Part 2: How can I eat healthy foods if I’m a picky eater?

Yesterday, I covered the weight-related and healthy-eating related parts of a reader question from Mealtime Hostage. Today I’m going to address the possible picky eating aspects.


If you have trouble eating healthy food because you’re a picky eater who experiences significant anxiety when trying new things, or eating things outside your comfort zone, and because you have a very small repertoire of accepted foods, the way to expand that repertoire is to take it one step at a time.


First, identify the reasons why you want to learn to like more foods. Now that we’ve dispensed with weight loss as the primary reason, come up with some other reasons. And remember, there’s no “should” here either. How you eat is your business. Whether you have a tiny repertoire, or a huge gourmand repertoire has nothing to say about how good a person you are. And while variety is preferable for nutrition, some people go their whole lives eating very limited diets and do just fine.

So, ask yourself: what would be easier for you if your repertoire of accepted foods were expanded? How would your life be better? Could you dine out more easily with friends? Actually have fun at business dinners instead of worrying about what the restaurant serves? Would family meals be easier (or possible?) Could you travel to another country without worrying that there literally won’t be a single thing you know how to eat? Could you just eat a wide variety of foods and enjoy the physical sensation that comes from being well-fed, and feel good about taking care of yourself?

You need to think of your own personal reasons why it would be worth doing this. Think of something rewarding.

Once you’ve got a good reason, maybe write it down somewhere, or find a photo that represents that thing, and save it. Look at it periodically to remind yourself of what good things are ahead.

Removing Pressure

The next step to learning to eat more kinds of food is to remove any pressure that’s put on your eating. By this I mean, pressure coming from other people. If someone else has a problem with your eating and lets you know about it on a regular basis, it can interfere with your progress.

With eating, I always return to Satter’s Division of Reponsibility. This is usually applied to parents and children, but it can also be applied to adults. No one has the right to tell you what to eat. No one has the right to even comment on your eating, really. Your eating is no one’s business but your own. You are the person who has to put food in your mouth and then deal with it being there, and then deal with whatever effects it has on you once eaten, so therefore you alone are in charge of what goes in and what doesn’t.

If you have a friend or family member who is commenting on your eating in a way that violates the Division of Responsibility (i.e. they are trying to decide for you what, when, or where you eat, how much, or whether), there is a good way to respond: use the DEAR MAN technique.

This is a technique from DBT, and it is a way of requesting something from someone without turning it into a fight. Here’s how it goes:

D – Describe the facts of the situation. Leave any emotions out of it right now. “You just made a comment about my eating, and repeatedly asked me to try something I don’t like.”

E – Express how you feel. “I think you mean well, but when you do this, I feel pressured, resentful, and hurt, and I’m less likely to want to try that thing now or in the future.”

A – Ask for what you want them to do instead. “When we eat together, I would like you to not make ANY comments about my eating at all. We can talk about other things instead.”

R – Reward them, either by thanking them now, or telling them what rewards are in store for them if they fulfill your request: “This will make our meals together a lot more pleasant for both of us, and we’ll get to spend more time together as a result.”

This is the part where you let them talk. Just listen, even if what they are saying is nonsense. In the meantime:

M – Stay mindful of what you want. Don’t waver from your request, which is completely reasonable. If they are defensive or putting up a fuss, simply repeat your request in a neutral tone, using the broken record technique: “When we eat together, I would like you to not make any comments about my eating.” Ignore any personal attacks. These are just attempts to distract you from your purpose, which is to get them to stop making comments about your eating.

A – Appear confident. Don’t apologize; do keep your head up, make eye contact, and try to keep an even tone of voice. You are asking for a very reasonable thing, and you are standing up for yourself without being aggressive. You are doing the right thing.

N – Negotiate. Be willing to offer the other person something they would like in exchange for their agreement…as long as it’s not something that involves you promising to try any specific food. “In exchange, I won’t pester you to come with me to polka class every week.” Or, “I won’t make comments about your eating habits either.”

Setting Boundaries

Once you’ve made a request, you can also set a boundary by choosing what you will do if someone makes a comment about your eating or pressures you to eat. Choose something that is an action, something you will follow through on, and that you can do without losing your temper. You can inform the person of your boundary ahead of time if you like. Just say what you will do, matter-of-factly.

