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All About Safe Foods

[Listen to an audio version of this blog HERE.]

I was afraid of cake, cookies, candies, and anything sweet. My aversion to sweets spiraled into fear of other "bad foods" that I read about in magazines or saw on TV. White bread was a "bad food." Crackers and cheese were bad. Cereal was bad, butter was bad, meat was bad, everything was bad. At one point I restricted carbs to beans and ate only raw fruits and vegetables, which (obviously) wrecked my digestive system. Many people have an aversion to specific foods not because they don't like that food but because they think the quality of that food poor. Many individuals suffering from eating disorders have very intense fear foods and, on the flip side of the coin, foods they consider "safe." A safe food is "safe" because it won’t cause weight gain, or because it does not pose the risk of overeating. Today I'm going to break down how it's possible to remove the word "safe" from your food lexicon for good.

Because safe foods are chosen to avoid overeating or weight gain, it makes sense that fear foods are avoided because of the threat of weight gain or because the food is hard to resist and overeating is likely. Common fear foods include: cake, cookies, doughnuts, candy, ice cream, pasta, pizza, chips, and anything rich or tasty. Fear foods are exacerbated when eating out because someone else is preparing the food. Eating out, even if at a health-conscious establishment, usually doesn't feel safe for someone with an eating disorder because we have no control over what goes in the food. The feeling of unsafety is exacerbated if there are chips or bread out on the table prior to the meal being served. Chips and bread are common fear foods and even being around them can cause panic. You might be thinking that yes, some foods are "bad for you" and should be avoided. The line between healthy restraint and unhealthy habits is blurry at best. But any food (yes any food) in moderation can be incorporated into a healthy diet. Someone with an eating disorder hasn't found that healthy balance and doesn't trust themselves or their body enough to eat any amount of "unsafe" food.

There is no logical reason to fear food of any kind. For many people, food fears can easily become irrational. I thought for many years that a bite of a cookie would undo me. In reality it takes 3,500 calories above what your body needs to gain one pound. Chances are, that bite of a cookie or even a whole hamburger won’t come close to resulting in weight gain. Fear foods are not based on reality, but for people with eating disorders fear foods feel real, and feelings are very powerful.

How to "get over" fear foods is different for everybody, but should include a healthy dose of therapy and the help of a dietitian if available. When I was going through treatment, I met with many therapists and dietitians. In my sessions with my dietitians we often talked about fear foods and the emotional triggers they caused, as well as the underlying trauma or beliefs that caused me to feel emotionally triggered by food. I worked my way up to eating a brownie with my dietitian, which felt extremely unsafe and vulnerable. But when I didn't gain weight from the brownie, or even feel sluggish or bad, I slowly started to see that the demonization of foods was only hurting me, physically, socially, mentally, and psychologically.

My dietitian also broke down the science of food in order to dispel my fears. My base metabolic rate (BMR, calculate yours here) requires that I eat 1,400 calories per day, just to live. Adding in my high activity level increases my caloric needs greatly. And because I'm an athlete (and competitive), the desire to perform well helped me come to terms with eating more. My therapist and dietitian helped me realize that I wouldn't achieve recovery unless I gave up my "safe" foods. My "safe" foods, by the way, were boring as hell: oatmeal, apples, bananas, carrots, hummus, tofu, spinach, water, coffee, and sugar free drinks. Once I realized I didn't have to restrict my diet so heavily and could be healthier than ever, I was dumbfounded. I felt like the diet industry and media had been lying to me (and they were) about how to achieve health.

Part of recovery, for me, was gaining weight. This was hard to reconcile, but in some cases it's incredibly necessary for health. When I needed to gain weight, I told myself I could do it using my "safe" foods. And it is possible to gain weight on the foods I just mentioned, but recovering from an eating disorder is more than just gaining a healthy amount of weight, it's also about fixing a broken relationship with food. I had to switch the anorexic response off, relearn how to react to food, and teach my brain via my actions that I didn't have to just eat my "safe" foods. Because I suffered from my eating disorder for many years, the process to unlearn my behaviors was long and arduous. Every time you act as if you are on a diet you teach your brain to believe that you should be on a diet. I had to dissociate my worth from my body and food from my worth in order to begin healing. Now that I'm well into recovery, I can see how damaging my eating behaviors and beliefs were, but I can also see how easy it is to get sucked into believing harmful things about food. Our society is at once fatter than it has ever been and more obsessed with health. There is obviously a disconnect going on somewhere, and I personally think it's due to an obsession with dieting alongside the overabundance and demonization of food. Making a food "bad" makes us want it more. Having a neutral attitude toward food enables you to tune into your hunger cues and give your body exactly what it wants.

The first step in letting go of your safe foods is to challenge them. Start by doing something small, like eating a food that you believe is unsafe, even if it's only a bite. Tune out your worry about the food and tune into how your body feels. Your body is your best indicator of health, and practicing intuitive eating is not only the best way to maintain a healthy weight, but will teach you how to let go of your mental attitudes regarding food. Taking a neutral approach to food and your body will take time, but will result in so much freedom that you won't ever want to give it up.

P.S. Read Tabitha Farrar's breakdown of anorexia and our evolutionary response to famine here. Read more about intuitive eating here, and find a therapist near you here.


Sarah Rose

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