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Can science help the picky eater? Interview with Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic (part 1).

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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This summer, I reviewed Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate by Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic. This month, with the approach of the holiday season (prime time for picky eaters to sit with non-picky eaters at meal time), Stephanie and I sat down for lunch at Evvia in Palo Alto to talk about pickiness while sampling foods that had previously been in our “no go” categories. (For me, this included dolmathes, for Stephanie, grilled octopus.)

In this segment of the interview, we discuss some of what scientists think they know about pickiness and why it matters. We also dip our tasting spoons into the steaming cauldron of early upbringing and cultural influences on the foods we like or don’t like, and chew on the idea that a kid’s pickiness can be developmentally appropriate.

Janet D. Stemwedel: The first question I have is about the expectations you had when you set out on this project, researching the book, about what you were going to learn about the science — whether you started out thinking science probably had a nice, neat explanation for why people are picky eaters, of whether you started out with the assumption that it was going to be a big old complicated thing?

Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic: I did not think science had the big answer, honestly. I thought science could answer the supertaster question for me personally, but that was the only answer I expected to get. In the meantime, I knew that I could ask scientists and psychologists and psychiatrists questions along with that. But I knew from what I was aware of already, the articles out there — I mean, they’re usually pop-culture articles, and they don’t always tell the science correctly or fully — I knew that science had some answers. I knew that there were so many avenues that could be explored, I really didn’t expect there to be a full answer. What I found, though, were more possibilities, like “this could be a possible reason — being a supertaster could be a reason, but it’s not the only reason.” Being exposed via breast milk — which I was not; I was a formula-fed baby — is maybe linked to being less picky, so maybe being formula-fed contributed to my pickiness. You’re never going to get an answer with 100% agreement behind it, because it’s still evolving. And science, as evidenced by Duke doing this study, for the adults at least, they don’t know what’s causing it, they just know that there are a lot of contributing factors. And, when they’re looking to treat it, it’s more like, “Well, let’s get really in-depth into what the possibilities might be that contribute to it, and let’s try to fix them” on sometimes just the psychological level.

JS: It’s an interesting kind of thing that something that goes along with studying a phenomenon like being a picky eater is the scientists saying, “And we’re going to fix it!” Like it’s something that needs to be fixed rather than just part of normal human variation. Why problematize it?

SL: Well, Dr. Nancy Zucker at Duke said what they worry about — less in my case, personally; more other people’s cases — they’re finding, if you’re a child, your development could be affected if you have what they call severe food refusal. They left the adults alone for a while, but now they’re discovering that maybe adults’ health and social lives are severely impaired by this problem, because they’re not eating the things maybe they’re supposed to be eating that can extend their lives or make them healthier, or if they don’t want to go out to dinner with friends and family, if they don’t want to be around friends, that’s a problem. So, that’s why they want to “fix” it, or at least help.

JS: So, it’s not necessarily, “We will find the picky eaters. They will all be cured. It will be a happy utopia.”

SL: I think the picky eaters have to want the help to be “cured”. While I got over it, I don’t believe that there’s going to be a cure. It’s very individualized. You really have to want to get over it, and to be fair to picky eaters who have it worse than I do, I don’t mean to say that all picky eaters want to live that way. But you have to have a very strong impetus to push you to do it. It’s a really scary thing. A lot of picky eaters will tell you it’s not a won’t, it’s a can’t. They can’t get over it.

JS: You interacted with lots of scientists who study many different aspects of pickiness in lots of different ways. You discovered that it’s complicated. Is your sense that the scientists feel like they may be getting near a place where things start seeming less complicated, where things start falling into place? Or was your sense, talking to them, that every corner they turned, they found a new way that it’s more complicated?

SL: I think the second. I think that as they gather information, especially about the adult picky eaters — because the adults are more forthcoming about what they don’t like and why or what they remember; you don’t necessarily reason with kids when you’re trying to treat them, you just treat them — so I think that they’re finding more nuances. It’s not just about the individual foods at all. It’s the reasons, if they can figure them out. So I think, when I spoke to scientists about my own personal experience and how I feel like I got past it, for some of them that was new information. To hear about my reactions to foods, or how I went to culinary school, some of it was like, “Oh, that makes sense. You learned how to cook and that demystified the food. That makes sense, on a psychological level, that that could have helped you.” But I think it’s still such a mystery because many people struggle with how to explain a dislike. You have to be pretty introspective to do it, and you may just be unable to explain it. “I don’t know why I don’t like it; I just don’t like it. I don’t know if it’s the texture or the flavor or what.” Some people haven’t thought very hard about it. They just know they don’t like it. I’m not sure it’s that complicated of a thing, except that humans are so complicated, and pickiness is more of an internal than an external issue. That makes it pretty complex.

JS: So scientists aren’t even expecting that it’s going to end up shaking out to be like three main ways to be picky.

