On Food, Sensory Issues, and Social Pressure

If one really thinks about it, food is a pretty intense multi-sensory experience. When you eat, you’re experiencing and responding to a variety of tastes, smells, textures, consistencies, and temperatures. You’re also looking at it, and experiencing it’s color, shape, and visual texture. Then, you’re interacting with the food; touching it, scooping it, or cutting it, and then chewing it. And afterwards, there’s the feeling of having eaten; the body feels different when it’s full. That’s a lot of sensory input all packed into one experience. For someone who processes their senses differently, foods that are considered normal or even delicious can be unbearable.

These are some of the major things that I simply cannot eat, and why. Hopefully this list will shed some light on what it’s like to have food-related sensory issues.

  • Beef. Especially ground beef or steak. It’s the texture here that’s the problem; ground beef is crumbly and steak is chewy. Despite really trying to enjoy steak many times (my parents made a fuss over it), I will gag if I attempt to eat it. I also can’t proficiently use a knife and fork to cut food, so things like steak are a struggle to deal with.

  • Potatoes. This includes french fries, mashed, baked – any potato. This one is again texture-based. Potatoes have a grainy, mushy texture that I just can’t stand. They also make me feel too heavy after eating them.

  • Corn. With this one, it’s the smell and the taste. Both seem sickly sweet to me. If someone even opens a can of corn in the same room as me, I will have to bolt before I get nauseous. So, considering the above entries as well, shepherd’s pie is a nightmare in a casserole dish to me.

  • Certain cooked vegetables. Specifically: carrots, peas, broccoli, green beans, and cauliflower. All of these have a common mushy-grainy texture that is very repulsive to me. I also really dislike the tastes of these. I could not make myself eat any of these.

  • Cake. Particularly the North-American, frosting covered kind. It’s just way too sweet, and sweet things make me sick.

  • Very rich foods. This includes butter, heavy cream, non-skim milk, pudding, non-light cream cheese, and probably others that I’m forgetting. But you get the picture. I’ve a very low tolerance for fat content in my food, and all of these will make me feel sick and heavy. Oddly enough, I love cheese.

  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I can’t stand these; I can’t even bite one without cringing. They’re too squishy and mushy, and the consistencies clash. They’re also weirdly sweet and moist. Yeah, I just can’t.

  • Carbonated drinks. I simply can’t handle the bubbles. They make me feel sick to my stomach. I could not get through a can of Coke without feeling very, very ill. Even sparkling water is too much.

Social Pressures

While the sensory issues surrounding food were bothersome, confusing, and sometimes downright appalling, the social pressures were worse.

As you can see from the above list, many of the foods I can’t handle are common North-American fare. In my childhood, I was considered a notoriously picky eater, and this was a problem. This led me to make myself eat certain things that I could tolerate with some effort but really didn’t enjoy (like ground beef and potatoes); it was a form of passing. Eating those foods meant I was behaving myself and not being “difficult”. I learned that my likes and dislikes were wrong, and that if a family member says a food is good, then it is. With some foods though, no amount of self-control could make me eat them. I remember once being told that I had to sit at the table after dinner until I ate my broccoli. I’m not sure how long I sat there, but eventually bedtime came and I still hadn’t even touched the broccoli. My parents let the broccoli thing go after that.

I want to say here that I do realize that parents are often concerned about their child’s nutrition. I think for my Mom, that was the main issue. And she did help me find things, like fruit and chicken, that are nutritious and enjoyable for me. For my Dad, however, it was more than that. He made me feel that my food preferences were a problem and that I was inconveniencing others. For example, he used to get upset with me for not liking birthday cake. It was a celebration, and I had to participate in eating the cake or I was ruining other people’s fun. How other people’s enjoyment of an event was dependant on whether or not I ate cake is completely beyond me. And birthday cake is not nutritious.

When I became a teenager, I decided I wasn’t going to force myself to eat certain foods. If it was a struggle just to get something down, I refused to eat it. Beef, potatoes, milk, and butter went out the window (not literally, though that might’ve been fun). This caused my Dad to tell me that “One of these days you’re going to have to start eating normal food”. Of course, “normal” was the aforementioned foods that he really liked and I didn’t. There are other “normal” foods that I like, but never got the chance to try because the menu was largely determined by my Dad’s preferences. So during that time I basically had microwaveable pasta or bagels for dinner. If there was salad, I’d eat that. I wasn’t allowed to get in anyone’s way and make something different for myself. At family gatherings, I was thankfully allowed to bring my own food (usually just more microwave dinners), but I was then made to feel bad about it. I had to profusely apologize to my grandmother (who often did the cooking for family events), and I felt like I was bothersome and pushing my luck. From my perspective, my Dad and relatives had an air of “you’re getting more accommodations that you deserve”. Sometimes, even what I chose would be criticized for not being special enough for the event. Again, apparently me eating a bagel at Thanksgiving was somehow taking away from other people’s turkey.

