How Being a Picky Eater Feeds My Anxiety

Confession time: I’m a picky eater.

…And I don’t just mean that there are a few thing that I don’t like or that I’m a little bit picky. I mean I’m a really, really picky eater, and there are lots of things that I just don’t like. I don’t like peas or beans or tomatoes or sushi or eggs cooked any way except scrambled. I hate steamed vegetables. Mushrooms make me shudder.

This is not new. I’ve always been a picky eater–there are photos of little baby me, spitting out mashed peas and carrots and making weird faces at tomatoes. Occasionally someone could convince me that a food I didn’t eat was something that I actually did eat (family legend has it that as a toddler I ate fried fish because I was told it was fried hot dogs)  in an effort to get me to broaden my horizons, but that was not an oft-tried or oft-successful tactic. For a long time I wouldn’t eat things that were “delicious” because my brother told me that peas were delicious, and I hated them so very much that I was convinced that the word “delicious” meant “horrible” instead.

At some point, my mother and father stopped fighting with me about what I was going to eat for dinner, because they had already raised two children, one of them also a picky eater. They also seemed to recognize that I would’ve gone hungry rather than eat something I didn’t like. I know this is true because I had an aunt who wouldn’t let us have a snack later unless we finished all the dinner on our plates. At her house, I would sometimes go hungry because I would not eat what was on my plate.

And here’s the thing…I wasn’t, and I am not, just being a brat. The truth is far more complicated, and it has had a profound affect on my life–my relationships with other people and my relationship with food, hence my relationship with my own body.

You see, certain textures of food actually make me feel ill, physically ill. Like those peas and beans I mentioned? The texture of a bite of peas or beans triggers my gag reflex. I don’t necessarily understand how or why, but that tends to make them difficult to even begin to like. So, while I hear a lot about things that are an “acquired taste,” I’ve never really known what that was like from an eating perspective. It’s pretty difficult to learn to like something that makes you feel like you just might vomit every time you take a bite.

And boy is that a load off my chest to admit…Because I’ve been made fun of for it almost all of my life, and I really and truthfully wish that my relationship with food were different. My picky eating has caused arguments and sadness and endless amounts of frustration and anxiety. Because even though my parents weren’t hard on me about how I was eating, other people in my life haven’t always quite as kind.

And you should know that here in the deepest parts of the American South, food is a way of life. There was food at church, food at my grandmother’s house, food at family reunions and backyard barbecues. There were family dinners and breakfasts and brunches. So. Many Brunches. Everyone here loves a potluck, tables piled high with casseroles and cooked vegetables and meat….And when I sat down with a plate that had a few pieces of turkey, a buttered roll, and a bit of macaroni and cheese but nothing else, there were always snarky comments and laughter. Every time we sat down together to eat, comments were made about what I was eating, about what I was not eating. And while I desperately wanted those comments to go away, I found them preferable to the kinds of embarrassment I might suffer if one of those foods actually did make me sick.

So I started to work around having to eat with other people, trying to control as much of the environment as I could. I was lucky enough to like a few basic things–chicken and burgers, french fries and chips–that could be found at most any restaurant in some shape or fashion and that were often on the pot luck table. If I couldn’t control the menu or was going to a place that might not have anything I would eat, I’d often eat a bit beforehand (not enough to be full, so that I could be polite and eat at least a small something). Alternately, I would arrange to arrive once everyone had eaten or find a reason to leave before food was served. This way, I didn’t have to deal with rude comments or nosy people. I could, instead, focus on having fun with the people I was spending time with.

I became The Girl Who Never Ate or The Girl Who Ate Like a Bird. All of this was even more darkly comic because I am a chubby girl–even at my lightest, I was still a solid size 8/10 with curves, so there were always smug looks and occasional derisive laughter with those comments about what was on my plate.

Over the years, my relationship with food, with eating, created a spiral of frustration and sadness and fear. As a teen and young adult, especially, my food issues wreaked havoc on my physical and mental health. Food became something secret. It became something I was ashamed of, a bad habit. I ate alone, and I ate too much.  I ate things that were bad for me–because the unfortunate truth was that many of the healthiest foods were the foods that created the most anxiety, the textures I disliked and dreaded the most.  I gained weight, packing on about 75 pounds in my 8 years of college/grad school. The weight gain made me feel worse about my body, worse about food and more self-conscious about eating unhealthy foods in front of other people. This level of discomfort with food and with my own body were a kind of self-perpetuating cycle, feeding my depression and anxiety disorder. I’d feel anxious about going out and eating with other people, then my self-isolation would add to my depression.

