The Strange Meals of Mr. TJ: A Portrait of Selective Eating Disorder

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Let me introduce to you a friend and former co-worker, TJ. TJ, an American, has lived in Korea for about four years. In that time, he has not eaten Korean food. Not at all, not once, ever. Not a nibble. Unusual, but not totally inconceivable. Most foreigners in Korea probably know at least a few fellow ex-pats who generally steer clear of kimchi, kimbap, duenjang chiggae, and bibimbap, even if they do occasionally sample something “safe” like Korean BBQ, or a bowl of noodles of some sort. So TJ, while extreme, you could say fits in at the end of a recognizable scale.

But I’m not done yet. TJ doesn’t eat seafood of any kind. He doesn’t eat chicken, in any style of cooking, sauce, or seasoning. TJ doesn’t eat spaghetti, pasta, or noodles of any kind. TJ doesn’t eat steaks or chops at all—neither beef, veal, lamb, nor pork. Probably by now you’re thinking he subsists primarily on a diet of those two American fast-food staples that are readily available in South Korea—hamburgers and pizza.  Nope, never, neither of them. Any kind of soup—no. Eggs—no. Salads—no. Beans—no. Any kind of ethnic food or for that matter any kind of recognizable national cuisine, you can cross off:  Mexican, Italian, Thai, Chinese, Indian, French, Moroccan, Mongolian, Kyrgyz. All nyet.

Really, it’s a lot easier and faster to tell you what TJ does eat, so I’ll cut to the chase and give you the list: bacon, hot dogs (with no bun and no condiments), French fries, iceberg lettuce, white bread (either regular loaves or baguettes),  popcorn (usually microwave-style), and milk (whole-fat). Add to that various basic snacks—potato chips, Oreos, a few forms of candy and chocolate. That’s it. That’s the whole list. The only way that any of those items are combined are in bacon-lettuce sandwiches. For lunch, TJ eats microwave popcorn for lunch almost every single day, except for when he rides his scooter off-campus to McDonalds and Burger King for a lunch of French fries.

As I and my co-workers were getting to know TJ, he never made any secret of all of this.  He was never furtive, never made any attempt to hide it. He was remarkably blasé about his diet. Any inside or outside-school functions or invitations that involved meals, TJ simply said, “No, sorry, I’ll eat somewhere else. I don’t really eat many things, you see.” But as the true extent of TJ’s diet became clear, we began to pepper him with questions. “Wait, what?  You don’t eat this?  You don’t eat that?  What about A, B, or C?  What about X, Y, or Z?  Why don’t you just try them?  Maybe you’ll like them!” We strove to keep the questions casual, friendly, and respectful, yet he could no doubt hear the rising incredulity in our voices. Finally, one Friday afternoon in the faculty office, we were yet again pestering him with stuff like “Really, not even whole-wheat bread?!”  he led us to his desk with a hint of exasperation. He googled “SELECTIVE EATING DISORDER” on his computer and bade us to have a look.

From Wikipedia:  Sufferers of Selective Eating Disorder (SED) have an inability to eat certain foods based on texture or aroma. “Safe” foods may be limited to certain food types and even specific brands. In some cases, afflicted individuals will exclude whole food groups, such as fruits or vegetables. Sometimes excluded foods can be refused based on color. Some may only like very hot or very cold food, or only very crunchy or hard-to-chew food, or very soft, or avoid sauces.

Most sufferers of SED will still maintain a healthy or normal body weight. There are no specific outward appearances associated with SED. Sufferers can experience physical gastrointestinal reactions to adverse foods such as retching, vomiting or gagging. Some studies have identified symptoms of social avoidance due to their eating habits. However, most do not desire to change their eating behaviors . . . Selective eating should not be of a concern as long as there are no negative effects on social, physical and emotional development.

