Written by Lucy Walton
An important step in recovery from an eating disorder or disordered eating, is exposing yourself to foods that cause fear or anxiety, often called “fear foods”. Sitting with the feelings of guilt or anxiety after eating these foods is difficult, but key to normalising your relationship with food.
Fear is an important emotion that has played a significant role in our evolution and survival as humans, especially in keeping us safe. Fear is described as “an unpleasant emotion caused by threat of danger, pain or harm”. We experience fear in many different scenarios, often as an unconscious reaction, for example while watching a scary movie, going for a job interview, or standing on the edge of a cliff. We respond to the fear usually in a fight, flight or freeze response.
What is a fear food?
A fear food is a food (or food group e.g. carbohydrates) that is feared as a result of an unhelpful or incorrect belief or thought about that particular food. For example, "If I eat chocolate I will gain weight."
Get started with tackling incorrect ED beliefs with 10 Reasons We Need Carbohydrates on the TC Nutrition blog!
Why do we experience fear around food?
In a world of diet culture, harmful messages about how a food could affect our weight and/or body shape are common. It can be easy to fall into a trap of believing that certain foods or food groups will impact our body, usually by weight gain or change to body shape. The food then becomes associated with danger as we fear the changes to our body and what the consequences of this may be. Because diet culture perpetuates that food is to be feared and the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods is promoted, these thought patterns can become the "truth" and before you know it, you are following rigid diet rules and have a list of forbidden foods.
Unhelpful or maladaptive thought patterns such as black + white thinking, labelling and emotional reasoning are common in the depths of an eating disorder or within the world of restrictive dieting. But, this doesn't mean you can't change the way you think! We've mapped out some recurrent eating disorder thought patterns and ways to challenge them.
You don’t need to fear food
We need food to survive, and all foods have a place in our diet. A diet that includes a variety of different foods, is balanced, and suits your lifestyle will be one you can sustain in the long run. During recovery from an eating disorder, fear around food might arise due to fear of gaining weight making more energy dense foods difficult to challenge. But when we weight restore, the weight gain is not successful due to eating one certain food or food group, despite what your eating disorder may tell you. What matters is total energy intake over a period of time. You could, in theory, achieve a positive energy balance to weight restore by eating only apples, if you could eat enough of them!
"No single food will lead to weight gain or weight loss. You could gain weight just eating apples, and lose weight by just eating chocolate if your energy intake was respectively in a surplus or deficit of your energy requirements"
Overcoming food fears
Going against all these messages in society, and the ones in your head, can be incredibly challenging. However, facing your food fears can be extremely liberating and rewarding (hear it from our Rule Breaker Challenge graduates). Food fears can mean missing out on fun memories, experiences and having freedom from obsessive food thoughts and unhelpful behaviours. The only way to overcome this is to face the fear and build evidence that nothing bad will happen by eating the food.
Here are several ways to start to overcome your food fears:
1. Write down your food fears
Make a list of all the foods or food groups you avoid because you are fearful of eating them. Then rank these foods on a scale of 1 (least difficult) to 10 (most difficult) and create a hierarchy list. Choose 1-2 'least difficult' foods from the bottom of the list and plan to include them in your diet 2-3 times a week. Slowly work your way up the list.
2. Make a plan
Think about when you will eat the food, who you will be with and where you will go. Attention to detail means you are more likely to follow through with it and provides accountability. You should also include a plan for distraction or an activity afterwards. Share your plan with someone you trust for extra accountability.
3. Mini challenges
Gradual steps are important to prevent becoming too overwhelmed, especially when you have been experiencing the same thoughts for so long. Try starting slowly with one food per week and increasing. Or one mouthful followed by two, followed by a larger portion each time. Don’t try to conquer too many fears at once. Remember it will take time.
Remember to reflect after each challenge and collect evidence against your disordered thoughts. Did the fear come true? Did anything dangerous happen? How did you feel? This will help you to keep in check with your progress and also solidify the event in your brain.
5. Repeat challenges
Unfortunately, facing the food fear just once will not provide long lasting changes. The fear must be conquered multiple times to create lasting change in the brain and develop new neural pathways. Creating new beliefs about food and unlearning old beliefs is important and will help to create a neutral relationship with the food. The more you face the food and eat it, the less power it will have over you.
6. Visualise success
Think about how everything will run, going just as you planned, with no negative consequences. This will help you to feel confident in your ability to do the challenge and face the fear. You can do hard things!
7. Don’t do it alone
Having support can help to create a safe space, provide reassurance, and encourage expression of emotions. Face the fear with someone you trust, a friend, family member, partner, or a peer support group. Finding your recovery community is a wonderful adjunct to treatment!
If you are looking for support with overcoming food fears, join us in Rule Breaker. Rule breaker is a 6-week challenge which supports you to take back control of your food choices. The challenge is designed to help you face your food fears, led by Registered Dietitian Talia Cecchele.
The Rule Breaker Challenge is undergoing an exciting revamp! The next round is expected to start in mid 2023, click here for more details and join our mailing list to receive priority updates!
Lucy is a Registered Associate Nutritionist and intern at TCN! With Lucy's background in nutrition and psychology, her aim is to help you become more confident in your food choices and enrich your mindset. You can find Lucy on instagram @lutritionw and her website here
Talia Cecchele Nutrition is a team of registered dietitians that specialise in eating disorder recovery, disordered eating, digestive issues and sports nutrition. We aim to bring balance back to nutrition, help you to break free from food rules and find food freedom. We offer virtual consultations and group programs so whether you are based in London, the United Kingdom or around the world we would love to support you. To enquire about a private consultation please fill out a contact form.