Possible boundaries to try:

  • If someone makes a comment about my eating, I will excuse myself, take my plate to the other room and eat until I feel done.
  • If someone pressures me to try something, or to finish something I don’t want, I will excuse myself, take my plate to the other room, and avoid eating with that person for a week.
  • If someone makes a comment about my eating, or pressures me to eat, I will make the sad trombone noise.

Then, if the person crosses your boundary, as simply and as automatically as possible, do the behaviour.

If you are absolutely surrounded by pressure, and the people putting on that pressure will not, do not respond to your requests or your boundaries, there is a radical solution to take the pressure off: eat alone for a while. Make a space for yourself in some private room, and decide to give yourself a week or a month to take all your meals alone. Or visit a friend who likes to cook and doesn’t pressure you. Or make plans to go out to eat alone, or with supportive people.

Once you’ve figured out WHY you want to expand your eating repertoire, and created some space for yourself to work on it, then you can begin taking baby steps toward exploring new foods. Which I will talk about next.


Tales of picky eating in comments.

How can I lose weight if I can’t eat healthy foods?

I recently received a set of reader questions from Skye at Mealtime Hostage, and I figured I would take a crack at answering them. Here’s the first one:

I’m overweight because my diet is so unhealthy (mostly carbs, no meat, no fruit or veg … *ps…There might be juice, or a blueberry muffin-ish type thing). I want to lose weight but how can I shed the weight if I can’t eat healthy foods?

Hi there – I think this question is conflating two different things: healthy eating and weight loss. Tragically,* it is not a guarantee that if you eat a healthy diet, weight loss will follow. This may happen for some people (if adding in fruits and veggies displaces more calorically-dense foods) but on a strictly technical level, the weight loss is not a result of eating “healthier” food. People can lose (and have lost) weight on diets composed primarily of Twinkies, sheerly through calorie restriction. I’m not recommending it, but that’s how weight loss happens: you take in fewer calories, from any type of food, than you expend.

While this is true at the most reductive level, I must also point out that the economic model of body weight (that’s what I’m calling it from now on) omits certain complicating factors: like the possibility that, as one eats less, one’s resting energy expenditure (the number of calories you burn just existing) may take a hit as the body attempts to avert starvation through conserving energy. In animals, this means their body temperature goes down, they shiver less in response to cold, and they become very lethargic in their daily activities.

It also completely skirts the question of whether this kind of calorie deficit is sustainable for the long term. According to research in humans, it’s mostly not. And lastly, it ignores the possibility that some people are just naturally larger than other people, and that there is a considerable component of heritability to this weight diversity. That’s not to say people cannot be at a weight that is unhealthy for them, or at a higher weight due to overeating (they can), but it is to say that not every “overweight” person is in this situation. I don’t know what is true for you personally, but this deserves to be acknowledged in general.

Given all this very discouraging information, what’s a person to do? In my opinion: focus on eating well (and moving well) for its own sake. Understand what “eating well” truly means: eating a varied, nourishing, satisfying, and pleasurable diet. Eating well means eating all of the macronutrients (carb, protein, and fat), and plenty of the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that come along for the ride when you plan balanced, tasty meals.

Take it back to basics: the four food groups. (In case you don’t remember 4th grade, they are: vegetables/fruit, grains, dairy/alternatives, and legumes/nuts/meat/alternatives.) It sounds like this particular questioner is missing out on at least two food groups: legumes/nuts/meat/alternatives and vegetables/fruit. Here’s the place to start: keep eating what you’re eating now, but add on what is missing. If you want, you can try shooting for three food groups at each meal, and two at a snack. Look at your meals and ask yourself, What’s missing? Then ask: what’s the easiest, tastiest way to add it on?

Can you toss in an apple? A handful of baby carrots? Some strawberries? Order a side salad? Get chicken on that salad? Put some tuna in your mac and cheese? Have eggs with your toast? A slice of cheese? Peanut butter?

