Fear Foods and Tips for Facing Them

There could be any number of reasons why someone would fear eating specific foods. These reasons range from sensory concerns to functional dysphagia (the fear of, or inability to swallow foods). However, in eating disorders and disordered eating, it is most often the case that foods or food groups are feared because of their nutritional content. Facing these “fear foods” is a crucial part of recovery from disordered eating.

The fear of specific foods or food groups in individuals without disordered eating is usually because of either physical impairment or due to the fear of gagging, vomiting or choking. These fears could be the result of the person’s actual traumatic experience or could even be subsequent to witnessing some such episode and do not usually involve concerns over weight or health.

In individuals with disordered eating “fear foods” are often those that are calorically-dense. It could be specific foods, such as ice-cream or peanut-butter, or it could be a food category, like carbohydrates. Consuming these specific foods or foods in the category that the individual has deemed “bad” will often lead to feelings of intense shame and guilt. There is often a belief that those foods will cause them to instantly gain weight, or that they won't be able to control themselves once they start eating them. In the case of orthorexia (an obsession with only eating foods that one considers “healthy”), the fear could be of consuming processed foods or any food that is not organic, and that these foods will negatively affect health.

How Food Fears Develop

There are a number of reasons why these fears develop including negative comments about specific foods from family members, friends, teachers, mentors etc.; messages about that food in the media or cultural trends and ideas or advertising. They could even be triggered by food packaging or nutrition material intended to be informative, such as nutrition labelling, or a public health campaign. Dieting can be another source of food fear. Most diets impose restrictions and limits on certain foods or food types and dieters can start to believe that the “off limits” foods are in fact bad, and should be avoided altogether.

Why Facing Fear Foods Matters

Avoiding or eliminating certain foods can have multiple implications:

  • Lack of variety in diet and therefore the risk of developing nutrient deficiencies

  • Social isolation and fear of social situations where they may be faced with eating those foods

  • Increased anxiety and chronic stress

  • Increased disordered eating symptoms

  • Increased risk of relapse

It is not possible to fully recover from disordered eating/eating disorders, to find true food freedom until these food “rules” have been challenged. Including them can be a huge step towards a lasting relaxed and enjoyable relationship with food. Facing them will not be easy and it can be tempting to put off trying them until you feel less fearful however this is counterproductive. The longer you avoid something the scarier to can become! The only way to feel less afraid is to gradually expose yourself to your fears. The “doing” needs to come before the fear goes away.

The “doing” needs to come before the fear goes away.

Tips for facing fear foods:

1. Get support

Work alongside a therapist, nutritionist or dietitian who understands intuitive eating and has a weight neutral approach. The last part is crucial to avoid possible triggering and exacerbation of the problem! Someone to support you and remind you of the importance of the work you are doing to recover when your disordered eating voice is loud and you’re feeling like giving up can be invaluable. If you don’t have access to a professional you could ask someone you trust (whom you feel has a normal, good relationship to food) and let them know exactly how you would like to be supported. For example, you could ask them to sit with you while you try your fear food and to talk about things other than food with you or to try your fear food with you. It’s important that you let them know what you will find helpful and supportive.

2. Rate the challenge

Make a list of your fear foods and rate them from 1 to 10, 10 being the scariest. Your goal is to step out of your comfort zone but not to feel completely unsafe so start with the least scary foods on your list and work your way up to the ones you feel most nervous about. Another good way to start trying fear foods is to have them with foods that you are already really comfortable with.

3. Be mindful of the "after"

It is essential that you consciously decide not to engage in any compensatory behaviour after trying your fear food. This can only exacerbate and reinforce the idea that the food you exposed yourself to is “bad”.

4. Be gentle on yourself

By exposing yourself to your fear foods you're doing something that's really brave! Recovery is not linear and does not happen perfectly. If your “challenge” doesn’t go completely as planned, that’s okay, don’t beat yourself up, you can always try again.

5. Remember the truth

When it all feels overwhelming and just too difficult, remember the truth - that no single food has the power to change your health or your weight and your worth as a person is 100% not dependant on those things.

Full recovery is possible!

If you're struggling with introducing fear foods into your diet or you just want a more peaceful and enjoyable relationship with food get in touch about one-to-one coaching here!

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 © 2019 Mikayla Norton