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What is Selective Eating Disorder

Characterized as a highly restricted diet in addition to an unwillingness to attempt eating new foods, selective eating disorder, or SED, is more commonly found in children. The restrictive diet may be targeted toward certain foods like meat or plant foods, packaged foods, and in very extreme cases, even specific brand names of food.

While this disorder is more commonly found in toddlers and young children, usually boys, it can and does persist up to and including adults. it’s hard to say if it’s more a phobia or addiction and the level of severity is individual based.

SED that persists through the years into adulthood has some serious implications for the future health of people suffering from this disorder. Depression, chronic worrying, and social anxiety and avoidance can impair relationships at school, work, and at home.

This disorder has been linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Symptoms of Selective Eating Disorder

Selective eaters will have a span of foods that they deem acceptable or safe. Any foods that are outside of this span will be considered unacceptable and even repellent. Actions caused by unacceptable foods presented to them can be disinterest, fear, distress, and even as severe as to cause vomiting and nausea.

Unwillingness or inability to eat certain foods or certain whole groups of foods is a prime symptom of this disorder. Some selective eaters will often consider entire food groups such as meat, fruits, or vegetables as unacceptable instead of just certain foods. This may make it difficult to sustain optimal nutritional health.

Meal times may be difficult for selective eaters if the sight of certain foods make them ill or uncomfortable. They may be distressed to eat away from home in a restaurant or in another’s home. Any place or social situation where food is involved may be uncomfortable or cause anxiety to one with this disorder.

Weight is not generally affected and most selective eaters are well within average ranges for height and healthy weight levels.

Causes of SED

Selective disorder may stem from the following:

  • Texture, taste, sight and/or smell of foods
  • A tongue with sensitive receptors may be the cause
  • A natural resistance to certain groups of foods such as meats or vegetables
  • A threatening event such as choking or food poisoning may have made a child afraid to eat certain foods
  • A fear or repugnance for foods that were grown in dirt
  • Food packaging may affect the feeling that some foods are unacceptable

Depending upon the range of foods that are unacceptable, essential nutrients may be lacking for proper growth and health. Getting treatment and utilizing vitamin supplements may be recommended.

Treatments Available

Because SED shows similarities with Obsessive Compulsive Disorders, a combination of treatments like hypnosis, Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), and psychotherapy have been proven to be beneficial in many cases.

These treatments involve processes using both cognitive behavior approach, which is attempting to change the way a child or person thinks, and a psycho-dynamic approach, which attempts to pinpoint the why and the how come of the disorder. Patients meet with a counselor for psychological counseling and new foods are introduced slowly with a dietitian’s help.

Therapy suggestions in a family environment that may help overcome this eating disorder are getting the child involved in meal planning. Children take ownership when they are involved in an activity. Schedules are also important to children and mealtimes, including snack times, should be regimented. Parents should attempt to be firm on mealtimes and have everyone there on time.

Positive reinforcement should given freely. Whenever the child eats well or attempts new foods, praise and encouragement should be given. Encouragement can also come by seeing others at the table enjoying foods that the child may not be able to eat. After all, why would the child attempt to eat foods that he is not used to seeing being consumed by others at the table.

Allow the child to eat in the order he wishes. If the child wishes to eat the salad at the end of the meal or the fruit dessert in the beginning, allowing control gives the child more incentive to attempt to eat new foods. Giving some controls to the child is beneficial.

Children may eat more at a mealtime if they have not been given a snack an hour or so before the meal. Snacks are good, but limit snacks to no less than 3 hours before a mealtime.

Make meals enjoyable. There should be plenty of conversation and family sharing around the meal table. A comfortable relaxed meal will help to smooth out anxiety from struggles to eat foods that are unacceptable to a child. A relaxed and sharing atmosphere is more conducive to eating without stress.

While selective eating disorder can extend through to adulthood, many children outgrow this disorder and go on to lead healthy lives with a good relationship to food. Positive reinforcement, encouragement, and providing treatment when needed will help most children develop good eating habits to replace selective eating.


Duke Health.org - Picky or Selective Eating Services: https://www.dukehealth.org/services/eating_disorders/programs/picky_eating

Tulane University - Selective Eating May be Food Phobia in Disguise: https://tulane.edu/news/releases/archive/2003/selective_eating_may_be_food_phobia_in_disguise.cfm

Behavioral Health Nutrition/American Dietetic Association - Selective Eating and Autism Spectrum Disorders: https://www.bhndpg.org/students/selective.asp