Selective Eating Disorder factsheet

Going out for dinner, to a party or to a picnic are some of life’s pleasures that we tend to take for granted. For selective eaters however they can be the stuff of nightmares. This factsheet gives advice and information about the little-studied phenomenon of Selective Eating Disorder (SED).

Selective Eating Disorder factsheet

What is Selective Eating Disorder (SED)?

SED combines a highly restricted diet combined with an unwillingness to try new foods. In some extreme cases it can even be limited not only to specific food types, but specific brands too. Common in toddlers, it can persist into childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Part phobia and part addiction, SED has serious implications for the future health of sufferers, not to mention psychological symptoms including worry, depression and significant social impairment.

What are the symptoms of SED?

Selective eaters have a range of foods they consider to be ‘safe’ or ‘acceptable’. When presented with foods beyond this spectrum selective eaters frequently become distressed. They often cite a fear of food, either due to fear of choking or because the texture or odour is so repellent it triggers nausea and vomiting. Generally speaking weight is not adversely affected. Studies show that most selective eaters are within the normal range for weight and height.

What causes SED?

Specialists report that trauma or memories can trigger SED, for example if a certain food has made a person gag they may then associate that food with a fear of choking. Equally SED can stem from an intolerance or dislike of a certain food which develops into an aversion.

What are the medical problems associated with SED?

When a person’s diet encompasses only a very narrow range of foods it can mean that essential nutrients from other food groups are missing. Therefore in children growth can sometimes be affected and in all sufferers the risk of malnutrition is present. Dental problems can also occur if the acceptable range of foods is particularly high in sugars.

What food types are common among selective eaters?

Typically, these are foods that are high in carbohydrates. Selective eaters frequently have an aversion to entire food groups such as fruits, vegetables or pulses.

Is SED similar to anorexia in any way?

Selective eaters do not share a preoccupation with the desire to be thin which is the key component of anorexia nervosa.

What treatment options are available for sufferers of SED?

SED aligns itself more with the obsessive end of eating disorders, showing similarities with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. A combination of hypnosis, psychotherapy and NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) have proved to be successful in many cases however sufferers report that because relatively little is known about the condition it can be difficult to get help.