The Scientific Reason You’re A Picky Eater

For SELF, by Amy Marturana.

We all know a picky eater or two. Maybe you have that one friend who refuses to step foot in a sushi restaurant even though she’s never tried it. Or the one who turns her nose up at the mention of anything green. Maybe you’re the picky eater, avoiding culinary adventures at all costs, because you’re convinced you’ll hate whatever new and gross-looking food is put on your plate.

But why is it that some people are picky eaters when others are willing to try pretty much anything that’s edible? (Seriously, people eat bugs these days. The limit does not exist.) Turns out, there’s no single explanation for your picky eating habits, but rather, experts suggest a combo of genetics and environment are to blame.

Picky eaters are typically unwilling to try new foods, which can be the result of your DNA and your upbringing.

Marcia Pelchat, Ph.D., a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia who specializes in food preferences in humans, tells SELF, “A group in Finland looked at what we call food neophobia, which literally means ‘fear of the new,’ and they found that there is some genetic basis for this.” But neophobia can be greatly influenced by your surroundings, too. “If you have parents who don’t really like to try anything new, you will also be exposed to fewer new foods,” Pelchat says. The opposite is also true: Those who try new foods and have positive experiences are then more likely to try unfamiliar foods in the future.

Beyond fear, there’s the fact that different compounds in foods can smell and taste different to different people. One good example is cilantro, which some people love, and others find unbearably soapy—some people actually have a gene that makes them sensitive to a certain component in the herb. Preferences like this can also make some people seem pickier than others.

People who are less adventurous may be more hesitant to try new foods.

Trying anything new, food included, requires you to step outside of your comfort zone. If you’re not very adventurous, you may have a tough time with this. People who seek new adventures or thrills might be more likely to experiment with food.

“There is a thrill-seeking personality trait,’” Pelchat says. “It’s been shown, especially with spicy food, that there is some correlation with [trying new foods] and thrill seeking,” she explains. Some experts suggest there’s not much of a connection, though, since it’s tough to determine what truly makes someone thrill-seeking. A difference in personality traits helps explain why siblings raised with the same food experiences may end up on different sides of the pickiness scale.

Most adult picky eaters start as child picky eaters.

“It’s normal for children to go through a picky stage when they’re toddlers, maybe two or three years old, and that makes sense evolutionarily,” Pelchat says. (When our primitive ancestors first tried new foods, they had to be cautious to avoid being poisoned.) But as we get older, if we continue to avoid new foods, pickiness can persist.

When we talk about a true picky eater, we’re talking about someone who avoids certain foods or groups of foods. “Sometimes people say they’re picky and what they mean is they’re selective or a gourmet so they won’t eat Raisinettes, which have a plastic or waxy chocolate on them, for example. That’s not what we’re talking about,” Pelchat explains. “We’re taking about people who eat an unusually restricted range of foods.”

Sometimes that means avoiding a few specific foods, and other times, it means avoiding entire categories of foods, like fruits or veggies. Or condiments. Texture is also very important to picky eaters, says Pelchat. “[Picky eaters] are very sensitive to things like gelatinousness and cartilage.”

Sometimes, picky eating can be so extreme that it’s considered an eating disorder called avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). Picky eating may be ARFID if it causes other problems, such as significant weight loss, nutritional deficiency (like anemia), or problems in relationships or the workplace, according to the National Eating Disorder Association.

For those who are simply picky, certain social situations can cause anxiety.

Like cocktail parties, with all those passed hors d’oeuvres full of mystery ingredients. “Adult picky eaters have trouble going to business lunches or someone’s house for the weekend,” Pelchat adds. “They’re often sort of embarrassed to admit that they eat like a child, so they will just say ‘I’m not very hungry, my stomach’s upset, I had a late lunch,’ ” she explains.

Picky eaters also typically travel with snacks, and are very brand loyal. “Once they find something that doesn’t disgust them, they stick with that,” Pelchat says.

Your taste buds can change over time, but that requires taking a chance on new foods.

No one just wakes up on their 30th birthday suddenly liking broccoli. You have to eat it, and eat it, and eventually, you may start to like it. It may take a new cooking method, or just the right type of seasoning. And you just may never like broccoli, no matter how hard you try. As long as your diet is healthy overall and you’re getting enough vegetables from other sources, that’s fine.

But to even have a shot at being less picky, you definitely have to be committed. “The most common reason for wanting to change is social,” Pelchat says. Expanding your eating horizons can make everything from date night to a vacation easier and more enjoyable.

If you’re feeling anxious about it, a psychologist can help, though it can be challenging to find a specialist unless you live in a major metropolitan area. “It’s not a widely studied discipline yet,” says Pelchat. Talk with your doctor or therapist about what’s going on, and they can help you find the right resource.

Treatment involves systematic desensitization, so slowly introducing new foods into your diet until they become familiar and welcome. If you’re highly motivated, you can try to overcome this fear on your own. Start small — one new fruit or veggie at a time — and work your way up to more adventurous things when you’re ready. If you never are? That’s fine too. Eating chicken legs or fried grasshoppers certainly isn’t for everyone.

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