SL: You know, I don’t know, because when I asked Dr. Zucker, who was heading up the Duke study, what they hoped to achieve, she was very careful to say that they were in the beginning stages of just assessing information with this online survey. I will say, they were surprised at the response. I’m remembering she said in a radio interview we were both part of that she expected around 3,000 people to fill out this form, and they got like 30,000. So I think the breadth of that response, what they’re learning about how many people out there might classify themselves as picky, as having food issues — and again, they were just amassing the information, they hadn’t yet begun to process it. Maybe they’ve started that now. Because I will say, also in that same interview, I always asked the question, is there a difference between men and women. That could have been something, potentially, I talked about in the book. Although I didn’t write about it, I personally found that of the people I’ve met who are former picky eaters, who have gotten past it, more are women than men. Men I’ve met who are picky eaters seem to just be OK with their state. They deal with it and they don’t really need to change it. We could go into philosophical reasons about women being social, or feeling judged, to explain why they might be more likely to try to get past it. But anyway, when I asked if there’s a difference between men and women, [I found out] there are studies with kids found that males may be more likely to reject a new idea than females. But Dr. Zucker did say in this one interview that they are starting to find out that there might be a difference between the sexes in pickiness itself. I wanted to talk to her about it more, but I couldn’t on the radio. Anyway, some interesting correlations are emerging.

JS: But then untangling what’s going on with those, whether it’s genes or environment, figuring out if there’s a cultural component to it …

SL: Whether there’s a cultural component is something I’ve been asked about a lot in interviews. It was something I did not feel equipped to cover, because it was just so big. I could have taken on the history of picky eating — it was something my editor wanted me to do — but I wasn’t even sure how to begin tracking the history of it. On the cultural side of it, you get a lot of people saying, “Well, in India babies eat spicy foods.” Yeah, they do; that’s what’s there, what they’re used to. That’s their normal. But I also had someone tell me about being an American in North Korea, working (yes, it can be done). They went out to lunch with their Korean counterparts, and the menu had a western side and a Korean side. The western side was all pastas, pizzas, whatever, and the Koreans at the lunch thought that was absolutely disgusting food. So, it’s all about what you’re used to. It’s not that Americans are predisposed to be picky because we live in this huge country of largesse. People in different countries are going to have different reactions to different kinds of food. What might be gross to someone who’s never had Japanese food before almost certainly has an American counterpart that someone in Japan would find gross. It’s a huge topic that I couldn’t even begin to get into.

JS: It makes you wonder. I would not describe my own upbringing as full of lots of different styles of food, or of foods from lots of different cultural traditions. My parents were from the midwest. I was growing up basically in the ’70s and ’80s, and that was not necessarily a time of astounding creativity among home chefs.

SL: Not just in the midwest, it wasn’t anywhere. I’m from Minnesota, and I grew up the same time you did. It was a lot of frozen vegetables for me. Badly prepared.

JS: With the hell boiled right out of them.

SL: Right! So there was no way they were going to end up being anything good. Now, I could blame Minnesota for our lack of access to better food, but I’ve talked to a friend of mine who grew up in California –

JS: And it was the same thing?

SL: Yes. She said, “We just didn’t have the same access that we do today.”

JS: Huh!

SL: She’s a former picky eater turned foodie and food writer, and she said it wasn’t until she went to college that she was opened up to more food. Maybe it is all about what your parents are bringing home. My husband grew up in the Washington, D.C. area, and his mom always loved to cook, so she sought out the best recipes and there was more of that emphasis for him; even if they didn’t always have access to non-frozen vegetables, there was an attempt. I grew up on Chinese food and Vietnamese food, because we had a lot of it around, and I loved it, but I didn’t grow up around stuff I love now, like Ethiopian food or Afghan food. In this day and age, even in the midwest, there are more corner grocery stores that are going to have the ingredients, there are more restaurants, there’s more of an emphasis on the food culture than when you and I were growing up.

JS: Maybe that will have an impact on our kids. But, then again …

SL: It’s one thing that might help.

JS: Yeah. I have a kid who, as a two-year-old, cried inconsolably when, after her third helping of garlic broccoli, we ran out (and couldn’t get more, since it was Sunday, and the Thai restaurant down the street that we had gotten it from was closed). We said, “Child, you are not supposed to like broccoli this much!” And before that, when she was a baby, of course, every time my head was turned at the playground, she’d eat a handful of sand, I think just on principle. So, not what I would have called a super-picky child. But now, for her, there’s like a 15 minute window in which she’ll count a banana as ripe.

SL: I don’t blame her!

JS: And beyond that, she says, “It makes me gag.”

SL: Bananas are pernicious!

JS: It’s hard to know how much of this has to do with this is where her palate is right now (and it’s a moving target), and how much of it is, here’s a way to stick it to the parent.

SL: Speaking personally, I was the middle child, so I was always trying to be good. I was not ever trying to piss off my parents or run counter to them. And even my older sister, who was more the rebel, rebelled in other ways. I will say she became a vegetarian for a while, maybe to make a point — she was a teenager — but I also believe it was to avoid certain foods that neither of us liked. Speaking as a kid who grew up picky, I never consciously thought of my pickiness as a way to thwart my parents. I hated fighting with them about it.

JS: Yeah, I’m not even sure this would be a conscious thing. Once they’re thirteen, they don’t even know all the ways they’re trying to fight authority.

SL: Sometimes they’re disagreeing just to disagree.

JS: I think it’s part of demonstrating that you’re an autonomous human being; you have to reject every good idea that comes out of your mother’s mouth.

SL: Which is exactly what they’re doing around eighteen months. This is why it’s normal to see picky eaters at toddler age. It’s developmentally appropriate — they should be picky eaters. It’s the first time they can take control and say “No” and “You can’t put this in my mouth because I can now feed myself.” So yes, I learned that they’re little teenagers when they’re toddlers, with the same kinds of hormonal fluctuations going on.

JS: Well, it’s totally fun to get to do that twice with each child. Development kind of sucks.

SL: Yeah.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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