The reluctant bite

By Jessica Galliart

Bob Krause served 13 years in the military without anyone ever realizing his “secret.” Though he managed to hide his picky eating habit from his fellow soldiers and still lives with it today, it’s an everyday struggle to get through certain social situations involving food.

Though Krause’s picky eating habits may not seem like a major obstacle in everyday life, it is. He likes milk chocolate, and he likes peanuts. But mix the two together, and he’s disgusted. Krause eats mostly crispy foods, like french fries or potato chips. He considers himself a “super taster,” meaning he’s very particular about the textures of certain foods.

“I always refer to it as I thought I was a superhero with this secret identity I didn’t want anyone to know about,” Krause said. “Only recently have I opened myself up to it.”

For many others like Krause, social eating events like the Taste of Chicago and holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas are anxiety-ridden and sometimes traumatic. But adult picky eaters, seemingly normal adults who are finicky with their food choices, have been gathering in rising numbers to support each other in their disgust with certain foods. Otherwise normal people, whose habits can be as minimal as disliking vegetables or as extreme as only eating three different items of food, are joining for support and information about living as a picky eater.

Krause started the website in 2003 as a source of support for himself, and it has since grown to about 1,000 users. Detailed stories from several self-proclaimed picky eating adults are on the site, including his own.

Born with a sensitive stomach, Krause, 60, said his relationship with food has always been dysfunctional. Though he’s otherwise successful—he’s married and owns several businesses—Krause said he created the website to find other “normal” people who felt ashamed and embarrassed in social situations involving food.

“A lot of people that I’ve come in contact with [through the website] are usually gifted people,” Krause said. “I own three businesses, and we’ve had rocket scientists in our group.”

Among other stories, some users detail their distastes for vegetables, certain meats and fruits. Krause said he knows of a user who only ate breadsticks from Pizza Hut, and many users of the site describe their eating patterns of simple, basic foods like plain potatoes, chips or plain hamburgers.

This summer,   Krause met with several members of the website for a special Food Network episode that was taped about the website and picky eaters. He said he hopes the members continue to meet in the future and help support each other.

“[The website has] made me feel better about myself and that I’m not a bad person,” Krause said. “There are things to be happy about; I’ve made many good friends through the website.”

Most say their aversions to these foods are because of textures, sudden “bursts” of flavor—like from juicy vegetables, fruits or meats—and even childhood traumas associated with such foods.

Tammy Kramer, 36, of Madison, Wisc., who isn’t a member of the website, said her disgust for ketchup began in first grade. After not finishing her carton of milk at lunch and throwing it away one day, a teacher made her take the carton, covered in ketchup, out of the trash can and drink the remnants of it. Since the incident happened, more than 30 years ago, she has felt intense anxiety when she sees or smells the condiment.

“It’s absolutely real, and everybody tries to figure it out,” Kramer said. “Sometimes I start to sweat, I always get a mini-anxiety attack over it.”

Picky-eating adults are often ridiculed or teased by other adults, as finicky eating habits are usually outgrown after childhood. But if a child’s habit is enforced or accepted, it can often carry into adulthood, said Paula Bloom, a clinical psychologist based in Atlanta.

“When they’re younger, [parents] only cook [their children] what they want,” Bloom said. “When they go into the larger world they may be a little timid around food.”

Picky eating is often confused with food phobia, in which a person obsessively avoids a certain food. Most picky eaters don’t have issues being in the vicinity of certain foods, whereas food phobics can feel terrified. These behaviors are sometimes easier to treat than picky habits that deal with sensory issues, Bloom said.

“The first key when you’re looking at diagnosing someone is it really needs to impair their functioning,” Bloom said. “The typical thing I would do is [have them] get closer and closer [to the food] and teach them relaxation strategies. They’re exposed to the stimulus but not having the reaction.”

Though she has never sought treatment for her disgust with ketchup, Kramer said she has learned to handle it in everyday situations.

“Over the years I’ve learned to not make as big of a deal about it because it’s always the topic of conversation,” Kramer said. “Now I’ll actually pick it up and move it aside or ask the server to take it away.”

Ironically, Kramer said she has never had an issue with milk, which she was forced to drink out of the trash can.

Some experts point to obsessive compulsive disorder characteristics or anxiety disorders as the root of the problem, but both Bloom and Krause said this isn’t the case for everyone.

“I would agree with the OCD [connection], and there are some people who have food phobias. But the majority of people in our group don’t have phobias,” Krause said. “My brain just doesn’t register; I can’t imagine putting [some foods] in my mouth.”