By: Lindsey Murphy, OTR/L
Food is an important part of our daily routines, social gatherings, holidays, and events. While food is essential for survival, it has also become a part of our celebrations. Many people love to explore new restaurants to find great places to hang out with family and friends. Sharing food with others bonds us to each other and creates sentiments of camaraderie and well-being.
However, imagine having an extremely limited diet with very few preferred foods. The smell and appearance of non-preferred foods can be overwhelming. It can create a fight or flight response where a person feels anxious and has the urge to either remove him/herself from the situation or become very oppositional or withdrawn. Feelings of nausea may arise in addition to common symptoms of panicking: sweaty palms, increased heart rate, faster breathing, etc. Instead of food enhancing daily life, some picky eaters may feel limited by their dietary restrictions. It may become difficult to enjoy eating with friends and family. Mealtimes and snacks may become a burden that is required for survival rather than a pleasurable activity.
What can cause these picky eating behaviors that restrict tolerating a wide variety of foods? For many individuals, a wide assortment of underlying causes lead to limitations in food variety. Structural challenges inside the mouth, sensory-based aversions, and previous negative experiences related to food are a few of many causes for increased selectiveness while eating.
From a sensory perspective, foods have a broad spectrum of different tastes, scents, temperatures, and textures. When comparing cold applesauce, room temperature apples, and hot apple pie, these three foods have the same essential base ingredient: apples. If inspected more deeply, however, these foods have very little in common aside from that. During a blind taste test, most people could easily differentiate the three. The temperature, texture, visual appearance, thickness, taste, and scent of each one would vary greatly. To further complicate matters, our taste buds are very selective about the quality of the food that we eat. Two different brands of store-bought apple pies most likely will not taste the same. This lack of consistency in flavors presents additional challenges for picky eaters. Just because an individual eats Kraft macaroni and cheese at home does not implicate that Panera’s macaroni and cheese dish will be similar. In order for us to eat successfully, our bodies require us to utilize thirty-two steps related to viewing, interacting with, smelling, touching, tasting, and finally eating the food. It’s no wonder that tastes or textures of foods can be rejected!
What is a solution to sensory-based picky eating? Similar to constructing a complex highway system, our brains must build complicated, connecting pathways to allow us to eat a wide variety of foods. Our clinic utilizes the Sequential Oral Sensory (S.O.S.) approach to feeding that incorporates a play-based approach that encourages individuals to explore and interact with food in a fun, non-stressful manner. When pickiness becomes a tricky part of daily life for an individual, developing skills to transform food from purposeful to pleasurable can make a significant impact.