I also had social pressures from peers surrounding food. Elementary school classmates would tease me for not liking cake, ketchup, french fries, or candy. Even in my 20s, I’ve been ridiculed for not liking fries. When I was in art school (more on that in another post), an acquaintance had fries and offered me one. I declined, saying “No thanks, I don’t like fries”. Then, no fewer than five people who were in the room (some of whom I’d barely spoken to) turned to me and exclaimed things like “What!? You don’t like fries?” and “Who doesn’t like fries?” and “What’s wrong with you?”. No, I don’t like fries, and who the fuck even cares?

Over my food preferences, I’ve been called weird, strange, unnatural, wrong, difficult, attention-seeking, a problem, and “just trying to be different”.


I’m Not Picky

Yep, that’s right, I’m not actually picky. The number of foods I like far outnumbers the ones I dislike, and my boyfriend and I never bump up against any pickiness.

Since I’ve been living independently with my boyfriend, I’ve discovered that there are actually quite a lot of things I like. I love most Asian foods, including curry, sushi, noodle dishes, soups, chicken dishes, and fried rice. I also like fish (as long as it’s not battered), chicken, tofu, shrimp, almond milk, avocados, pasta, and most Mexican dishes. On the vegetable front, I like bell peppers, spinach, cabbage, cooked onions, zucchini, butternut squash, tomatoes, and bean sprouts. I’ve also discovered that I like the light or low-fat versions of things that I thought I disliked, like peanut butter and sour cream. I just never had the chance to try many of these things growing up. I’ve found that if I stick to things that are spicy, citrusy, crispy, crunchy, springy, light, and are integrated dishes, there are many things I like. A lot of the foods I like have directly opposing characteristics to the foods I dislike (compare mushy steamed carrots on the side to crispy red peppers sauteed in an Asian noodle dish). That’s not a coincidence.

Cooking my own food with my boyfriend has really helped too. That way, we can control exactly what’s in it. And cooking is surprisingly fun. We’ve found many really good and really easy recipes, and we have a Pinterest board displaying them all visually (don’t worry, we haven’t got any “cauliflower pizza crust”, or “pasta made with zucchini strips” – just yummy, easy to make things). We also plan out all of our dinners for the week on Monday, which has the double benefit of keeping us calm, and avoiding two hour long “what do you want for dinner?” conversations. We’ve been told we’re rigid about food, but the way we do it really works for us. Now, I enjoy food much more than ever, I don’t feel like my preferences are wrong or bothersome, and I actually have a much healthier diet.

Basically, food is a very personal thing, and individual preferences should be respected. No one should be made to feel inadequate, defective, or problematic simply for not being able or willing to eat certain foods. If it’s a sensory issue, chances are the person can’t just “learn to like it”.

9 thoughts on “On Food, Sensory Issues, and Social Pressure

  1. I wish I could like this post a million times. Food is just…ugh. Sometimes I say that my relationship with food is like being stuck with your freshman year roommate your whole life. You do not get along, and you know you never will. There are parts of her that are fun and awesome and you love her at a party, but why won’t she just leave you alone? Why do you have to see her every single day? Why do other people just assume you’re best friends? And they can’t see why the little things about her annoy you, but they don’t just annoy you, they are intolerable to you, because you are the only one who really understands the intensity of the relationship. But then, you don’t get to move out when summer comes around. It’s all day every day, for your whole life.

    Most of my sensory issues with food make me unable to eat vegetables. Just, any vegetables. I can do caesar salad, and that’s it. Also tomato sauce if it is completely pureed. I can also dip chips in salsa so long as only the liquid is on the chip (none of the chunks) when I put it in my mouth. I had hoped that I’d be able to leave the guilt behind when I left home, but not so much. It’s such a socially acceptable thing to do to criticize other people’s eating habits. Every time someone gives me crap about it I am so tempted to say, “Oh, you’d like me to eat the steamed cauliflower I have just told you I cannot physically swallow? Ok, hand it over.” And then I would take a bite, gag, vomit all over them, and walk away and go find some cheese.

    When I was 8 or 9 my mom told me if I didn’t stop being such a picky eater I would die by the time I was twenty. Well I’m 25 now. Take that Mom! And pass the cheese and apple slices. :)

    • And I know that was quite the rant on my part, but food stuff is the hardest and most defeating part of my life without question, so I get a little wordy. This really was an excellent post though! Thanks so much for writing it!

