Accomodating Lesser-Known Eating Disorders: Trivializing Pickiness and Other Preferences Undermines Real Medical Conditions

By Amy Rudolph
Elm Staff Writer

For years I’ve been told by my family, friends, and even strangers to stop being so picky and just eat what is in front of me. After years of constantly telling people no and spitting out food I was forced to eat, I was labeled a “picky eater.” I held that moniker until I was 16, and my doctor told me that I wasn’t just a picky eater; I had an actual eating disorder. Initially, I rebuffed the notion; I ate plenty, and I didn’t look like the girls on TV and in textbooks who had eating disorders.
When I looked into Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder and I saw the diagnostic criteria for it, it all became much clearer. ARFID, known colloquially as Selective Eating Disorder, mirrors picky eating, but takes it to an extreme. It is normal for children to be picky and not want to eat certain foods, but when children grow up and they physically cannot eat something because their body will not let them swallow it or it makes them vomit, that’s not normal; that’s ARFID.
The symptoms of ARFID follow those of normal picky eating so closely that multiple doctors just passed my symptoms off as me being picky for almost two decades. So, it is understandable when others do not get why I physically cannot eat something. Once I explain that I’m not just being stubborn and I really can only eat about 20 foods, people usually give up their fight to make me try new foods. The thing is, I shouldn’t have to tell people about my condition in order for them to stop bothering me.
When I came to college, I left the luxury of my mom catering to my specific tastes, and I faced the dilemma of eating something I didn’t like, which might make me sick or just not eat.
I also had to deal with people not being understanding, and having to explain myself over and over. I sounded like a broken record anytime anyone asked if I wanted to go to a restaurant where I knew I’d have problems finding something to eat. I was left out of plans and got into fights with friends which only added to my frustration. I wish I didn’t have this condition, but we have to make the most of the cards we are dealt.
For much of freshman year, the dining hall was my go-to place for any meal. I could eat pizza, fries, cheeseburgers, grilled cheese, chicken fingers, and cereal, the main staples of my diet, whenever I wished. There were some days in the dining hall where the selection was scarce for picky eaters, and I would just go without. I was capable of going back to my dorm and making a small something to tide me over until the meal options shifted. As time wore on and semesters passed, I found myself having to do this more and more.
I met with Director of Dining Services, Donald Stanwick, to discuss how to remedy my situation. When deciding food options, there are a number of things that the school has to consider. The recent shift away from the flash fried status quo towards healthier options came as a result of student feedback.
“Vegetarians and vegans are very outspoken, so we know what they need,” said Stanwick. “Once we know about a restriction, we can provide those options, you just have to let us know.”
After my meeting with Stanwick, my fears of not eating in the dining hall were allayed.
The idea of letting people know is still the problem for me. Not everyone is as accommodating as the dining hall or restaurants. Having a dietary restriction always makes for awkward dinner table conversation about the fact that I won’t eat what someone just made. Some people try to guilt me by saying, “I made that for you, just eat it.” Trust me, I am fully aware of it. In the dining hall, however, I don’t have to worry about anyone being insulted if I don’t eat what is offered.
When people do not have extreme dietary restrictions, they may find it hard to empathize because they are not the ones actively experiencing it. I can only imagine it is even worse for people without a diagnosis of ARFID who just plain don’t like anything. Not finding something you can eat is frustrating enough, but having people constantly point it out to you is worse. Picky eaters should not feel as though they have to eat something just because someone else wants them to. I would never force someone who practices vegetarianism to eat meat, so why do people feel comfortable telling me what to eat? If you tell a vegan, “just try it” about a food they can’t eat based on their restriction, people will tell you that you are in the wrong. But no one stands up for picky eaters the same way.
No one should have to feel like they need to eat something that they don’t want to eat. It is a constant reminder of the fact that our diets are limited. We do not need to told we are picky – we already know. Telling anyone of their limitations is rude, but when it is tied to something as vital as food, it is ever present in our minds. So no one needs a reminder. Just let picky people be picky, it is as simple as that. You cannot force anyone to do anything that they do not want to or can’t do. Understand your friends’ limitations and don’t let them feel excluded. This goes for everything, not just food.

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