In response to these changes, your weight will do what it will. You may lose some weight, if you have been eating past your own fullness. In my experience, it is more difficult to feel truly satisfied, and to clearly hear fullness signals, if you are eating only one or two types of food, not feeling well-nourished, and skipping out on foods that contribute to fullness (like protein, and the fibre in vegetables and fruit.) When you return to eating the full complement of food groups, you might find that your weight stabilizes, if you were previously gaining, or you might lose a modest amount, and then stabilize. It’s not a guarantee, but it is a possibility. This is a slow process, and can take 6-12 months of eating well, so don’t hinge your behaviour on weight outcomes.

What should you hinge it on? A lot of people feel lost when they put their weight focus on the back-burner (or kick it off the stove altogether.) And now we come back to what I said earlier: for its own sake. Eating well, regardless of what your weight does, gives you so much. For me, personally, the following things happened when I learned to eat well:

  • stopped having heartburn and other GI upsets
  • stopped thinking about food 24/7
  • stopped feeling out of control with food
  • stopped feeling guilty about eating foods I enjoyed
  • had more consistent energy through the day
  • stopped experiencing overhunger that left me shaky and desperate, and overfullness that made me miserable
  • enjoyed my meals more, since, in addition to tasting good, they really hit the spot
  • tried and learned to like a whole bunch of new foods, including different vegetables
  • felt happy for taking good care of myself with food

So, then, to get to what I suspect is actually the heart of this question: how do you learn to eat well? One little step at a time. Eat what you’re eating now, and add on what is missing. Make the time to have consistent meals if you’re not already, and see how it works for you. And remind yourself that none of this is an obligation. None of this is a “should.” None of this determines anything about your character. All eating well can do for you is make you feel better physically. It cannot make you a better or worse person. If you do this, do this because you want to take care of yourself, because you want to feel good, and because you believe you are worth the effort.

You are.

Take care of yourself first, worry about your weight second (or don’t. It’s up to you.)

*Not actually tragic.


Fun and games in comments.

The Whole30: When in doubt, cut it out.

One of the most notable things about the Whole30 program introduction is the implication, without specifying causes or mechanisms, that enormous swaths of your diet are causing various health problems.

This implication is posed as a series of questions:

“Are your energy levels inconsistent or non-existent? Do you have aches and pains that can’t be explained by over-use or injury? Are you having a hard time losing weight no matter how hard you try? Do you have some sort of condition (like skin issues, digestive ailments, seasonal allergies or fertility issues) that medication hasn’t helped?”

The writers propose that “certain food groups” could be causing these problems, and provide a two-sentence explanation that these are “psychologically unhealthy, hormone-unbalancing, gut-disrupting, inflammatory food groups” that require you to “reset” your metabolism because they cause “systemic inflammation” and “downstream effects.” Instead of explaining how or why, they propose an experiment: cut all of the suspected groups out of your diet for 30 days, and see if you feel better.

This is called an “elimination diet.” If you’ve been vaguely conscious of diet culture for the last decade, you’ll be aware that the concept of the elimination diet has become something of a sacrament. An elimination diet is one where you eliminate a huge number of foods, and even food groups, in an attempt to get to a point where you are no longer having food-related symptoms (usually GI symptoms), and then slowly add foods back in, one by one, in order to tease out which foods initiate the symptoms again. The goal is to, eventually, add in everything you can, except the (hopefully few) foods that actually cause you problems.

In clinical dietetics, the elimination diet is used sparingly, because though it can be a powerful tool in narrowing down problematic foods for someone experiencing IBS symptoms, those symptoms must be severe enough to justify putting a person at increased nutritional risk by significantly curtailing the variety of their diet for weeks at a time. It is also a very difficult process for people to follow, and the people most motivated to stick to an elimination diet usually have the most severe or distressing symptoms.

Vague symptoms like fatigue, aches and pains, and failure to lose weight might not make the cut. These, and other conditions unresponsive to medication, may or may not have any relation to diet. In cases where they do, it would be important for a person to see their doctor and possibly get a referral to a dietitian (especially if the issue is celiac disease, for which an elimination diet could actually interfere with getting a diagnosis.) Most importantly, an elimination diet used in this context is meant to be temporary, and the person is encouraged to add back in as many previously-eliminated foods as they can tolerate. This minimizes their nutritional risk by increasing variety.

