Christmas is coming and that includes the traditional Christmas dinner – a turkey, roast potatoes, sausages wrapped in bacon, brussel sprouts, and more besides. For Kevin* though Christmas dinner was chicken nuggets and oven chips. But then every dinner was chicken nuggets and oven chips for Kevin, because he was in the grip of restrictive eating.
“I’d always been a picky eater,” he told me, “from ever since I was a baby apparently. My mum always worked round it, and then I did when I got my own flat. But lately I don’t know if it’s getting worse but it’s really getting me down. It’s getting in the way and stopping me from doing stuff, from living my life.”
Kevin’s story was the same as a lot of people who have restrictive eating. What starts as a dislike of particular tastes or textures slowly but steadily grows. In the end the list of foods that they ‘can’ eat is far smaller than the large swathes of food that they have to avoid.
What had brought it home to Kevin was a night out with friends from work. They’d ended up going for an Indian meal, and he’d been persuaded that he could order some English food. He’d ordered omelette and chips, and when it came he couldn’t bring himself to eat the omelette, or the chips that had touched it. “That was so embarrassing” he said, “seeing their reaction made me feel rubbish”
Kevin’s restrictive eating had started in childhood, and he often wondered how things might have been otherwise. “What if my mum had forced me to eat other foods and not be so fussy? Or what if she hadn’t listened to people who said to do nothing as I’d grow out of it? I feel guilty even saying that, because I’m not blaming my mum, but what if she’d done something different?”
The first thing I encouraged Kevin to do was to stop comparing his life to something better that didn’t even exist. All the time he spent dwelling on “if only” wasn’t helping him to make any changes now. “Think of where you are, and where you want to be”, I said to him, “that’s somewhere that you can reach”.
We spent time helping Kevin to learn to overcome some of the physical sensations he felt when faced with new or unfamiliar foods. The feelings of revulsion and nausea weren’t due to the food itself, but to his thoughts about it.
Helping him to challenge and change these thoughts helped him to try new things. At first this was just different brands of the food he did eat, but as his confidence grew so did the range of things he tried. Now Kevin eats much more, and will try new places and new foods. “I’ll never be adventurous” he told me, “but I’ll never be embarrassed or look stupid again”.
* Kevin’s real identity has been protected, and he is happy to share his story.
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