Everyone prefers some foods over others, but some adults take this tendency to an extreme. These people tend to prefer the kinds of bland food they may have enjoyed as children -- such as plain or buttered pasta, macaroni and cheese, cheese pizza, French fries and grilled cheese sandwiches -- and to restrict their eating to just a few dishes.
This condition is not officially recognized as an eating disorder in the current edition of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the American Psychiatric Association's compendium of mental and emotional disorders. But it may be listed in the next one, under the title "selective eating disorder."
Researchers at Duke University and the University of Pittsburgh have established an online registry to learn more about the problem and determine how widespread it is. As I understand it, researchers haven't been able to say for certain whether extremely selective eating as an adult is an extension of childhood habits.
While we must wait for more data, I think it's likely that this will prove to be a largely American phenomenon tied to an unfortunate aspect of our food culture: nowhere else in the world is it so universally taken for granted that children should eat differently from adults. Our hypercommercialized society is the first -- and, I hope the last -- to create an entirely separate universe of child-specific foods and dishes. Most are overpriced, nutrient-poor assemblages of sugar, salt and fat, often garishly colored.
Pediatrician Alan Greene, M.D., points out that this perversion of whole foods for young people actually starts in infancy. His "White Out" campaign aims to stop the common practice of feeding white rice cereal to infants. As Dr. Greene puts it, this is essentially "processed white flour, and to a baby's metabolism, it's about the same as a spoonful of sugar."
These kinds of foods are just the opposite of what babies, children and adults need for optimum health. In fact, they are major drivers of the obesity and Type 2 diabetes epidemics. Unfortunately, I see much evidence that some degree of adult "selective eating disorder" has become widespread. While eating only five or six kinds of food is unusual, millions of adult Americans now prefer bland, highly processed, nutrient-deficient foods, and eat them exclusively or nearly so.
It does not have to be this way. Most of us -- especially those who grew up before the children's food revolution -- can remember foods we hated as kids that, through repeated trials, we learned to enjoy or even count among our favorites as adults. It seems probable to me that a steady diet of child-centric processed foods may lock in unhealthy preferences for life in some susceptible people.
Sadly, I've read that among members of an online support group for adult picky eaters, there has only been one report of semi-successful treatment. We need to know a lot more about this problem before we can treat it successfully. It is probably not entirely cultural. In some cases it may be a manifestation of obsessive-compulsive or autistic spectrum disorder, or a residual phobia stemming from abusive parental treatment.
Until we know more, I urge parents to reject the entire world of overprocessed babies' and children's food as much as they possibly can. For infants, I am a great fan of portable, inexpensive, hand-cranked food mills that allow parents to grind fresh, wholesome foods into nutrient-rich purées. As children grow older, the only sensible concessions to make for their meals are to make sure bites are small and tender enough for them to chew properly and to back away from overuse of spices, which can be overwhelming to children's palates.
It does kids no favors, and sets them up for a potential lifetime of poor health and social embarrassment, to excuse them from family meals of real food. Everyone benefits from healthy eating, but it is particularly crucial at the beginning of life. Providing your children with a variety of healthy foods -- and gently but persistently continuing to offer them exclusively during a child's "picky" phase -- are among a parent's most important obligations.
Andrew Weil, M.D., invites you to join the conversation: become a fan on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, and check out his Daily Health Tips Blog. Dr. Weil is the founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and the editorial director of www.DrWeil.com.