Correction to This Article
A Sept. 26 Health article about adult picky eaters misstated the age of JoAnn Polickoski and the service branch of her husband. She is 35, not 34, and her husband, James Polickoski, is in the Navy, not the Marine Corps.

The Picky Eater Files

Bob Krause eats only a few foods.
Bob Krause eats only a few foods. (Dan Reeves - for The Washington Post)

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By Annie Groer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 26, 2006

At age 51, Billy Shore -- founder and chief executive of the anti-hunger charity Share Our Strength in Washington -- has some food issues himself.

Shore pretty much hates "the taste and texture" of all vegetables, except spinach and corn on the cob. And those two are fairly recent concessions in an otherwise vegetable-free life.

Denise Davis, 44, an elementary school teacher from Springfield, can't abide fish because "the smell is off," and has no use for most veggies. "I pick the peas out of pot pies," she says. "There used to be four peas per pie, and now I notice there are five."

Self-described "meat and potatoes guy" Lincoln Tyson, 32, who owns a consulting firm in Laurel, was at a glam dinner hosted by Tiffany & Co. last year. The social circumstances compelled him to choke down at least some of the very first salad he'd eaten in his life. Never again.

Shore, Davis and Tyson are among legions of adult picky eaters, otherwise intelligent men and women who banish from their diets specific tastes or textures or sometimes entire food groups. They are grown-ups who somehow haven't outgrown the finicky food preferences most of us leave behind once we're out of the highchair. Or college, at least.

Pass them on the street and you'd never know the quirks they harbor. But invite them over for a meal or join them at a restaurant and the truth emerges. Some find pasta and oysters too slimy. Others can't bear chewy meats, gritty berries, rubbery cheese or mushy tomatoes.

There are those who shun "foreign" or spicy foods as a category, or all produce with seeds (especially okra, which when overcooked marries seeds with slime, making it a true picky-eater nightmare). There are the dairy-averse (ice cream is often a notable exception) and condiment-phobes, who wouldn't consider defiling their food with mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise or relish.

Some finicky eaters will not mix foods on the same plate, or they insist on finishing one item entirely before starting the next. Others refuse to eat anything at all with their hands, whether a sandwich, peanuts or pizza.

Fairfax insulation contractor Steve Fye, 58, will not eat foods that have touched each other on his plate. "I don't think of it as a disorder," he says, "just kind of curious."

These are not people, you understand, with medical conditions or religion-based food restrictions. Nor are they dieters, cuisine snobs or diners who simply prefer steak well-done rather than rare.

They are otherwise well-adjusted adults with unyielding, often secretive, eating practices.

"A normal person might enjoy hundreds, if not thousands" of combinations among all the fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, fowl, grains, nuts, juices, herbs, soups, sweets, sauces, spices, desserts and flavorings in today's markets, says Marcia Pelchat, a food psychologist.

By contrast, adult picky eaters in extreme cases limit themselves to as few as 20 or 30 tolerable edibles, says Pelchat, who works at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a research institute in Philadelphia specializing in taste, smell and nutrition.

"For cooked vegetables, it's the texture," Pelchat says. "Those in the cabbage family have a lot of sulfur, so that when cooked they stink. For a lot of picky eaters it's the texture of things like raspberries and strawberries. Even I was thrilled to find out you could get strained blackberry jam."

That's Sick

Although it is not known how many American adults are picky eaters, a growing number are seeking treatment, says Bradley C. Riemann, clinical director of obsessive-compulsive disorders at Milwaukee's Rogers Memorial Hospital, which treats numerous patients with eating issues.

"All of a sudden, in the past six months to a year, it is bursting out more than I have seen in my entire 18-year career, partly because there is so much public awareness of obsessive-compulsive disorder," or OCD, Riemann says. "Typically, this is not OCD-related but there is a fear reaction [to specific foods], disgust, and it is affecting their lives."

But picky eaters can become seriously ill or depressed, says Riemann. "The line between food preferences and disordered eating is whether it hurts their quality of life."

The chronically finicky often feel comfortable eating only in private, because at parties and restaurants the sight, smell or texture of foods they dislike can make them physically ill.

"The important defining question is, do they worry when they have to go out -- to a business lunch or dinner, or to someone's home for the weekend, where they cannot control the food. They're not just worried about finding something they'd like to eat, but there is some embarrassment admitting this to new people," Pelchat says.

Picky adults exhibit "extreme reluctance to try new foods. A cocktail party is a nightmare because you have all these enclosed packets [of finger foods] and you don't know what's inside," she says.

Picky Loves Company

A lifetime of mealtime agony drove Virginia Beach businessman Bob Krause, 59, to start a Web site ( http://www.pickyeatingadults.com/ ) , which in four years has drawn about 300 fellow sufferers to share their tales of woe in a cyber-support group. One of them is made miserable by frequent potluck lunches at work. Another eats only the blandest of foods, such as cereal.

"They think they are the only ones" until they find the Web site, says Krause during a phone interview -- conducted from home, so he would not be overheard by his employees.

A self-described "hyper-picky eater" who consumes little more than raw carrots and celery, french fries, potato chips, pretzels, peanut butter crackers, cereal, beer and milk, Krause will not dine at friends' homes; he will go to a restaurant only with his wife.

"She will have a three-course meal and I might have a beer and french fries. In fancy restaurants, the fries might come with spices, batter or vinegar, and there I am with french fries I can't eat and two beers," says Krause. In his universe, Thanksgiving is "Black Thursday."

Fye, the Fairfax insulation contractor, explains his rule against eating two foods that have touched each other as a kind of preference. He eats each food in sequence.

"Part of it is relishing each different taste and part of it is the texture. If we have a salad, I can't eat it with the dinner. I eat it first."

His wife serves his food on a plate large enough to prevent the dreaded overlap. "I spin it around and whatever is in front of me is what I eat first. I realize that it all goes down the same hole and gets mixed up. But I don't like to do it that way. I can't help myself."

Fye is a gracious guest when he visits friends who serve stew or casserole: "I'll take it apart with a fork and sample each item." In restaurants, he bypasses foods that have come in contact with each other. "I'll build a little wall with mashed potatoes and not eat the portions that touched." Anti-hunger crusader Shore occasionally forces down spinach or corn when dining with some of the nation's top chefs who support his charity. But at a friend's wedding dinner last week, he ignored the gazpacho, ate only nuts and cheese from the salad, enjoyed the steak but nixed the German chocolate cake because "I've never been able to stand coconut."

Extreme eating habits almost killed the romance for JoAnn Polickoski, 34, who lives in a suburb of Columbia, S.C. In the early 1990s, her Marine boyfriend flew her to Spain for a vacation that was to include a marriage proposal. But James Polickoski, 34, did not fully comprehend his sweetie's ironclad culinary credo: "If it looks like what it is -- if it has a head, bones or scales -- forget it."

When confronted by the day's catch in a quaint seaside restaurant, "she completely melted down," he recalls. The paella he ordered contained "oversize prawns and crawfish with heads on. She wouldn't eat anything; she wanted to go to McDonald's, to eat commissary food. We had a horrible time."

He waited a year to give her a ring, and did so only after she promised him "to try every food at least once. She can't just look at it and freak out. I told her I can't eat this way and if we're going to have kids" -- their fourth was born in May -- "they are not going to grow up to be finicky. It was hard for her, but she agreed." ยท

Comments: groera@washpost.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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