A Primer on the Picky Eater Washington Post reporter Annie Groer talks about her recent article about picky eaters -- people who just won't eat certain foods or don't let the food on their plate touch. And a sensory psychologist explains what the behavior means.

A Primer on the Picky Eater

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Michel Martin in Washington.

Have you tried to plan a dinner party lately? Have you ever tried to ask what your guests like to eat and come up with so many restrictions you didn't know what to serve other than lettuce and water? Some people don't eat meat, others won't eat carbs. Some won't eat anything white, others will. Even the water question is complicated: sparkling, plain, vitamin, flavored anyone? And don't even get me started on figuring out what kids will or won't eat.

Well, along these lines, a story in the Washington Post this week caught our eye. It was about picky eaters. People who won't eat a certain kind of food ever, or won't allow the foods on their plate to touch each other. We'll talk to the reporter who wrote about it, plus a doctor with an idea on what the behavior is all about.

And we'd like to talk to you. Are you a picky eater, or do picky eaters drive you crazy? Give us a call at 800-989-8255 or 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

First, Annie Groer, reporter for the Washington Post. Welcome.

Ms. ANNIE GROER (Reporter, Washington Post): Thank you. Great to be here.

MARTIN: Thank you. And I should say that you're joining us from the Post's ISDN studios in Washington. Are you a picky eater?

Ms. GROER: Oh, my God. I'm the worst person to have done this story. I'm like the human Hoover at the dinner table.

MARTIN: So how did you get interested in this?

Ms. GROER: Well, it was an idea that was suggested to me. And it started out as a kind of light-hearted look. But I discovered after only a couple of interviews that this is a very serious problem for the people who actually have it.

It's serious enough that they won't eat in restaurants. They won't go to other people's homes for dinner. Even an office potluck is nightmarish for them, because there are so many things that they will not eat, they feel like pariahs.

MARTIN: And you actually found some fairly well-known people in the area who have, you know, important positions who are picky eaters.

Ms. GROER: Exactly.

MARTIN: Tell me what some of their issues are.

Ms. GROER: Well, Billy Shore, for example, who founded the national anti-hunger charity Share Our Strength. Billy is a total vegetable phobe. And the only reason that he now eats spinach - although spinach is problematic these days for other reasons - and corn on the cob is because he has dealings with some of the top chefs in America.

Some people can't bear the sight of things that look like what they are. They can't bear a fish that's got a head, fins, scales. They won't eat food that is spicy. They won't allow their food, as you say, to touch on a plate. They eat in sequence. They'll eat one thing, then another thing, then another thing.

I mean, your idea of serving lettuce or water - forget that. Many people won't touch lettuce. They don't like salads. They don't like things that feel slimy in the mouth, that have seeds, that are certain colors. So their choices are incredibly limited.

But what I found after this story ran - the comments that came into the Washington Post and into my own e-mail were divided very strongly into two camps. Get these people to get over themselves. You know…

MARTIN: Yeah, don't you understand there are people starving? Yeah, that kind of thing.

Ms. GROER: Exactly. And the other side were, you know, I've had this problem and thought I was alone. And it is a problem and thank you for at least recognizing that it exists.

MARTIN: You got a pretty significant response?

Ms. GROER: I did. I mean, this was the third most e-mailed story out of the Washington Post - the entire paper - yesterday.

MARTIN: Well, why do these people think they have these - I don't know what to say - issues around food? Is it something that started in childhood and they just never grew out of it? Or is it something they developed later on or…

Ms. GROER: I think for most of them it did start in childhood, and some of them were indulged by their parents. Okay, if you don't want to eat this, you don't eat this. But others were forced to stay at the table, and you're not leaving until you finish your liver, you finish your peas, you finish, you know, fill in the blank. And you know, there are - as there's a school of thought that this is a control issue for the kid trying to manipulate the parent. But most of these people say absolutely not. I just can't stand the taste, the smell, the texture.

One writer today sent me an e-mail suggesting that these people may have hyper taste buds - that they may have more taste buds than the average person, and consequently, something that tastes, you know, moderately salty, sweet or sour to us is so intensified on their palette that they just can't bear it.

MARTIN: Let's get more on that from Marcia Pelchat. She's a sensory psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center. And she's joining us from her office in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Welcome, Dr. Pelchat.

Dr. MARCIA PELCHAT (Sensory Psychologist, Monell Chemical Senses Center): Hi.

MARTIN: And thank you for joining us.

Dr. PELCHAT: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Well, what do you think about this? Is this - does this pickiness that Annie is describing, it just - is this a phobia? Is this an obsessive-compulsive thing, or what do you make of it?

Dr. PELCHAT: Well, I think that it has some elements of both. There is a relationship in our research between picky eating and obsessive-compulsive disorders. So there - people who are very picky also tend to score high on paper and pencil tests of OCD. But there's also a sense in which this is like a phobia. People know that it's not rational to reject these foods or to be afraid of eating them, but they just can't overcome that fear. And in fact, the treatment for this disorder is similar to the treatment for phobia.

MARTIN: Which is what?

