Konstantinos Haitas never really cared for beets as a child, but he vividly recalls the incident that made him swear off the root vegetable forever.
One day, when the Toronto resident was about 4, his nursery school teacher became so frustrated trying to persuade him to eat the sliced beets in his lunch that she roughly pulled his head back and forcefully spooned them into his mouth.
"I immediately started to throw up," says Mr. Haitas, an actor and artist who is otherwise not a picky eater. "To this day, if somebody eats beets around me I'll want to gag."
If you can't stand tomatoes or feel nauseous at the slightest whiff of banana, you may be suffering the repercussions of a childhood food trauma, experts say.
Whether it's being force-fed beets by a stern teacher or mistaking a handful of briny olives for sweet, juicy grapes, a bad experience with a specific food item during childhood can turn a person off that food well into adulthood.
"It always comes down to some kind of negative experience," says Orit Morse, clinical director at the New Realities Eating Disorders Recovery Centre in Thornhill, Ont. She adds that people with distaste for certain foods might not even recall what put them off in the first place.
"Even somebody who has an … onion aversion, if you dig real deep and really work with them, you'll find out that there was a piano teacher who criticized them all the time for not doing their homework, and she was really mean - and she smelled of onions," Ms. Morse says.
Much of how we think about food is established between infancy and age 6, she says, so it's no wonder that our negative experiences with food stick with us long after they occur.
"The way that trauma works is it gets locked in your mind and it stays there, and whenever anything triggers it, it occurs in present tense," says Karen Cook, a clinical therapist in Vancouver. So, she says, "even though [a bad experience may have]happened 20 years ago, when something triggers it it's like you're reliving it."
In Mr. Haitas's case, the initial bad encounter with beets was reinforced nearly two decades later, when he was asked to open a can of them at the deli where he was working. His reaction was immediate. "I threw up from the smell," he says.
Another time, when his roommate decided to make borscht one evening, Mr. Haitas had to sleep over at a friend's house to get away from the odour. Regardless of how beets are prepared, "if it's red, and it's any beet kind of food, I will gag," he says.
Karen Mara of Alliston, Ont., says her food kryptonite is turnips.
Decades ago, at the age of about 5, she was pressured into eating them during a Christmas dinner at her grandmother's house. Ms. Mara recalls she found the smell of the mushy serving in front of her unpleasant, but the prevailing rule in her household was to try everything on the plate.
"I just remember it being a huge family gathering, and you know … you don't want to make a fool of yourself at the table," she says.
She took one bite, and gagged in front of all her relatives.
The embarrassment made a lasting impression, she says, and as if that wasn't enough, her parents continued to goad her to "try another bite" and to "give it a chance."
Now, she says, "I can't even walk into a kitchen where there's turnip cooking. … It's probably the only food to this day that makes me want to vomit."
Over the years, Ms. Mara has attempted to get over her aversion by trying to eat turnips raw or baked into meat pies. But each time, she hasn't actually been able to bring the food near her mouth.
"As soon as I got it anywhere near me, it just brought it all back," she says.
While it's possible to get over a food trauma with self-coaching, it often takes a lot of repetition, Ms. Cook says.
The key is to acknowledge how you're feeling while trying the food, and to encourage yourself through it by saying, "you're okay, you can do it," she says.
Over time, she says, "if it's not a really complex matter, you should be able to feel yourself having less strong responses to it and you can actually feel yourself recovering from it."
To prevent food aversions from developing in the first place, parents should avoid forcing children to eat and making meals a power struggle, Ms. Morse says. She notes that continually insisting that a child will like a certain food if they try it "absolutely does not work, ever."
Meanwhile, Mr. Haitas says nothing could change his mind about his loathing for beets.
"Good God, no," he says to the idea of remedying his aversion. "You couldn't put that stuff past me. I have absolutely no interest in ever, ever partaking in beets."