As kids, many of us engaged in what our parents called “picky eating” — “Don’t be such a picky eater — try it, you might like it!” For whatever reasons, most kids grow out of most of their picky eating habits and learn to try new foods. Some of us may have a few food hangups, avoiding certain popular foods like the plague. But for most, eating different foods is part and parcel of the culinary experience.
Some adults, however, don’t grow out of their picky eating habits and, in fact, it may sometimes get even worse as they grow older. Adults with picky eating habits (also known as “selective eating”) may find it more difficult to eat in social situations, because of the limited choices on their own personal food menu.
Nobody knows why picky eating occurs in children or adults, but what little research has been conducted (mostly in children) suggests that it may or may not be directly related to food (for instance, one study of 8- to 12-year olds found that picky eating was more related to problem behaviors, not eating disturbances [Jacobi et al., 2008]). So if this is an “eating disorder,” it’s unlike virtually every other eating disorder.
The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about this phenomenon (inexplicably found in their “Business” section), suggesting that the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the “DSM”) is considering adding adult picky eating to the list of disorders:
Doctors once thought only kids were picky eaters, and that they would grow out of it. Now, however, a taskforce studying how to categorize eating disorders for the new version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, due out in 2013, is considering recognizing for the first time a disorder to be called “selective eating” that could apply to adults as well as children. The DSM, a common psychiatric reference book, would currently lump picky eaters into a classification of eating disorder “not otherwise specified,” a catchall category for people who don’t meet the criteria for a major disorder.
Yet, nowhere on the American Psychiatric Association’s draft DSM 5 website on eating disorders is the term “selective eating” or “picky eating” mentioned (searches for such terms also turned up nothing on the draft DSM 5 website). It seems like quite a stretch that a disorder not even listed in the draft version of the DSM-5 would make it into the final version.
Reviewing the research literature for this term also turned up very little, especially with regards to studies about adult selective eating. So little, in fact, that it would be surprising to see this term even listed in the Appendix of the DSM, “Conditions requiring further study.”
This is not to minimize the impact and seriousness of selective eating (I know someone first-hand who has this concern). But it appears to be, from the limited knowledge we have of it, a fairly rare condition that probably doesn’t need its own label or category right now. What it does need is more research to help us better understand what it encompasses, how different selective eaters approach food, and what kinds of therapies might be helpful to curb this behavior if the person finds it troublesome or disturbing.
Read the full WSJ article: No Age Limit on Picky Eating
Jacobi, C. et al. (2008). Is picky eating a disorder? Int J Eat Disorders, 41, 626–634.