After 'Rehab,' Extremely Picky Eater Copes With Fear of Food

PHOTO: After undergoing "picky eater rehab" at Duke University School of Medicine, extremely picky eater Erin Graham is making major strides in her eating habits.
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Erin Graham refused to eat meat, vegetables, pasta or salad and was even choosy about desserts last year, but now the 9-year-old from Kansas City has made major strides in her eating habits after undergoing an intense "picky eater rehab" program.

Erin is an extremely picky eater. Most kids love pizza, chicken nuggets, hamburgers, hot dogs and cheese, but before entering "rehab" at Duke University School of Medicine Center for Eating Disorders last year, the list of foods Erin would eat was brief. She enjoyed breakfast foods like French toast, some fruit, grilled cheese sandwiches -- only with American cheese -- chips, French fries, crackers and lots of peanut butter, but only a specific kind.

Now, a year out of the program, where Erin underwent a range of therapies and physical tests, she's has added a litany of new foods.

"Yeah, I like cheeseburgers, calamari, onion, onion rings ... bacon," Erin said.

She's also added fried chicken, celery, carrots, and her mom's pumpkin pancakes.

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It may not seem like much, but for an extremely picky eater like Erin, it's a huge breakthrough. But it hasn't been easy. This year, the Grahams have recorded each and everyone one of Erin's 1,433 bites.

Erin treats it like a game.

"When I take a bite of a food," she said. "I get six points. Like one bite equals six points. And then ... at the end of the food adventure, my mom adds up like all of the sixes that we've done."

"It's exhausting," said Amy Graham, Erin's mother. "My husband Eric does all the tracking. He keeps everybody's spreadsheets."

The young girl suffers from what doctors call "food neophobia" -- essentially a fear of trying new foods. It is a relatively new field of study for researchers. They have no idea how many people suffer from it. It hasn't even been officially classified a disorder by the medical field, but it's starting to more serious than previously thought.

Erin used to be so afraid of trying new foods that she was on the verge of being hungry all the time. Every meal was a stressful family battle.

For Amy Graham, cooking meals at home for her three children was a daily nightmare, especially when she had to follow Erin's strict food demands.

"Do you ever like the dinner I make?" Graham asked her daughter last year.

Erin's answer? An emphatic "no."

Graham believed her daughter has been a picky eater since birth. Erin had acid reflux as a baby which made every bite painful.

The Grahams' other two children, 11-year-old Ella and 7-year-old Freddie, don't share the same eating habits as their sister.

Erin went to several doctors, all of whom gave her mother advice that ranged from "she'll outgrow it" to "just starve her," meaning not letting Erin have a choice of what's on her plate.

"I tried to say, 'This is what's for dinner, you gotta eat. ... If you're hungry enough you'll eat,'" said Amy. "People just think I'm specially making a meal for her all the time and it's my fault, and if I showed her who was boss, she would eat. And the fact of the matter is, no, she won't."

So last year, in a last ditch attempt, Amy and Eric Graham brought their daughter to see Dr. Nancy Zucker, who runs Duke's Center for Eating Disorders. The center studies food-neophobia and how someone who might suffer from the condition reacts to new foods.

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