Selective Eating Disorder

By Ashley Henshaw. May 7th 2016

Many people remember the days when, as children, they only wanted to eat a few of their favorite foods, such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, hot dogs and pizza. However, most people do not experience severe problems related to pickiness with food, and eventually they grow out of this phase. Those who do experience extreme pickiness when it comes to food may suffer from selective eating disorder, a unique condition accompanied by a certain set of symptoms, obstacles and treatment problems.

What Is Selective Eating Disorder?

Selective eating disorder is a type of eating disorder that involves extreme pickiness when it comes to food. This particular disorder can affect people of any age, although many people first experience the disorder as children. People with selective eating disorder exhibit rigid eating habits where they only want to eat very specific foods. Often, people with this condition find that they feel physically sick or extremely uneasy when trying to eat foods which are unfamiliar or aren’t one of the few foods which they routinely eat.

Unlike more well-known eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia, people with selective eating disorder typically do not make their food choices based on calorie content or wanting their body to look a certain way. Instead, they are usually drawn to foods they are already familiar with and which exhibits certain textures or tastes.

Potential Problems

There are numerous problems and challenges which may arise for a person who has selective eating disorder, including:

  • Social anxiety: One of the most common symptoms among those with selective eating disorder is high anxiety about eating in social situations. For instance, a person may avoid meeting friends for lunch, going to a business meeting at a restaurant or being invited over for dinner because of their limitations about which foods they’ll eat. This can cause alienation from others, problems in the workplace and ongoing anxiety problems.
  • Obsessive-compulsive tendencies: According to The Wall Street Journal, medical experts have found that many people with selective eating disorder also display some obsessive-compulsive tendencies. This could be related to the way in which they are meticulous about not only the foods they eat, but also how they approach social situations so that others will not find out about their condition.
  • Inadequate nutrition: Because people with selective eating disorder tend to include only a small number of foods in their diet, they often suffer from nutritional deficiencies. Some of the most common foods that people with this disorder eat are blander foods like plain pasta, cheese pizza, French fries or chicken fingers, all of which are unhealthy if not eaten in moderation along with other healthy foods, like fruits, vegetables and lean meats.
  • Developmental impairments: For children who suffer from selective eating disorder, their physical development may be stunted when they do not receive a healthy and varied mix of food in their diet. These children may begin to miss developmental milestones that are related to mental or physical development due to their extremely limited diet.

Treatment Options

Those who are diagnosed with selective eating disorders often undergo different types of treatment for their condition. These treatment options may include:

  • Education: An important part of treating an individual with selective eating disorder is educating them about their condition, their bodies and how their behaviors or personal history has impacted their eating habits.
  • Practice sessions: Those with selective eating disorder are encouraged to try new foods in a variety of environments, including therapy rooms and restaurants.
  • Coping skills: It’s helpful for those with the disorder to learn certain skills and techniques for managing their anxiety and fear of certain foods.
  • Medical attention: For many people with selective eating disorders, physical and nutritional evaluations are recommended in order to treat any conditions or health issues which have resulted from the individual’s limited diet. It’s important that these medical issues are identified and addressed during the treatment for selective eating disorder.
  • Family involvement: Some medical professionals also recommend family involvement programs for those with the disorder. This encourages the family to take part in some aspects of treatment. It also provides a way to family members to learn how to best support their loved one who is going through treatment for the disorder.

Bottom Line

Children who are simply “picky eaters” will often grow out of it, but those with selective eating disorder are experiencing something distinctive from simply being picky about food. Those with this disorder, whether they are children, adolescents or adults, should seek help if their eating habits are causing them to get inadequate nutrition or experience significant social anxiety. These are signs that the individual’s eating habits may be an actual eating disorder rather than simply being picky about what they eat. If you or your child may have selective eating disorder, make an appointment with your doctor to discuss the problem.


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