Empty Plate

It’s common knowledge that children can be choosy about which foods they eat, but what many people might not realize is that picky eating can last into adulthood.

In more serious cases, adult picky eating can be classified as a disorder psychologists call avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder. Yes, that’s admittedly somewhat of a mouthful – no pun intended.

So what causes people to remain picky eaters into adulthood? That’s what a team of psychology researchers asked in a study published, appropriately enough, in the journal Appetite.

The researchers conducted an online survey of over a thousand people who filled out a questionnaire called the Adult Picky Eating Questionnaire.

The results suggested that early childhood experiences are one important factor contributing to picky eating in adulthood. Picky eaters recalled experiencing more parental pressure to eat while less picky eaters reported that their parents had encouraged healthy eating habits more.

Adults with picky eating behaviors also remembered experiencing more “aversive food events” – in other words, they may have more unpleasant memories involving food. And they tended to have become picky eaters at an earlier age.

The researchers found a few other characteristics that picky eaters tended to share. For one thing, they were more prone to feelings of disgust on average. Everything else being equal, they were also more likely to be male.

Overall, it appears that while there are a number of factors involved in determining when picky eating persists into adulthood, early childhood experiences are one important variable that shapes adult picky eating behavior.

These experiences include the way parents approach food. In particular, encouraging healthy eating habits in children but not putting unnecessary pressure on children to eat certain foods may decrease the chances of picky eating lasting into adulthood.

These insights into picky eating have promise for improving mental health treatment. As the researchers conclude, “a nuanced understanding of adult picky eating is important for the prevention and treatment of severe picky behaviors, related psychosocial impairment, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder.”

Image: Flickr/Brave Heart