Picking apart picky eating, Part 2: Picky Eating in Adults

Unlike picky eating in children, the literature on picky eating in adults is much more sparse. As in, I found one paper on adult picky eating.

Part of the problem is that adult picky eating has been an invisible disorder. Just as people assumed that eating disorders were strictly a “teen” thing, researchers thought that picky eating was something that people outgrew. As my epidemiology prof in grad school told me, “You tend to find what you’re looking for.” That is, if you’re looking for a particular factor, it’s pretty easy to find as long as you know where to look. The corollary is also true: you don’t find what you’re not looking for.

It’s easy to say that eating disorders don’t exist after age 25 if you never ask the 25+ population if they have an eating disorder. It’s also easy to say that picky eating is simply a childhood or developmental disorder if you’ve never sat down and asked adults about their selectivity in food.

What happens to the young picky eater?

Although researchers haven’t followed children who are picky eaters into late adolescence and adulthood to see what happens to their eating habits, they have tracked other ED behaviors during this time span. Researchers followed 800 children and gave them and their parents structured DSM-based eating disorder assessments at several points between young childhood and young adulthood (Kotler et al., 2001).

Although the researchers didn’t ask about picky eating per se, they did find that eating disorder symptoms in young childhood significantly predicting EDs in late adolescence and early adulthood. For instance, a young adolescent who binged and purged was 9 times more likely to have BN in late adolescence and 20 times more likely to have BN in early adulthood. An older adolescent who binged and purged was 35 times more likely to have BN as a young adult than someone who didn’t binge and purge. In their particular sample, the presence of ED symptoms in early and late adolescence made a person much more likely to have an ED as an adult.

While no one can say for sure that this means picky eating during adolescence means you’re likely to be a picky eater (since this study didn’t ask about that, it’s impossible to say), it doesn’t appear to be an unreasonable hypothesis that picky eating is likely to persist into adulthood.

When the picky eater grows up

Given the lack of research on adult picky eating, Duke University psychologist Nancy Zucker put out a request in the news media in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia for adults to complete an online picky eating registry (Wildes, Zucker, & Marcus, 2012). Nearly 7000 people completed her survey that asked a series of questions about demographics, weight, picky and disordered eating behaviors, anxiety, and personality traits.

Analysis of the results indicated that the adults completing the survey fell into four different groups. They’re listed below, in order of how many people fell into each group:

Group One: had signs of disordered eating and picky eating (31.8%)

Group Two: had signs of only picky eating (28.7%)

Group Three: had minimal signs of both disordered and picky eating (21.4%)

Group Four: had signs of only disordered eating (18.0%)

Not surprisingly, those who showed signs of disordered eating (groups one and four) were more likely to meet criteria for AN, BN, and BED than those who just showed signs of picky eating alone. As well, those who endorsed symptoms of both picky and disordered eating were much more likely to show signs of OCD and to be impaired by their eating habits.

picky eating adults

The authors conclude:

Given that picky eating appears to have its onset in childhood, and the lack of evidence for an association between picky eating and symptoms of eating disorders in samples of school-aged children, it seems likely that eating disorder symptoms in the comorbid group developed after and perhaps consequent to picky eating. Picky eaters often report preferences for highly palatable foods like French fries and avoidance of fruits and vegetables, making it harder to eat a balanced diet. Thus, it is plausible that some picky eaters are vulnerable to the development of eating, shape and weight concerns, and eating disorder behaviors. This hypothesis requires evaluation in subsequent studies.

Although this study doesn’t tell us how many adults suffer from selective or picky eating, it does tell us that they do have a significant impact on people’s lives when they do exist. The authors note that it’s unclear from this data whether selective eating is a stand-alone disorder or exists as part of a larger constellation of issues that includes selective eating.

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