A 9-year-old boy from Oklahoma has a phobia of food so intense that it prevents him from eating properly.
Michael Jackson has neophobia, and refuses to eat most food groups – except for Cheez-It crackers.
Fear of the New
Neophobia is described as an extreme fear of anything new or unfamiliar. This is what plagues young Michael Jackson, who has to leave the room when his family eat their meals and cannot bear to see food on the television.
The boy was diagnosed recently as his family attempted to help him get over his fear. His severe phobia extends to dairy, meat, fruits, and vegetables.
“He gags and breathes really hard. He just doesn't want to be around it. Sometimes, he runs and throws up,” Sandra Jackson, his mother, says. “Whenever someone else is eating, he has to go into another room - Christmas and Thanksgiving. You know the movie Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs? He can't watch it - scared of the food. He'll tell me ''I'm sorry, mom. I want to eat. I don't want to die. I want to live. I'm trying''.”
This is something that even experienced food industry professionals have never come across before: a phobia so strong that it constantly disrupts family meals, days out, and day to day living. Michael still has a healthy appetite – but will only stick to what he knows.
Michael describes it as a physical problem, saying that his stomach hurts whenever he eats normal food.
Dr Amy Middleman is a specialist in paediatric eating disorders. She claims that it would be possible to cure Michael’s phobia and have him start eating like a normal 9-year-old boy.
“It's estimated that 20 percent of children have some element of picky eating to the point it interferes with function. It is common,” she says. “There is absolutely hope. We treat patients with these issues all the time. And, the prognosis is terrific. If it has become a functional impairment, they are not eating with the family, not interacting with others because it might involve food, they might have changes in weight - up or down, that struggle they are having with food requires a team approach.”
It's thought that eating disorders of this kind are often linked to anxiety or depression. In Michael’s case, it might be that anxiety – perhaps triggered by an original case of food poisoning or an upset stomach – has become tied so strongly to food that he is unable to separate the two.
Eating Disorder Spectrum
On the eating disorder spectrum, this is an odd case: it’s less tied to the desire to lose weight or look a certain way, and more an objection to the types of food eaten, such as an avoidance of fresh produce.
Most people are familiar with anorexia and bulimia, both of which are attempts to control the intake of food in different ways. Anorexia is an avoidance of food as a whole, often combined with frequent purging and extreme exercise as a way to push the body as small as possible. It often results in death if not controlled.
Bulimia sees sufferers binging on food only to purge it later, and sufferers may not appear to have any weight issues. They may even remain overweight. However, the problems to their health often become very serious: teeth and mouth issues, throat problems, stomach ulcers, and problems with nutritional levels can manifest quickly.
The third characterisation of eating disorders is restrictive eating. This is similar to what Michael experiences: restricting certain foods from the diet to an obsessive level, or restricting eating times.