This Whole30’s version of the elimination diet is somewhat different. Yes, it is a program meant to last only for 30 days, but there don’t seem to be any clear encouragements to add back in as many foods as possible after the elimination period. In the clinical setting, when a person is undergoing an elimination diet, the dietitian makes it clear that the foods cut out of the diet are not universally bad or toxic; rather, the person has a condition that creates an intolerance (sometimes temporary) to those foods. The Whole30 specifically labels those foods as globally bad and unhealthy. And with the Whole30, the message I’m getting, particularly from people who’ve done the program, is that their goal is to eat in a way as similar to the Whole30 as possible…indefinitely.

Thankfully, this is probably not sustainable for most people. I say “thankfully” because the rules of the Whole30 literally require you to stop eating slightly more than half of the food groups in the diet – grains, dairy, and a good swath of proteins (legumes.) Even if you replace the missing food group servings with servings from the remaining groups (fruits and vegetables, meat/fish/eggs/poultry/nuts and seeds), the overall variety of the diet is severely curtailed (definitely not a good thing), and likely your overall intake is reduced as well (which could be a good thing, but also might not be.)

Given the nutritional concerns, why might someone choose to do a diet like this? Well, possibly because some people experience exceptional health concerns that really do respond best to this program. I’m not denying that those people exist. What I doubt is that every person, or even most persons, embarking on this program fit that description.

What other reasons might there be, then? Symbolism? Ritual? Values? Anxiety?

I suspect that elimination diets, when they are not (entirely) about allergies and intolerances, are actually about purity, about a way of expressing cultural identity, and possibly even political values. These are not bad reasons — the only problem is when these reasons are covered up with misrepresented science.

I suspect that elimination diets are a symbolic way of saying, “There is too much in the world, there is too much in our culture, and I feel overwhelmed with food marketing and grocery store options and consumer culture and the difficult politics of industrialization and the rapid development of technology that has the potential to cause harm, and I’m opting out at least for a while. We have gotten too far away from what I think is the right way to handle and produce food, the best way to be genuinely human, and I am going to do something about it, for myself, as one person. For 30 days, I’m just going to be a human. And if I can do it longer than that, I will try.”

If that’s what it’s about, at least partly, the question then becomes: does it work?


Rampant speculation in comments.

The Whole30: A quick note on scientific evidence vs. non-scientific arguments.

I like skepticism, as a practice and a way of thinking. I share a lot of the traits and values of people who write skeptically about popular science and popular health and nutrition messages. But I often feel like there is something missing in skeptical conversations, and I hope that, in our discussion of the Whole30, we can try not to miss it.

What’s missing is an acknowledgment that people do things that are not evidence-based, but are often for very good reasons, nevertheless. People make decisions all the time that are not based on scientific evidence or even a factual understanding of how something works, but rather, they make those decisions based on cultural values, or aesthetic preferences, or as a way of expressing and managing the anxieties of being human. Far from being a sign of weakness or irrationality, I think this can make a lot of sense.

Where the skeptical side of me kicks in is when people insist on providing a pseudoscientific rationale for something that is, at core, a non-scientific decision. For example: it is good and honest for someone to choose to exclude pork from their diet based on cultural tradition. That makes perfect sense to me. But if that person turned around and claimed there is a definitive scientific consensus that eating pork causes zinc deficiency, that wouldn’t make sense. It is factually incorrect, and now it also becomes dishonest. Reaching for these kinds of explanations can lead to wildly misconstrued ideas of what science says about an issue, and can mislead other people, sometimes dangerously.

It is okay to make symbolic decisions about the food you eat, as long as you acknowledge making them for symbolic reasons, and as long as you acknowledge that those same decisions don’t necessarily work for other people. It is okay to make aesthetic or moral decisions about the food you eat, but it is not okay to make up out of whole cloth a complicated science-flavoured rationale in order to lend credibility to your choice.

