When I was six, I thought there were nails in meat, so I refused to touch it. I watched Popeye get strong from eating spinach, but I’d have rather been weak than eat disgusting green leaves. I ate pizza every single day for most of my life. Yeah, you could say I was a picky eater.
A recent study from Duke came out linking picky eating and social anxiety. They found that children who were extremely picky about the food they ate were twice as likely to develop symptoms of anxiety, depression, and ADHD. This supports a suspicion I had in my own life. That my picky eating, including my lifelong aversion to eating meat, may be related to my lifelong social anxiety.
I written about why I am a vegetarian and my poor eating habits when I was younger. As long as I could remember, I’ve refused to eat meat. Likewise, as long as I can remember, I’ve had social anxiety. It wasn’t just meat. I refused to eat vegetables as well. And even fruit. I was an extremely picky eater as a child. About the only thing I ate was pizza, pancakes, french fries, and peanut butter and jelly. I wasn’t picky with desserts, however; as I ate just about any kind of cookie, candy, ice cream, or cake.
I never realized that there might be a connection between my picky eating and my social anxiety until a few years ago. I became more self-aware of my social anxiety and the ways it affected my behavior. I realized the reason I didn’t eat meat or vegetables or try any new foods was because I was afraid to. Just as I was afraid to speak to people.
I suppose being a picky eater isn’t inherently bad, so long as the few foods you pick are healthy. But in my case, they were not. I loved eating pizza every day as a child, but it caught up to me as a young adult. I developed several health problems and wound up in the hospital.
I think my parents and others in my life always assumed I would grow out of my picky eating phase, just as I would eventually grow out of my shyness. But it wasn’t until I was forced into action and made changes in my life that I finally started to improve my diet and my social anxiety. Not surprisingly, the cure to both was exposure. The more I ate a healthy food, the more I liked it. And the more I faced a scary social situation, the less I feared it.
Today, I am still a vegetarian, and I plan to remain vegetarian for the rest of my life. But my decision not to eat meat isn’t fear-based. It’s a personal decision based on ethical, environmental, and health reasons. Although I do not eat meat, I am far from a picky eater anymore. I will eat any plant-based food (vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, beans, and grains). In fact, I am eager to try new and exotic variations of vegan dishes. My six-year old self would never believe that I now eat more spinach than Popeye. I’ve also come a long way in overcoming my social anxiety. I’ve done things that I never thought I could do before. Like moving across the country by myself.
I don’t think picky eating causes social anxiety, as the study may suggest. I think it’s more the other way around. Anxiety causes picky eating. Either way, I think it’s fair to say both the study and my personal experience prove diet and social anxiety are intrinsically linked. To improve one means to improve the other.