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What happens when picky eating becomes full-blown phobia? Add to ...

Montrealer T. J. Haselden is afraid of cheeseburgers.

The 28-year-old computer salesman is so disgusted by the idea of marrying gooey cheese with tangy condiments, meat and bread that he can't sink his teeth into one without retching.

He gets nauseous at the thought of biting into a juicy tomato, and has yet to work up the nerve to find out how a potato chip tastes.

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"If I think I'm going to gag off of it, I'm not going to stick it anywhere near my mouth," Mr. Haselden said. "It has mainly to do with textures and smells."

For as long as he can remember, he has been able to tolerate only a few foods, including dry chicken or well-done steak and plain, sauce-free vegetables. None of the components can touch each other on the plate.

On evenings when his wife makes herself pasta, Mr. Haselden eats his own chicken dinner at the far end of the table to distance himself from the aroma of her dish.

Mr. Haselden is among a multitude of adult picky eaters who have failed to outgrow their childhood distaste for certain foods. Since their fussiness is often met with ridicule and disbelief, many dread social functions that revolve around food for fear of having to explain or make excuses for what they won't eat.

"Weddings are the worst," Mr. Haselden said, noting that at a recent wedding he was the only adult eating a children's meal of chicken fingers and fries, while everyone else dined on fish. "That was embarrassing."

Through online forums, blogs and social networking groups, however, thousands of adult picky eaters are finding support, and mobilizing to seek tolerance and understanding for their dietary quirks.

Bob Krause, founder of the U.S.-based website PickyEatingAdults.com, said about 200 people have joined a picky eaters' online forum he started earlier this year, , and at least 1,000 are part of his separate picky eaters' Yahoo group.

Mr. Krause, 61, of Virginia Beach, Va., said he hopes that a Food Network television show currently in development might also help shed light on the phenomenon. He and other adult picky eaters participated in a taping session this summer.

"[Picky eating]s such an isolated thing when you live with it by yourself in silence," he said. "You're constantly under stress and worry."

The main fear for picky eaters is that other people won't understand their food phobias, he said.

"How do you explain to somebody that the item in front of you doesn't look like food to you? If you ate it, you'd probably throw up all over the place ...and in some cases, looking at it, there's not much difference between it and feces."

Mr. Krause said he can't bring himself to eat most vegetables, sauces or almost any type of meat, with the exception of thinly sliced, crispy bacon.

He enjoys plain, bland, mostly crunchy food such as popcorn, almonds, French fries and toast. He said he has eaten the same lunch for the past 10 years: peanut butter on crackers and a glass of milk, and takes vitamin pills to supplement his limited diet.

"I never get tired of it. It's really bizarre," he said.

Mr. Krause said his preference for plain foods and fear of tasting new things is common among other picky eaters he has encountered, and they seem to have a universal dislike for pickles.

Some theorize that picky eating is a disorder related to obsessive-compulsive disorder or autism, others that it's a symptom of "supertasters," people who have a heightened sense of taste, Mr. Krause said.

He added that some believe picky eating may be genetic, but noted that most professionals don't recognize it as an eating disorder, and there is no medical diagnosis.

Mr. Krause said he believes his own hang-ups with food may have resulted from his early childhood bout of whooping cough, which caused him to throw up many of the foods he ate. Being force-fed by his parents only worsened his intolerance for certain foods.

Adam Gibson, who is writing a book about picky eating, said he, too, has found little information about the subject from psychiatrists, dietitians and doctors.

Mr. Gibson, who lives in Omaha, Neb., is a picky eater himself. Like Mr. Haselden and Mr. Krause, he finds salad dressings and dishes with multiple ingredients, such as casseroles, revolting.

Aged 35, Mr. Gibson said he has never eaten a green vegetable.

When he was a child, doctors told his family that his fussiness was just a phase. But when he hadn't grown out of it by age 11, his mother took him to a psychiatrist to try hypnotherapy. It didn't help.

Neither did subsequent psychiatrists whom he visited throughout his teenage years.

Michelle Morand, founder of the CEDRIC (Community Eating Disorder and Related Issues Counselling) Centre for eating disorder counselling in Victoria, has encountered numerous cases of picky eating in adults. She's found it usually arises from the messages people create around food.

For instance, those with orthorexia are obsessed with eating only the foods they believe are healthy, while people who have a "diet mentality" classify food as good or bad and judge their own character according to what they eat, she said.

Others who grow up with an anxious parent often unwittingly associate the parent's distress with what they're eating, she said.

"Based on the stories [picky eaters]tell themselves about food, their anxiety and their resistance to certain foodstuffs is perfectly appropriate," Ms. Morand said, noting there is no reason for picky eaters to feel shame about their fussiness.

Once they are able to recognize that the cause of their apprehension is not the food itself, but the messages they associate with it, "people move very quickly through their recovery," she said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Haselden, the man who is afraid of cheeseburgers, is taking his own approach to tackling his food phobias.

Last year, he created a Facebook group, announcing that he would try pizza for the first time if 1,000 members joined. When he reached that target, he created a YouTube video, titled "T. J. vs. Pizza," showing his attempt at eating a slice.

He ended up gagging. But he's eager to try again with other items, and perhaps even finally to taste a potato chip.

"[Picky eating]s the one thing I hate about myself," he said.

"Hopefully, I'll come across a food that I like."

Parents: Ignore fussiness

Rose Geist, director of the Medical Psychiatry Program at The Hospital for Sick Children, said picky eating is a way for children to assert control over their parents.

If a child is generally healthy and growing well, Dr. Geist advises parents to avoid paying too much attention to fussiness.

"Most of those kids grow out of it," she said. "If the only thing is a child will eat this and not that ... and they have no other issues, it's better to avoid those power-control battles because it has negative consequences."

That means if your child won't eat vegetables, don't sweat it, she said. Serve him or her what you would normally prepare.

If she still won't touch her food, you can try offering something different, "but not to the point where every minute you're running around the kitchen," scrambling to cater to her tastes.

Parents should encourage healthy eating and try to make food fun for children by involving them in the meal preparation, Dr. Geist said.

However, it's time to seek help from a pediatrician if a child has other problems besides picky eating, such as anxiety, which might present itself as an inability to sleep at night, or symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder.

Otherwise, parents should wait out their children's picky behaviour.

"They don't have to worry about it too much."

Wency Leung

Follow on Twitter: @wencyleung

 

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