It is very tempting to reach for scientific-sounding explanations, because those explanations are privileged in our culture. They carry a kind of social capital. We all do it sometimes; I see people involved in fat acceptance and Health at Every Size do it fairly often. I try, when I can, to acknowledge that a large part of my perspective about body weight and eating is based on a moral decision I have come to: that it is not acceptable to treat people as less-than based on a physical trait, and that fat people have the moral and legal right to eat normally, without dieting, if they want. There may be some scientific evidence to support the principles of Health at Every Size, but for me, the core of this issue is, and has always been, moral. Science is simply not the appropriate language with which to express moral judgements, because moral judgements are not (may not be?) falsifiable through the scientific method.

That doesn’t mean we can never explore or be critical of those judgements, but it does mean that science-based arguments are probably the wrong tool for the job. It also means that, when you are passionate about a moral or cultural position, you need to be particularly careful about making scientific arguments to complement that position. Because of your personal commitment to the position, you are going to have a harder time being critical of the evidence that seems to support your choice, and being fair to the evidence that doesn’t. And you have to make extra, extra sure that you don’t just…make stuff up. Because then you’re lying.

If you’re making a scientific argument, you open yourself up to having it scrutinized and possibly discredited with arguments based on scientific evidence. But if you make a religious, or symbolic, or aesthetic personal choice, it probably doesn’t make sense to discredit it with scientific reasoning. (“Brad chooses not to eat pork because it is traditional in his culture not to eat pork, and he finds the idea of eating pork disgusting. However, he is WRONG because nutrient analysis shows that pork is a good source of zinc!”)

For what are essentially cultural, religious, or moral arguments, it probably makes more sense to examine them with cultural analysis, a reading of scripture, or moral reasoning and ethical principles. In doing so, however, we are less likely to come to a definitive call of correctness or incorrectness, since all of these things are very subjective and open to multiple valid interpretations — and since, at the end of the day, people have the right to make whatever decisions they want to about their own eating, regardless of how unreasonable we think they are.

What none of us have the right to do, though, is misuse science — whether to defend or to discredit a fundamentally non-scientific argument. It can be very difficult to avoid doing that, but let’s try.


Or maybe I don’t even know what I’m talking about, in comments.

The Whole30: Concepts of “fitness”

One of the first things that stands out to me as I read the brief introductory article on The Whole30 is this:

“Certain food groups (like sugar, grains, dairy and legumes) could be having a negative impact on your health and fitness without you even realizing it.”

There’s a lot going on here, but for now I want to highlight “fitness.” If I were coming to this article as a someone totally naive of diet culture, I would wonder what type of “fitness” they are referring to, specifically. As someone with some knowledge of health and physiology, the first thing that springs to mind is cardiorespiratory fitness, or specifically, how efficiently a person’s heart and lungs function to provide cells with oxygen so they can utilize chemical fuels (like glucose) to perform work.

However, I suspect, in the context of the rest of the introductory article, and given the focus of the Whole30 program itself, that this is not the “fitness” to which the author is referring (though cardiorespiratory fitness may be a secondary consideration.) I suspect they are referring more to “metabolic fitness,” which is a construct concerning itself with the body’s utilization of glucose and insulin, as well as body composition, or the ratio of lean to adipose tissue in a person’s body.

To me, this is culturally interesting because of a recent (but not unprecedented) shift in diet messaging in the past few decades. Most of you probably remember the low-fat diet messaging of the 1980s and 1990s, which happened to correspond with fitness messaging that focused on aerobic exercise and cardiorespiratory fitness, and the health indicators (serum cholesterol, blood pressure, heart rate, V02 max) used to measure this. It is interesting to me that, with a swing toward (or back toward) low-carbohydrate diet messaging, also seemingly comes a swing toward fitness messaging that focuses on resistance exercise and metabolic fitness.

Aside from these two concepts of “fitness,” whenever the word “fitness” itself is used, I can’t help but ask myself, “fitness for what, specifically?” I don’t mean this as a rhetorical question or a snide attempt at undermining the message, but as an honest attempt to poke beneath the surface.

What are we trying to be fit for, exactly? How does the concept of “fitness” apply to the popular theory that the human environment has changed rapidly enough to outstrip our biological adaptability, rendering most of us presumably “unfit” for the environment in which we find ourselves living? Does it make logical sense to attempt to return the body to a state of “fitness” best adapted to an environment that no longer exists?

I have no idea. Do you?


More questions than answers, probably, in comments.