Parents frazzled by their little ones' finicky food choices often sigh in exasperation, thinking: "They'll grow out of it by college."
Maybe not, suggests a new study from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Some young people continue their picky eating into early adulthood, often restricting their diets to 10 foods or even fewer.
Such a limited diet can mean they're not getting the fiber and vegetables they need, which could be a health issue. But the study also suggests picky eaters also may be experiencing other challenges such as social phobias, including around eating. Social phobia is the fear of being judged by others during everyday activities, often resulting in fear or embarrassment.
"If someone's a picky eater but they couldn't care less what other people think about them, then they're not going to avoid social situations, but if somebody is a picky eater and they're worried about being judged by others for that they may start to avoid certain social situations," said Martin Antony, a professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto who specializes in treatment for anxiety disorders. He was not part of the new research.
For the study, investigators surveyed 488 Midwestern college students.
About 40% identified as picky eaters. And about 65% of those respondents said they ate fewer than 10 foods.
"We asked participants to just tell us what challenges around picky eating they might have had or any benefits they might see and people were kind of across the board in terms of what was impactful to them," said co-author Lauren Dial, a doctoral student at Bowling Green State at the time of the study.
Dial, now an assistant professor of psychology at California State University in Fresno, said college students are particularly interesting to study, because these young adults can decide, possibly for the first time in their lives, what to eat and when.
The study found that participants who self-identified as picky eaters had greater levels of social phobia. Picky eating was also associated with lower quality of life and situational distress.
"A lot of people cited they were having trouble finding foods that they ate, especially when they went out to restaurants or went out to eat with friends, so that could potentially be why there was more social phobia or why they experienced more social phobia," Dial said.
"And they tend to avoid eating meals and not eating foods around other people just based on whether they don't like that food or they're not wanting to sort of 'out' themselves as a picky eater to their friends in a social situation," she noted.
Many respondents indicated they'd eat less or not at all outside the home, the study said.
One 19-year-old man said he'd drink water half the time "due to my picky eating," according to the study. Another 18-year-old said: "Sometimes there are some awkward comments when eating with my girlfriend and her family." A 23-year-old woman said her parents would get frustrated at her refusal to try the foods she was served.
Some respondents said they bring their own snacks because they never know if a host will serve something they want to eat.
"When going out to eat it sometimes takes me a while to decide what I want or what to tell the waitress to leave off the dish," a 19-year-old woman said.
Whether picky eating stems entirely from physical reasons -- the feeling, textures or flavors of food -- or it's related to a mental health disorder depends on the individual.
"It does have a lot to do with the presentation of foods, how they're presented on a plate, the texture of foods, is it a consistent texture, there's competing textures," Dial said, "but there's also fear of trying new foods and that might play into picky eating."
Antony said there may be a variety of reasons for picky eating.
For some, health issues may lead to or require a special diet. Others may have obsessive-compulsive disorder, which could include a fear of choking or worry about contamination of certain foods.
Some foods can also trigger a disgust response, Antony said. "It can happen for lots of different reasons and different people probably would describe different causes or different factors that contribute to it," he said.
Antony said the link between picky eating and social anxiety may be similar to how that type of anxiety disorder can cause some people to feel excessively frightened of social or performance situations -- in this case fearing that their hands may shake while eating or that others will notice.
How much this might affect a college student's social life depends on how much they care what other people think, Antony said.
Some extremely picky eaters have an eating disorder called avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). Picky eating may be part of a spectrum with some having more severe picky eating and others less so, Dial said.
The findings were published Oct. 7 in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
By learning more about picky eating in adults, the researchers said they may be able to determine how best to intervene before the problem becomes more severe for some people.
The National Eating Disorders Association has more about Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder.
SOURCES: Lauren Dial, PhD, assistant professor, psychology, California State University, Fresno; Martin Antony, PhD, professor, psychology, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada; Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, Oct. 7, 2021