The internet yielded up many extreme, horrific examples of SED, real freakshow stuff—people who drank quarts of tartar sauce a day, people who ate only Chicken McNuggets, people who ate only pancakes, people who first tried an orange at age 18 and immediately puked.  As abnormal as this stuff might seem, SED is not listed in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM), so it’s not an “official” mental disorder, which means research and treatments are scarce.  TJ told us he’d tried hypnosis treatments, but nothing worked.  He also said that from time to time he’s tried to introduce new foods into his rotation. He said recently he’d been trying to get over the chicken-hurtle by nibbling on some McNuggets, but he soon found that taking a big bite out of one was impossible, let alone chomping on a real chicken leg or thigh. So there it was. It’s not that TJ won’t eat other foods, it’s that he can’t. As the wiki article says, he will actually gag, retch, or even puke from the taste and feel of new things in his mouth.

That last line from the wiki article, “should not be a concern as long as there are no negative effects on social, physical and emotional development,” certainly begged the question with TJ. Well, were there any of these negative effects? How could there not be? If you heard about someone who only ate the things TJ ate, you might picture some kind of loser, a recluse still living with his parents, unemployed perhaps, playing X-box down in the basement all day long. You certainly might imagine someone in horrible physical condition, obese and in need of a triple bypass.

Well, let me fill in the rest of the picture of TJ. He has an engineering degree from Dartmouth and an MBA from the University of Chicago. Back home he worked in business consulting, with Samsung, Oracle, and Northrop-Grumman among his clients. When business dried up in the midst of the dot-com bust in the late 90s, he taught AP economics at high-level New England prep schools. He’s an ace teacher through-and-through, demanding, rigorous, fun, and compassionate. Frankly, he’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. You argue anything with TJ, you’d better bring your “A” game, and your “A” game probably won’t be enough to avoid an intellectual smackdown. Also, TJ is outgoing, witty, gregarious and energetic. He connects easily with everybody from his fellow wayguk co-workers, to his Korean students, his students’ parents, and the Korean administrators at his school. As you’d expect from a top-level MBA guy, he is incredibly keen at seeing organizations as a whole and sizing up their strengths and weaknesses, and steering them toward their potential. In fact, TJ very quickly rose to become a sort of faculty dean at our school, fighting patiently and tenaciously with the Korean principal and program director for his clear-eyed vision for the school, expertly negotiating the frequent culture clashes without the roiling frustration that such a position frequently brings here in South Korea.

What about physical condition? Well, TJ, who’s about my age (mid 40s), is putting on a bit (and I mean just a bit) of middle-age paunch, as most of us do, but really, that seems to be from a lack of regular exercise due to the heroic hours he puts at the school rather than the whole SED thing. He had a physical recently, and he told me his heart and blood pressure seemed fine, and his cholesterol level was not really that bad at all. Actually, TJ is quite athletic. And here’s the thing that probably produces the most cognitive dissonance about TJ’s selective eating issues—he was a NCAA Division 1 college athlete, a starting soccer goalie at Dartmouth! A few times I’ve had kick-abouts with TJ out on the athletic fields, or played volleyball with him at sports day events. Even almost two decades since his playing days, I can easily see the litheness and quickness of a top-notch goalkeeper in him.

And what’s more—for a guy in his 40s, TJ does just fine with the ladies. He’s too friendly and funny and outgoing and smart not to. He’s had his share of girlfriends here in Korea, and in fact right now is quite serious with a lovely Korean woman he knew in America before he came here. We’ve talked about past loves, the sad cases of the “near misses” or the “ones-who-got-away” that anybody who stays single into their 40s will have—as I have myself. Is his SED thing a factor in this arena? I’ve never asked him directly, but I think I’d say no, it isn’t.

Clearly, the fact that TJ was fine with moving to South Korea is a sign that his SED issues don’t hold him back from travelling. I actually have been down to Thailand with him. Last summer he traveled all over Europe. Two years ago he travelled around China. This last winter vacation, he went to India. India! As long as there’s a Subway restaurant somewhere that can make bacon-and-lettuce sandwiches, or a western-oriented supermarket where he can stock up on his requirements, he’ll go anywhere.

