The Science Behind Why You’re a Picky Eater
You call your palate “selective.” Your friends call you a picky eater. But researchers have discovered that there are actual scientific reasons that may explain why the short list of foods you eat mostly comprises of chicken fingers, buttered noodles, grilled cheese, and pizzas
“Like many behaviours, it appears to be the result of a complex interaction between your genes and the environment,” says Marcia Pelchat, Ph.D., a researcher at Monell Chemical Sense Center in Philadelphia who focuses on food preferences.
Let’s start with genetics. Variants of a gene associated with taste, called TAS2R38, determine how strongly you taste bitter flavours, like coffee or kale, researchers say. And if you perceive that broccoli, for instance, as being unbelievably bitter, you may shun it.
Another genetic factor: The more messenger RNA (mRNA) your taste cells make, the more sensitive you may be to bitterness in foods and beverages, a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found.
So your penchant for pickiness may have been passed down from your ancestors—but there’s a good reason for that: Evolutionarily speaking, your tepid taste buds might have once saved your life, researchers believe.
“There’s a theory that it serves a purpose because being skeptical of foods could prevent you from eating something that’s poisonous,” Pelchat says.
And that was especially important for young children, which is why we see peak pickiness emerge between the ages of two and three years old. “Until recently, that was the age of weaning in human cultures, so you want children to be worried and to only eat things that are safe until they learn what’s going on,” she adds.
Besides the biological basis, here’s another reason to blame mom and dad for your uncultured sense of taste: It’s possible that your parents could have contributed to your picky eating, either by showcasing their own fussy habits or by catering to your narrow childhood demands for pizza and pasta, Pelchat says.
While being a choosy eater may not bother you that much, you should consider plumping up your palate for multiple reasons, she says. For one, it could spell danger for your waistline. Foods most adult picky eaters consume tend to be high in fat and sugar—and thus calories—because those are most familiar, simple, and highly palatable tastes, she explains.
And if you can count the foods that you eat on two hands, you’re also missing out on the benefits of consuming a variety of disease-fighting vitamins and minerals.
In some people, being picky may also be more than a personality quirk. In 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) recognized avoidant-restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) as a mental disorder.
This condition is like picky eating on steroids—you go to extreme measures to avoid certain foods because of their colour, smell, texture, temperature or taste. And this may lead to a significant weight loss, nutritional deficiencies, or social dysfunctions.
But chances are, you’re not at the far end of the spectrum. You really are just picky.
So what can you do? We could suggest sneaking foods you don’t like into foods you do—like you might with a child. But let’s be real: You can’t “sneak” stuff into your own dishes.
And you could try masking the flavour with sauces or dips. But as a picky eater, you probably have as many issues with a food’s texture and mouth feel as you do with the way it tastes.
That doesn’t leave you with a lot of options. However, if you’re truly motivated to expand your diet, there is an expert-approved plan you can use.
Begin by listing the foods you enjoy and their sensory qualities, advises Nancy Zucker, Ph.D., who studies finicky eating at Duke University. Be objective and descriptive.
For example, if you like French fries, note that they’re salty on the outside and soft inside. Next, create a list of foods you don’t eat but that have similar qualities. So you might list baked potatoes.
Finally, commit to trying something from your secondary list every day. Take at least three bites and describe the flavour aloud, taking note of specific qualities—taste, texture, appearance, and smell, for example—you like, dislike, or feel neutral about.
Your goal is to experience the food, not to make a snap judgment about whether you like it. “It’s a slow process, but if you commit to trying something new every day, the effort will pay off,” says Zucker. Even if you’re not a fan of a dish, try it again in a few weeks. Your tastebuds may need 20 attempts to come around.