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

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Zucker heads an intensive five-day program with the center -- a picky eater rehab of sorts.

"We would look at [a] plate of food and say, 'Oh, look at this lovely food adventure, I wonder what this would taste like,'" she said. "They would look at a plate of food and be like 'DANGER, DANGER.'"

When Erin first heard about the Duke program, she pushed her parents to enroll her. Even at her young age, she knew her difficulties with food were affecting her social life.

"I'm hungry when we go out for dinner and there's nothing I like," she said. "Or at birthday parties, I don't have something to eat because they mostly serve pizza."

Her father added, "The fact that she recognizes that it's not normal and she wants to get better is really the big reason why we're here."

For some picky eaters, new foods will make them physically ill, and for others, the food simply tastes bad to them. For Erin, it was both.

Zucker said that when kids are picky eaters, meals become stressful for the whole family.

The first two days of Erin's "rehab" were spent trying to change her thinking about new foods and testing her anxiety levels. The program also evaluated Erin's sense of smell and counted her taste buds to see if she was hyper-sensitive.

"The work with Erin has been about kind of retraining her experience with food," Zucker said, "giving her tools to relax her body and relax her mind and not let her thoughts get in the way of what she does."

Throughout the week of treatment, Erin, who never mixes foods, was asked to try different combinations of foods and experiment with different tastes. Her first breakthrough came when she ate a small piece of turkey bacon. This was a huge step for a young girl who refused to eat meat.

"That went better than what I would have expected, by far," said her father, Eric Graham.

Armed with new lessons from the program about how deal with Erin's picky eating habits, the Grahams headed back to Kansas City to continue working with her at home.

When they first arrived home, "She was a mess emotionally. I think that we were all drained," Amy Graham remembered. "But Dr. Zucker really kept in contact through emails and she would sometimes call Erin. And Erin just loved Dr. Zucker. [That] really kept her going."

Through the year, they've also learned a bit more about Erin's food choices.

"She likes onions," said Amy Graham. "And I think Dr. Zucker says what she really likes are strong tastes. We called her picky but she has a very fine palette, apparently."

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