I’ve been trying, since I first understood the nature of my disordered eating (because that’s what it is, really and truthfully) to expand my palate. This is difficult because there are emotional, psychological, and physical components to my relationship to food. In addition to being aware of the texture issues I have with some foods, I know now that, at least in part part, I have been mimicking my mother, who was constantly trying to lose weight and who had a tendency to try to hide when she ate junk food. But I now I do eat a lot of foods that I would not have eaten when I was younger, and I eat with other people more often.

I recognize that I have created a situation in which food, already culturally symbolic in so many ways, is personally symbolic. Most importantly, perhaps, I have learned to be patient with myself and to ignore snarky comments from people who cannot possibly understand how and why I am being brave when I nibble a slice of tomato.

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  1. says

    Interesting in that list you gave was exactly what I wouldn’t (and some still don’t) eat. Of course I know that your list is longer,as was mine. Funny, a lot of those foods I do now eat, at least occasionally if not often. I’m not sure what changed, but something did. However, i still can’t eat pot luck and have issues with many restaurants because I literally get sick on many foods, and most of the time I am fine when one person makes but not another. Certain restaurants I will get sick even eating lettuce, let alone burgers.

    You are right that a lot of it is texture, perhaps even more than taste. With me, I like many types of nuts alone (I hated ALL nuts as a kid) but to this day I get sick if I taste one that is baked into something. A lot of people are sensitive to textures.

    So, yeah, ignore if people say anything and know that you aren’t alone.


  2. Stephanie says

    I’m really not sure if this is a good or bad thing, but I have eaten with you countless times and I guess I’ve never noticed that you were a picky eater. We used to eat a lot of the same things though. Also, I don’t understand why people even really concern themselves with what other people eat. Even growing up in the south, I still don’t understand it. I’ve had to drastically alter my diet and have cut out sugar, grains, etc…except for very rare special occasions. Our retired members meet at our office every month and bring cakes and cookies and sandwiches and all of the things I can’t eat. I tried to tell them that I couldn’t eat it, but they got offended(?)! So now, I go and fix a plate and wait until they leave and throw it in the garbage. It seems terribly wasteful to me, but I don’t want to offend anyone.

    On a side note, I’m certainly not a picky eater by any means and peas are disgusting.

    I love you greatly 🙂


  3. says

    Yes to all of the things. As a child, I gagged every time I was forced to eat green beans. My mother stopped trying, knowing I just couldn’t. When she remarried to a controlling and abusive man, he would force me to eat them anyway. And I always ended up sick. It was horrible. To this day, I won’t even try to eat them. Such a great and honest post. Thank you for sharing with us!


  4. says

    Interesting that we all had different childhood experiences affect our eating habits. I malnutrition as a child, just did eat the right food. Glad that it was reversible and replaceable. We are more conscious about what we eat now. We both are retired but it’s not too late. My husband made some major discovery of diet that help with his pre-diabetes. Anyway, I had some problem with my blog link so I made a post.


  5. says

    I am so very much in the same place! In grade school and high school, we were served prepared meals in a very rigidly controlled environment (like an old-fashioned English boarding school rather than the typical cafeteria you’d expect in this country), so everyone up to and including the teachers and vice-principal could and did comment on my eating habits, usually in the form of extreme mockery. (Seriously, why is a small pile of salt for French fries derided, while drowning them in ketchup is viewed as totally okay?) And in high school, a student always had to scrape the leftovers off everyone’s plates. Somehow, that always seemed to end up being me on the days when salad was served, even though the smell of salad dressing made me gag. The teachers knew that it had that effect on me, surely, after seeing me have to turn my face away so often, but they never did anything about it, because that was just part of me being “picky”.

    My mother a while back found a name for the condition: we’re super-tasters, apparently, people cursed with too many taste buds. (I think I have too many smell receptors, too, but that’s another issue entirely…)


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