So it is what it is, and TJ is who he is. He’s made his peace with his SED, and his many friends around the world sooner or later shrug and adjust, too. It’s not an actual taboo subject, but neither do we find the need to bring it up, either. We don’t stop inviting him out for group meals, but we all know that he’ll just hang out with us and drink a beer and chat rather than eat. For big, important faculty dinners, the Koreans know enough to stop at McDonalds for a few orders of fries to bring for TJ.  He doesn’t want or need our pity, though it’s hard not to feel pity for someone who will never enjoy any of the foods listed in that opening paragraph—a juicy steak, a sumptuous curry, a fresh, hot slice of pizza, a nice salad, a Thanksgiving turkey with all the fixings.  Especially travelling with TJ down in Thailand, my spirit quailed as I contemplated what it would be like to miss out on the fabulous array SE Asian spiciness.

However, it’s a mistake to assume that TJ doesn’t enjoy food at all.  As a “sufferer” of SED, TJ doesn’t seem to suffer very much at all.  He actually rather enjoys the foods he does eat. This is different from many SED sufferers, who often take no joy in downing their one or two tolerable foods; they eat as compulsively and as miserably as heroin addicts. TJ actually looks forward to Seoul trips where he can have a bacon-and-lettuce sandwich on fresh Italian bread at Subway.  He takes pleasure in finding a Popeye’s Fried Chicken with their special Cajun curly fries.

I’m writing this not to invite pity for TJ, and certainly not to invite scorn. Those of us who might feel superior to TJ, well, we’ve been living in some mighty fine glass houses. No, I find the case of TJ interesting because it stirs me to reflect on my own diet—present, past, and future. Really, is my current meat and processed junk-laden diet any more or less messed up than TJ’s? As a meat eater, I find myself increasingly questioning what I’m doing to my own body, to the environment, and to the animals I share this planet with.

Looking back, I think about my own childhood as a picky eater. Many children are picky eaters. Some biologists believe that children are inherently sensitive to even tiny amounts of bitterness as an evolutionary defense mechanism against poisoning themselves when they’re in that “oral” stage in infancy where they want to pop in their mouths anything they can grab. Either genetically or by learning, children move past that stage and gradually see “bitter” as just one color in the palette of taste, not something tantamount to poison. People with SED simply get “stuck,” never figuring out how to branch out, how to escape those earlier aversions. While my eating wasn’t as limited as TJ’s is, I still couldn’t abide any kind of seafood, my vegetable “yes list” was basically lettuce and cucumbers, and everything had to be separate, unmixed, and basically not even touching each other.

I hated being a picky eater—I associated it with being weak and lame. Kids my own age who seemed like they could eat anything were tougher, stronger. They would be able to survive in a jungle, while I would die with pitiful quickness. My parents would say, if you were starving, you’d eat it. I didn’t know what was worse—that they were right and I would eventually wolf down that disgusting (to me) casserole if I were truly hungry enough, revealing my protests of I can’t! I can’t! to be a hollow sham, or that they were wrong—I would literally die of starvation with perfectly good food right in front of me. Even though I’ve moved beyond that picky stage to enjoy just about everything, to this day, I’m self-conscious about not being able to finish a plate of food at a restaurant or at someone’s house. A few weeks ago, in India, I was served an enormous plate of chicken biryani, and could only get about two-thirds of the way through it.  When the guy came to clear the table, he looked at the substantial uneaten portion, creased his brow a little, and, sounding perhaps a little hurt (in my imagination at least), he said “No good?”  I felt the old shame I felt at being at a friend’s house for dinner, and both my friend and his parents acting amazed, if not offended, that I wasn’t a member of the “clean plate club.” Didn’t I like their cooking? And more importantly, didn’t I know that there were children starving in Africa?  Or was it China?

In a sense, we’re all “selective eaters.” And what’s “normal,” after all, in a world as dizzyingly diverse as ours? TJ’s situation made me realize how much I think about food, and how important food is to me, and how much certain social situations, even whole cultures, revolve around food. At first I felt puzzled by TJ, then I felt pity that somehow he couldn’t live a full life due to his eating habits. However, it’s clear that TJ has found a way to get on that bus and take a first-class ride, as rich and as varied as anybody else’s—and probably a ride richer and more varied than most. I’m glad to be sharing part of that ride with him, no matter what’s on the menu.

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