If you refuse to try quinoa, recoil at the texture of tomatoes — or, gasp, avocados — and insist that certain foods never touch on the plate, you might be a picky eater — and you are not alone. Up to 56% of the population could be labeled picky eaters, a term used to describe those who eat from a small range of foods and are rigid about their preparation and presentation, according to research.
Eating a limited diet might not seem like a big deal but Drew Frugé, PhD, RD and an assistant professor and director of the didactic program in dietetics at Auburn University, warns, “Most of the things that picky eaters will eat are bland, super salty or highly processed foods. They may be getting enough calories — or too many calories — but not getting enough nutrients.”
A 2019 study published in the journal Nutrients found picky eaters consumed fewer fruits and vegetables and less meat than more adventurous eaters, leading to lower intake of fiber and protein. Additional research found children described as picky eaters have lower levels of essential nutrients such as iron, zinc and carotene.
Other research published in Childhood Obesity found parents might compensate for picky eating by offering foods their children like, including calorie-dense foods, increasing the risk of obesity.
A limited diet could also lead to other health issues. Researchers at the University of Helsinki found a fear of trying new foods (called food neophobia) was linked to a higher intake of saturated fat and sodium and higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. Co-author Heikki Sarin also noted increased levels of inflammatory markers among those with food neophobia. “Picky eating leads usually to a one-sided diet with aversion toward healthy foods that help lower inflammation,” explains Sarin.
Consider these three strategies to help diversify your diet:
To increase your appetite for different foods, Frugé suggests signing up for a cooking class or food tour or joining a social dining group that meets at different restaurants. Research shows attending cooking classes, tasting sessions and visiting farmers markets and new restaurants all help improve food preferences.
You might not like a salad filled with raw carrots, snap peas and peppers, but don’t dismiss those veggies altogether. Sample them steamed, roasted or tossed in sesame dressing and served over rice. Experimenting with different preparations may lead you to a new favorite food.
A single bite — or even a single serving — of a new food is not enough to decide whether you like it. Most people need to try a new food approximately 10–15 times to get accustomed to the flavors, says Sarin. “It’s wise to sample a new food a few times a week on a regular basis to get accustomed to the flavor.”
Even picky eaters who favor healthy foods like fruits and vegetables should aim to expand their palates. “Regardless of what foods you’re picky about, you’re likely omitting foods that could be benefiting your health,” says Frugé. “If you know it’s for your health, challenge yourself to try new foods.”