    • Wow, the roommate analogy works really well (even though I’ve never even had a roommate). Very well put.

      I’ve always found it so strange that people think they have a right to comment on other’s eating habits. Eating is such a personal thing, and no one can know what a certain food is like for someone else. It seems so illogical to criticize it. But people often have the really ignorant attitude of “if it’s good for me then it’s good for everyone else too.”

      I’ve certainly had the “if you don’t stop being so picky” thing. Apparently, I’m not supposed to be dead, but I am supposed to be malnourished. I think I’m doing pretty well.

      And cheese is amazing.

  2. I LOVE FOOD. Despite everything my parents did to make me hate food for the rest of my life. Including that “you’re not leaving the table until” thing. Moving out and learning to cook my own meals has been such a blessing.

    I was such a picky eater that the first time I ate a soft-boiled egg, my mum took a picture and emailed it to the entire family. I was 34 at the time.

    The hilarious thing is that most of my family is on the spectrum (although undiagnosed), so the list of “no way am I going to eat that” foods was pretty long. My dad refuses to eat melon, cucumber, and macaroni. My mum will simply not eat anything sweet, not because of dieting but because it makes her gag. My younger brother refused to drink anything but milk when he was a kid.

    We’re quite a funny bunch.

    So yeah. I get it.

    • That’s so interesting that your family is full of autistics. My Mom has some autistic traits (BAP I think), but I’m pretty sure I’m the only one actually on the spectrum.

      I can’t eat celery either – it’s stringy and awful and I just can’t handle it. Honeydew melons are also pretty bad – I don’t know what to make of the taste.

      I’m glad that I can finally say that I love food too :)

  3. I was incredibly picky as a child. Literally, for the first ten years of my life, the list of food items I would eat numbered less than 20 (beef, peas, lettuce, raw mushrooms, dark meat on chicken, peanut butter, whole wheat bread, mashed potatoes, golden delicious apples, milk, egg noodles, and clementines). For all of elementary school, I had the same lunch: a peanut butter sandwich, cut diagnonally, with an apple, a clementine, and some mushrooms. Like autisticook’s brother, I refused any beverage other than milk.

    I’ve gotten much less picky as I’ve aged. But some things are still a no for me: Pop is painful. Celery is little sticks of disgustingness. They make me gag. Kraft mac and cheese makes me gag (no food should be that shade of orange). And so on.

    People tell me allll the time that in their household, I wouldn’t have been “allowed” to be that picky. My parents didn’t let me, either, until one week when they decided to be especially stubborn about cooking stuff I wouldn’t eat, I went a week without food. Another time, a friend of the family who was taking care of us while my father did some professional development thing decided to make mac and cheese. When I refused to eat, she told me I’d sit there until I finished it. I tried. I couldn’t. She sent me to bed at midnight. When I woke up, she plopped it down in front of me for breakfast. Then lunch. Then supper. I had no food until my parents next returned. She just figured I was being stubborn and that if I got hungry enough, I’d eat. Yeahno.

    After those two, my parents still figured it was a stubborn thing but that trying to out-stubborn me on it would’ve gotten them nowhere and maybe put my health at risk. Amusingly to me, when they quit trying to force stuff on me is when I became more willing to try different things.

    • I’m sorry that horrible mac and cheese thing happened to you – that’s just… deplorable. I don’t know how people can do things like that. People really need to realize that “I can’t eat that” really does mean can’t and isn’t stubbornness or defiance (that’s the one I was given – apparently I wouldn’t eat beef because I was “just trying to be different”).

      I totally agree with you on pop and celery. I can’t even have a few sips of pop without getting a stomach ache. And it’s still bad when it’s flat.

      I’m also a lot more willing to try new things now that there’s no pressure. If I try something and it doesn’t work I just eat something else.

      • For me, it’s the carbonation. It’s like drinking razorblades on my tongue. Any soft drink, I can’t drink.

        And yeah, there’s far less risk to trying something new if you don’t have to worry that you’ll be expected to finish it if you can’t stomach it.

  4. All the hours I spent stuck at the kitchen table until I’d finish what I was eating… or I’d sneak it to the cat, or my Dad would finally take pity on me. Funnily enough I always get surprised when people tell me I’m picky because I was one of the few kids I knew that grew up eating proper food, not kid food, and I like exotic tastes. But yep, I’m picky as anything about textures, and most of the stuff I can’t handle is what most people consider normal, non-offensive food. Tell me, what is inoffensive about tomatoes and soft boiled eggs for example? Yeuch, just the thought makes me gag. (At school there was a giant piece of artwork someone did of cut open tomatoes. Just looking at it made me feel sick).

    Ditto carbonated drinks, I never understood the appeal.

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