Picky eating in children is common – after all, it can take years to develop a sophisticated palate. But it is increasingly acknowledged that many adults have difficulty with a variety of exotic and not-so-exotic foods – like vegetables. Susanna Nelson looks at how picky eaters can stay healthy

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We can all name foods we’re not too keen on – for most of us there is at least something that, for reason of taste, texture or smell, we just can’t abide, and these aversions often stem from childhood. But imagine if your list of dislikes was so long it became difficult to eat out with friends or to attend a dinner party without providing your companions with a detailed brief of what you were willing to eat.

The British Journal of Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry defines picky eating, or Selective Eating Disorder, as: “…the little studied phenomenon of eating a highly limited range of foods, associated with an unwillingness to try new foods. …When this happens social avoidance, anxiety and conflict can result.”

Selective eating has recently been under consideration for inclusion as an officially recognised eating disorder, and is the subject of research to try to understand more about its causes and effects.

The University of Pittsburgh and Duke University have been conducting a study into the origins of the condition. The online survey, known as the Food F.A.D. (Finicky Eating in Adults) Study, aims to learn more about adults who are self-described picky eaters.

Among other things, the survey asks respondents to identify whether their eating habits make them anxious in social situations, whether their food aversion is linked to concern about weight gain or nutritional intake, whether they have a general lack of interest in food and eating, and examines whether there is a link between food aversion and childhood experience or parental influence.

Fussy habits

Accredited practising dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitian's Association of Australia, Sonya Stanley, says in her experience picky eaters tend to avoid fruit and vegetables – or eat a very limited range – which decreases their ability to achieve a balanced and healthy diet.

“We usually see a lack of dietary variety – picky eaters tend to eat exactly the same foods at the same meal every day,” she says. “Sometimes food aversion is associated with a ‘bad food experience’ such as a childhood memory or illness related to a particular food – such as food poisoning.”

Along with the common aversion to fruit and vegetables, there is often a reluctance to try new or different foods – for example, heavily herbed or spiced dishes or cuisines originating from an unfamiliar culture. Sometimes textures and smells are a problem for the fussy eater, so seafood, eggs or certain cheeses may be off the menu.

From time to time Stanley encounters food phobias that are even more extreme than this in her practice – for example, a tendency to eat only white foods such as potatoes, pasta or rice. Single-colour diets are unlikely to provide adequate balance – it is well established that variety is the secret to a balanced diet, and this includes variety in colour of food. The colour of natural foods can often be a visual indicator of the different vitamins and minerals they contain – a variety of colours in your diet can therefore indicate that you are getting a diverse mix of nutrients.

In recent years we have seen a number of cookbooks and eating programs that aim to ‘trick’ fussy eaters by concealing healthy foods in cakes and muffins – these have been aimed chiefly at mothers catering to their children’s underdeveloped taste buds – but could this method be applied to ensure the adult picky eater gets all the appropriate nutrients?

“Hidden fruit and vegetables may help to achieve a better nutritional intake, but these methods sometimes involve a lot of extra effort, and they result in no change to long-term eating habits,” Stanley says.

So they may defeat the purpose. In addition, the adult fussy eater is unlikely to be taken in by their own cooking if they know they’ve just added the dreaded beetroot to a chocolate cake. That said, many fruits and vegetables can seem more palatable in cakes or muffins. Try zucchini or corn muffins, or a fruit loaf filled with dates, walnuts and apricots.

“It can also be hard to trick fussy eaters because most tend to avoid mixed vegetable dishes such as stir fries and casseroles, preferring a limited range of vegetables on the plate – if any,” Stanley says.

Many fussy eaters, perhaps wary of additions beyond their control, tend to dislike dishes containing chunky vegetable sauces, such as pasta or vegetable lasagne.

Make a change

If you are a fussy eater, the best way to try and increase your exposure to a range of nutrients is to gradually introduce and trial a range of different fruit and vegetables to your diet each week. You may find something – a new taste or texture – that you like. Include nutritious snacks that you do like, try fruit smoothies and vegetable-based soups and limit 'extra' foods that are high in fat and sugar.

“It is important for fussy eaters to try a range of fruit and vegetables in both their uncooked and cooked states,” Stanley says. “Fussy eaters may have strong texture preferences and may enjoy individual foods prepared only in a particular way – tomatoes and carrots, for example, taste and feel very different in their uncooked and cooked states.”

These days, the most resolute picky eaters needn’t despair if they prefer bland, traditionally low-nutrient foods. Vitamin supplements are a last resort for those who just can’t stomach getting their nutrients any other way, and many foods, such as white bread and orange juice, now come fortified with fibre, folate and added nutrients.

It is very important to remember, however, that a diet rich in fresh foods is always the best way to source vitamins and ultimately gives you the best control over what you eat. After all, we don’t expect milk to contain omega-3, a nutrient naturally sourced from fish!

“Vitamin and mineral supplements may be needed for long-term fussy eaters who have a very restricted intake,” Stanley says. “To determine whether a supplement is necessary based on individual needs and to determine the correct dosage, consult your doctor and an accredited practising dietitian.”