By Katherine Hobson
I know spinach is good for me. Every day, millions of people happily scarf sad desk salads made of the stuff. And yet if you ask me to eat it — or any raw vegetable, or fruit in any form — I feel as if I might as well eat the nearest houseplant. It just seems (and yes, I get the irony here) unnatural.
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With the exception of salad greens and celery, which just seem tasteless, it’s generally the texture, not the flavor, that bothers me. The more crunch, the worse. Anything that requires biting through a skin or firm outer layer to get to a softer middle is a particular deal-breaker. It’s totally illogical, but it’s almost as if I’m afraid of some unknown grossness that nature has hidden on the other side. I could probably choke down a piece of raw carrot or a strawberry, but apples, pears, blueberries, and raw cherry tomatoes turn my stomach.
I’ve been this way as long as I can remember. My mother swears she tried to get me to expand my diet throughout early childhood, but finally gave up. Instead, on the advice of my pediatrician, she gave me a kids’ multivitamin to wash down with my morning apple juice — the one fruit derivative I’d tolerate. Since then, I’ve come to eat and love many cooked veggies, but no raw ones, and still, no fruit.
As a health reporter, my relationship with the one food group nutrition experts can actually agree on is a professional embarrassment. It’s also a pain in the ass. I’d like to be able to eat the salad course at a dinner party rather than rearrange it on my plate, for example, or to grab an apple rather than a string cheese as a quick snack. The need to change seems more urgent now that my preschooler has developed a very selective palate. (No surprise there — food preferences seem to have a genetic component.) I’d like to set a good example by actually eating the foods I’m cajoling her to try.
So, recently, I set out to teach myself to like raw salad greens, bananas, apples, and oranges. I chose them for their absolute ordinariness, thinking they’d serve as the gateway to the rest of the produce aisle. Eating preferences are on a continuum. On one end is the truly flexible eater. On the other is a person with avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, or ARFID, which was a new addition to the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-V. Kids or adults with ARFID have serious food avoidance or disturbances to the point of symptoms like weight loss or interference with normal psychosocial functioning, but don’t meet the criteria for other eating disorders.
That’s not me. I’d describe myself as merely “picky,” which is not an official clinical diagnosis. Hana Zickgraf, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, told me that a good definition of picky eating is when someone, no matter her age, “rejects a lot of the foods that their peers are comfortable eating.” While most of the research on picky eating has been in kids, adults are starting to get attention as well. Zickgraf and her colleagues authored a 2015 study, for example, which found that self-identified adult picky eaters scored higher on measures of OCD and depression than those who said they were non-picky eaters.
But there’s not much research looking specifically at how adult picky eaters can change their ways. (Many don’t want to, considering their preferences to be part of their personality, said Sebastian Cardona Cano, a psychiatrist at Parnassia Psychiatric Institute in the Netherlands.)
I turned instead to the literature on getting kids to eat foods they don’t like, and there I found some help. Research psychologist Lucy Cooke and her colleagues at University College London developed a program for getting kids — not necessarily picky eaters — to eat vegetables that they don’t like. One randomized study they conducted found that merely tasting the food every day for two weeks increased acceptance. “If you taste something loads and loads, you learn to like it,” said Cooke, who is also affiliated with Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. “And that definitely applies to adults.” She says, for example, that plenty of people decide to give up sugar in their coffee; for the first few days they don’t like it, but if they keep going they’ll eventually get used to the taste.
So I started my own two-week experiment by taking a few daily bites, however small, of a raw baby spinach/arugula mix, a banana, an apple, and an orange. For the first few days, I dreaded the exercise, putting it off until just before bedtime. I found myself making the same gagging face that I made when my now-husband tried to feed me mango in bed early in our relationship.
That wince, Zickgraf told me, is a mistake. She tells the children and adults she works with to relax their face, since a screwed-up face actually sets you up to avoid swallowing and to gag. “Not making that face is really powerful,” she said. She also tells her patients not to hold the foods in their mouth and explore the texture for too long. Instead, just chew it up and swallow it like a food you enjoy.
Ditching the grossed-out face actually seemed to work. Several days in I also started eating the pieces of banana and apple dipped in peanut butter, and the salad greens in dressing. Eating the “challenge” food in combination with liked foods or trying different preparations, is fine, as long as you don’t totally disguise it, said Cooke. Hiding it under a pile of something you like gets the food in you, but it doesn’t help you get used to the taste.
So I started adding the mixed greens to my hot lunch or dinner, putting a handful on top of a Trader Joe’s pizza slice. When I went out to dinner with a friend, I ate a bite of her baby-iceberg-lettuce salad, which was (because Brooklyn) grown nearby and prepared with pickled vegetables. It was stunningly tender and actually good. My husband helped steer me toward different, tastier, kinds of apples than the Red Delicious I’d bought for myself.
As the days passed, I started to dread my daily tasting menu less, with the texture of the fruit and vegetables becoming much easier to tolerate. I made another change suggested by a randomized controlled trial by Cooke and her colleagues that found a reward of a small sticker increased kids’ intake and liking of a disliked vegetable. My reward was a dose of Netflix.
I also added a “cognitive power statement,” or sort of pre-tasting mantra, on the advice of Katherine Dahlsgaard, lead psychologist at the Anxiety Behaviors Clinic and director of the Picky Eaters Clinic at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She suggested saying, “Everybody eats this food and likes it, so chances are I can, too.” (She swore it helped her get used to eating oysters.)
Most helpful to me was something all the experts told me that I’d honestly never considered before: I don’t have to learn to love everything, just to eat it. “You need to be able to eat a lot of different things in a way that doesn’t cause distress to you,” said Dahlsgaard. Removing the expectation that I will actually learn to fantasize about an orange the way I do drunken noodles removed some pressure that I didn’t even know I was putting on myself, and opened the door to realizing I can eat for all sorts of reasons, not only for taste. “It comes down to flexibility,” said Dahlsgaard.
She also warned me that changing my tastes could take a while — well beyond my 14-day experiment — but that if I’m persistent, I really can do it. To that end, I’m patiently continuing my habituation with a wide variety of fruits and raw vegetables, hoping that by summer I’ll be able to eat a salad without feeling like a grazing ruminant. Everybody else eats it and likes it, so chances are I can, too.
More from Science of Us:
15 Ways Your Environment Makes You Eat More (or Less)
How Americans Became Obsessed With Vitamins, and Why That’s a Problem
Why Do Pregnant Women Crave Chocolate?
The Science of Having Wildly High Standards for Your Relationship
Why Does Time Seem to Slow Down on Tuesdays?
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