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I Infiltrated the Online Community of Adult Picky Eaters

The online community of PEAs—adult picky eaters who only consume a handful of bland foods—is incredibly active but secretive.

In 2011, Anderson Cooper made a difficult admission about his personal life on his talk show. It was unexpected and candid, catching many of his viewers off guard when he opened up a conversation with his audience about their own lifestyles. Anderson Cooper came out as an adult picky eater or Picky Eating Adult, as the phrase is often cutely acronymed "PEA" online.

At the time, Cooper had never tried spinach and most other green vegetables. (He would later make pained but concerted efforts to try new foods on his show, including a time when he tried his first waffle with Jerry Seinfeld and "didn't understand its value.") He never drank hot beverages, and once ate the same turkey plate from Boston Market for lunch every single day for four months. On his show, he swings open the door to his fridge and points at a lone pile of packaged, processed turkey franks. "This is the only food that I know how to cook. All my life, I've had this really strange relationship with food…The truth is that there are only a handful of foods that I eat on a regular basis."

A few months ago, MUNCHIES published an interview with a man who claims to have exclusively eaten pizza for the past quarter of a century. There were haters, doubters, cheerleaders, and everything in between. Hyper-restricted diets have also infiltrated pop culture through the popular series Freaky Eaters, a TLC show where matter-of-fact neurotics with food fixations ("My diet has consisted of cheesy potatoes, every meal—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—for probably about 30 years," one woman shrugs) are publicly shamed through shock-value stunts and then magically "cured" through old-fashioned persuasion. (Sample episode description from Wikipedia: "A 33-year-old only eats cheeseburgers. He is later cured when he eats fish at a barbecue. According to the epilogue, he hasn't eaten a single cheeseburger since.")

In reality, most picky eaters are not so easily dissuaded from their habits. Theories for why people suffer from ARFID—Avoidant / Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, as it is now known in the medical community—range from obsessive-compulsive disorder to Asperger syndrome, to an overpopulation of taste buds. It could be different for each sufferer. But no matter what, they feel nauseated, panicked, or totally petrified at the idea of casually enjoying some saag paneer.

One aspect that made Cooper's televised episode of self-realization particularly interesting was his internet-procured roster of guests: He invited two women onto the show, Joyce and Marla, who had met in a popular online group for PEAs. The pair had become close online friends, bonded by their vehement aversions to all things meaty, vegetably, and fruity. Joyce subsists on hash browns and French fries. She tells Cooper that her mother passed away in 2009, forever ashamed of her daughter's food lifestyle, and she discovered only ten months later through the internet that there were "others like [her]"—including Marla. "When she said what she ate, it was almost exactly my list of food," she recounts excitedly to Cooper. Marla is brought out and the two embrace tenderly, revelling warmly in their first offline encounter, with Marla gushing, "I can't believe I'm sitting here with you … with someone that's actually alive and eats like me." Like veterans with matching battle scars, they had shared a quiet burden, longing for years for a friend who wouldn't reject or attempt to reform their hyper-narrow food affinities.

The online community of PEAs is incredibly active but also timid and secretive; one of its largest groups on Yahoo! has over 2,400 members and often hundreds of new posts each day, but membership remains restricted to the public. Prospective members must apply and explain why they want to join, perhaps to filter out bullying and taunts from the outside world (or even articles like this one). But they're extremely friendly to their kind, and if you write a brief note to the moderators saying that you, too, can only stand the taste of lightly toasted grilled cheese sandwiches with American cheese and nothing else, you're welcomed in with open arms.

Although they may feel like sore thumbs compared to the anything-goes eaters of the world, there are many trends and consistencies among PEAs. Almost all of them despise vegetables (except potatoes), and hardly any eat fruit or meat, instead preferring carbohydrate-laden, decidedly un-zesty foods such as French fries, breadsticks, crackers, and peanut butter. Some just have a very long list of "hate foods," while others consume exclusively one thing every day for years or decades. Not a single one claims to eat anything spicy, tangy, or acidic. It's fries and pasta as far as the eye can see.

It's also understandable why the general public might judge some of the conversations in the group. A parent takes to the board to complain that her son is a freshman in college and refuses to eat anything at its cafeteria, opting instead to save up his money to buy Cheerios, chips, and Kraft macaroni and cheese from the local Target. To him, everything else is "gross" and "disgusting." She begs for suggestions from his brethren. "Load him down with peanut butter, crackers, bread, and granola bars and trust him to be okay," proposes one woman. A late-30s father of three offers, "People for some reason make what we eat their business and find it strange. Whatever he would like to eat at school, I would let him. I don't eat meat, no vegetables, no bread, no fruits, [but] my kids do. Have a good day today!"

As a non-PEA, it can be difficult not to pass judgments on those who are basically encouraging a mother to shrug and supply her son with a diet entirely of gluten and sugar. But why do we care what other people eat, especially those who have such strong convictions about it that they'd rather risk becoming a pariah than try a bite of zucchini? It's difficult to imagine that anyone would choose such an affliction.

Group founder Bob K. assures another exasperated parent with some resigned but hopeful food for thought: "In most cases … hypnotherapy will fail. What we have is very hard to overcome. The good news [is that] many people that have [this issue] are gifted in other ways, and there is no reason to not have a very happy life with it."

This may be true, but one of the more difficult parts of being a PEA—and one that they lament together with knowing words of encouragement and empathy—is the ongoing struggle with romantic relationships. Some are in happy marriages, but many others report being rejected by potential partners again and again for their seeming stubbornness. The more experienced PEAs of the group adamantly insist on being upfront about it on the first date, lest it come out as a "secret" weeks or months into a relationship. And universally, if they're forced to choose between a babe and their French fries, the fries will prevail. Conversion is not an option, but maybe finding a kindred spirit is. And nobody wants to be lonely.

"Maybe someday it will change, a day in the future when our society is more accepting of people's differences," one PEA posts wistfully. In the meantime, he can sleep soundly knowing that there are others out there like him, typing away with piles of saltines and jars of peanut butter next to their keyboards.