Dr. PELCHAT: Sort of like a systematic desensitization - gradually getting used to trying new and different things. But it's not easy. It is not easy at all for people to bring themselves, you know, even to try a bite of broccoli.

MARTIN: If you're a picky eater, we'd like to hear from you. Give us a call at 800-989-8255 or 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And we'd like to hear from you if you are a picky eater, or if they drive you crazy.

Annie, but what did - the people that you talked to - did it bother them that they had these feelings? Or they did just think, you know what, it's just my personal thing. Leave me alone, you know. I'll just pick out the peas. It's not bothering you. Give me a break.

Ms. GROER: For the most part, it really did trouble them, because it almost paralyzed them in their social interactions. They couldn't go to restaurants if, you know, if they're single and they wanted to date, how do you take someone to a restaurant where the only thing you'll eat is French fries and a beer? How do you go to a party? So a lot of them felt very, very isolated socially, and they also started to begin to sort of doubt themselves. What's wrong with me that I can't do this?

Some of them did laugh it off and had, you know, their spouses or their friends and family had made accommodations.

MARTIN: Yeah, you know. Love me, love my phobia, right?

Ms. GROER: Well, exactly. And, you know, one e-mail said to me, if I don't want my food to touch and I want to eat it in a certain order, leave me alone. You know, what's it to you?

MARTIN: Let's go to Tucson and Renee. Or is it Rene(ph)?

RENE (Caller): Rene.


RENE: Yes, ma'am.

MARTIN: Tell us your story.

RENE: I am what you would call a picky eater. But basically, people around me accept it.

MARTIN: What are you picky about?

RENE: I, even from a child, I remember going to restaurants and walking into the kitchen because I wanted to see how my food was prepared. And the cooks would let me. They'd showed me how they were doing their food. And I like to eat one item at a time because a very complex taste distracts me. I like to have each - I mean, I don't like any condiments on my meat, but there are some dishes that I don't mind having sauces like a spaghetti sauce, or Alfredo sauce. It just depends on the dish.

But also, I've never had a problem with it. People just adjusted to it. I didn't even know it was a complication until today, when I heard the radio program.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, thank you.

RENE: It's amusing that people are feeling that strongly about it.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, thank you. Thank you for calling.

RENE: Sure.

MARTIN: Let's go to Seattle. Let's go to Amy in Seattle.

AMY (Caller): Hi.


AMY: I am a cheese phobic. I refuse to eat cheese. I don't like the smell, the taste - anything.

MARTIN: Have you always been, or did you develop that in your life?

AMY: Apparently, my mom has memories of me sitting on my highchair eating Gouda, but I sure blocked that out if that ever happened.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Why do you think?

AMY: I don't know. As I've gotten older, I've noticed that I've become more lactose intolerant with ice cream, but I really have never been into sour cream, butter, yogurt, anything like that, either. So…

MARTIN: Does it affect your life in anyway? Does it affect your social life?

AMY: Well, I'm actually in the wine industry so it makes it kind of difficult, but not really. I kind of eat around it. I try not to make that big of a deal with it, but my family and my friends mostly know. So…

MARTIN: Just don't move to Wisconsin.

AMY: Okay.

MARTIN: Okay. Thank you, Amy.

Or did you - Marcia, do you want to talk to Amy?

Dr. PELCHAT: Well, I just wanted to tell her that most hard cheese has virtually no lactose in it.

AMY: Really?


AMY: I had no idea. Interesting.

Dr. PELCHAT: Yeah, you know. Not processed cheese, obviously. That has milk added back in, but a good, hard cheese like a Parmesan would have virtually no lactose.

AMY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Okay. Amy, thank you so much for calling.

AMY: Interesting, thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you for calling.

Ms. GROER: Michel, the thing is that with someone like Amy, that's just a sort of one class food that she doesn't want to eat, and that's cheese. But for a lot of the people whom I spoke with, it's tons and tons of things. I mean, you can count on your hand, or hands and feet what they will eat. So it's a very, very limiting thing.

Dr. PELCHAT: Yeah. That's an important point. I think that the primary defining characteristic of a picky eater is that they eat a very, very, restricted range of foods.

MARTIN: What did you think, Dr. Pelchat, what of you think of the theory that Annie Groer mentioned, was just that perhaps these people sort of have a hypersensitive taste? I've noticed that with one of the kids in my family, that she's got a very slender body type, you know, and just can't seem to tolerate strong flavors in a way that, you know, someone else might. And I just seem to go with the body type. A lot of very slender people I know are similarly picky, and I just wonder if there's some sort of a, I don't know, kind of a developmental sort of issue that it's kind of science's way or biology's way of protecting them from eating something that they couldn't tolerate. What do you think?

Dr. PELCHAT: I think that there is some evidence for that. I think that it may account for some picky eating in some people. And, in fact, in our studies we did find that picky eaters rated sweet solutions as being more sweet and bitter solutions as being more bitter. So there's a little bit of that there. But I think there are probably also many picky eaters for whom that is not true.

