing that if they don't make an issue of things, a child will likely outgrow very restrictive eating patterns. But some parents turn food into a battleground of wills; then a child's refusal of foods becomes more than a rejection of unappetizing edibles. It's a veritable fight for one's sense of self; this may be especially the case if a parent is generally overbearing and the child has no other means of speaking up for himself or expressing his own will. Your eating patterns are a victory hard won from a parent bent on controlling you a long time ago. That's why it's difficult to even imagine liking fruits and vegetables.

But that battle of wills is long over, and now your eating patterns aren't working for you. You're overdue for letting go of old behavior that has now begun to harm you. I suggest you find a good behavioral therapist who over the course of a couple of months can help you expand your food preferences and give you fun homework assignments. The goal is to see food as a source of nourishment and pleasure, not as a stew of horrors left over from childhood.