MARTIN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I was reminded of my dad - could not stand the taste of cabbage, couldn't stand the smell of cabbage, didn't want it cooked. And I asked him once - you know, this was only a problem because my mother loved cabbage. And, in fact, it was the only food she craved through three pregnancies, I'm told. So they had to kind of figured that out - which they did, obviously, because, you know, it - you know, they worked to that.

But I asked him once why, because she would just take care to - not to cook cabbage when, you know, he was at home. And he said it was because during a depression, there were days when that's all the family had to eat. And he just - when he grew up, he just said you know what? I'm never eating that again. And I just - but I guess that's not what we're talking about. You're not talking about a strong preference rooting in an experience.

Ms. GROER: Right. I mean, I was forced as a child to drink carrot juice by my mother. You couldn't pay me to have carrot juice now. I just find the taste vile. I like raw carrots. I can't stand cooked carrots, and that's one of the few things I won't eat.

MARTIN: I though you said you weren't picky?

Ms. GROER: Well, cooked carrots out of an entire plethora of food? That's pretty limited. I think that's pretty good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. Okay, let's go to Ashland, Oregon. And Marie?

MARIE (Caller): Hi.


MARIE: Well, I'm was telling the - whatever, the screener about my - actually, there are lots of things that I don't like to eat. But one of the strangest things is that I hate stuffing. I loathe it. For Thanksgiving…

MARTIN: All stuffing?

MARIE: …that type of thing.

MARTIN: All stuffing? Bread, rice, corn, corn bread - all of them?

MARIE: No. Well, actually, it's the soggy bread idea that really grosses me out. I mean, the whole idea of soggy bread. Plus, if I had a sandwich on my plate and some gravy ran over on it, I'd have to throw it away. I couldn't eat that. Just can't handle that whole - I don't know. I've got lots of weird issues, though. Like, I don't like chocolate. I don't like pizza, you know. I'm being - every once in a while I'll have it, but…

MARTIN: I'm okay with you on the pizza, but the chocolate thing - Marie, I'm sorry we can't be friends.

Ms. GROER: Yeah, exactly.

MARTIN: I'm sorry, we just can't be friends. We can't hang out. I'm sorry.

MARIE: I think it - I don't know. Maybe it's just it's that grabby kind of thing.

MARTIN: Does it bother you that you have these food issues? Is it affecting your life in any way? Or are people just leaving you alone?

MARIE: Well, it's turned me into a really good cook because I cook what I like to eat. Although, when I make the stuffing, I never eat the stuffing. I make in people rant and rave and, you know, I don't - I have never tasted a stuffing in my life. So I don't even know what it's supposed to taste like.

MARTIN: How do you know you don't like it?


MARTIN: How do you know you don't like it? You've never tasted it?

MARIE: Well, the whole idea of it.


MARIE: Soggy bread. I mean - I would eat a rice kind of thing.


MARIE: But the soggy bread - ah.

MARTIN: Okay. Marie, thank you so much for calling.

MARIE: Okay. Bye.

MARTIN: And let's go to Brenda in Shawnee, Kansas very quickly.

BRENDA (Caller): Yes. Hi. I have a son who have life-threatening food allergies. And so when we go out or dine with friends or anywhere outside our own home, we have to be extremely careful. And a lot of times his needs are perceived as pickiness, and so people are impatient or not careful. But it's really - this is a matter of life and death for us as opposed to just being picky. So that's the way - so it adds another layer of complexity to eating out, is that people misperceive it as pickiness.

MARTIN: That's a very important point, Brenda, and thank you for raising it. And Dr. Pelchat, that is something that needs to be considered, that there is much more awareness of food allergies these days, I think, than there has been in the past. And I don't know whether this is true, but I my understanding that perhaps more people are developing allergies for whatever reason.

BRENDA: My understanding is is that particularly the incidence of peanut allergy has doubled in the last five years. And to think of it - the series that I have read is that it has to do with - that we're eating a lot more processed foods that contain one of the top eight allergens. And so people are being exposed more regularly to things that are already highly allergenic.


BRENDA: Which seems that make good sense to me.

MARTIN: Okay. Brenda, thank you so much for calling. Thanks, and that was an important point.

BRENDA: Thank you.

MARTIN: So we're down to our last couple of seconds. Annie Groer, last word. Is this - did this, doing this article - you know how sometimes when you're exposed to a topic, it kind of makes you think about things in a way you hadn't before? You said you were the human Hoover - you eat anything. Did you - when you were working on this - did you kind of think, oh, maybe I don't really like, you know, turkey that well or something?

Ms. GROER: No.

MARTIN: Could it change your attitude about food?

Ms. GROER: No. It changed my attitude about friends who are picky. I'll be a little more indulgent because I talk to so many people who are tortured by this issue.


Ms. GROER: That I'll stopping so flippant.

MARTIN: Okay, thanks. Annie Groer as a reporter for the Washington Post. She joined us from the Post studios in Washington, D.C. Thank you. And Dr. Marcia Pelchat is a sensory psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center. She joined us from her office in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Thank you for joining us.

Dr. PELCHAT: Okay.

MARTIN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin in Washington.

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