Chocolate. Bread. Cheese. Butter. Potatoes. Pizza. Jelly. Cake. Pastries. Chips. Guacamole. Beer. Ice cream. Acai bowls. Burgers. Fries. Steak. Sandwiches. Popcorn. Dumplings. White rice. Fried chicken. Fried anything, really.
These were just some of my fear foods. The list was endless and constantly evolving each time I learned about a new food. Fried polenta? Sounds like a fear food. Dippin dots? Fear food. Mochi? Fear food. Falafel? Fear food. Strudel? Fear food.
Most people have foods they prefer not to eat; foods they don't like or that make them feel ill. The avoidance of those foods is not rooted in fear. The avoidance of a food that you actually like or crave is a fear food. Many individuals suffering from eating disorders have incredibly intense fear foods, and conversely, many foods they consider "safe." Specific foods are considered "safe" if they are perceived to not cause weight gain or because they do not pose a risk of overeating. Common "safe" foods are vegetables, fruits, bland foods like plain oatmeal, and foods with no calories such as coffee, tea, or diet sodas.
So, What are fear foods? A fear food is a food an individual finds difficult to incorporate into their diet. Fear foods feel scary to eat, often because of negative thoughts or feelings related to the food’s nutrient content. Fear foods are often individual items (pizza, cookies, cheese, etc), or they can be entire categories of food (carbs, fat). When you eat a fear food, you may feel intense guilt or shame. People with and without eating disorders restrict fear foods. Sometimes, just being around a particular food or being faced with the possibility of eating it can increase anxiety. Thus, people may avoid situations in which they might encounter the fear food altogether. Birthday celebrations, for example, may be missed to avoid cake, or meals out with friends may be skipped in order to avoid any number of triggering fear foods.
Tara DeWitt MS, RDN, LD writes, " An analogy I use when trying to educate a patient’s loved ones about fear foods, is to think of the one thing you are extremely afraid of and imagine facing the fear 3-6 times each and every day. For example, I am terrified of spiders. If there is a spider in a room I have to enter, someone (NOT me) would have to a) kill the spider, b) remove the spider from said room, or c) demolish the building. Imagine how difficult it would be for me to enter the room, facing the tiny arachnid that has held me back from entering various rooms. Now imagine how difficult it is for a patient to face the thing that held them back from their lives."
Tackling Fear Foods
Most eating disorder treatments will incorporate fear foods, usually by helping patients consume their fear foods and disprove whatever belief they held surrounding that food. For example, one of my first fear foods were cookies. I thought that if I ate a cookie, I would gain weight. The correlation seemed obvious to me: high calorie foods=high weight. After many sessions with my therapist, I bought a single cookie from a Whole Foods bakery, cradling it carefully in its brown wrapping as I entered my therapists office. Part of me didn't even want to touch it, afraid that if I held it too long I would consume it with such utter abandon that it would be impossible to stop eating.
Everyone handles fear foods differently. Some tackle fear foods in a group setting, leaning on one another for moral support. I had no group at the time, so I just sat, staring at the cookie for nearly an hour, talking through how afraid I was, trying to separate my emotions from the facts. Yes, I knew one cookie would not cause me to gain 20 pounds, but I sure didn't feel that way. Worse yet, as I slowly ate the cookie the same old feelings of guilt and shame flooded over me, mixed with anger toward my therapist for urging me to eat the cookie in the first place.
As I slowly incorporated different fear foods back into my diet (white bread, salad dressing, chocolate, chips, and so much more), I realized that none of these foods cause weight gain. None of them. After initially eating these foods, then incorporating them back into my everyday life, I learned that food was never the problem. My attitude toward food and my perception that it was harmful or wrong was the real issue. Extreme restriction led to bingeing led to purging. I denied my body nourishment for so long and demonized so many foods that soon nothing was fair game. Nearly everything, in my eyes, was bad. But confronting my fear foods helped me see that food is neither good or bad.
Ascribing "good" and "bad" labels to specific foods is problematic in more ways than one:
1. Guilt: When food is either "good" or "bad," all food becomes joyless. "Good" foods are boring and healthy, and "bad" foods instill guilt and shame.
2. Chaos: Attempting to stay within even semi-rigid food guidelines all the time becomes difficult. Emotional chaos can ensue when we punish ourselves for eating bad foods, or reward ourselves for eating good ones because our inherent value comes from the foods we choose to consume.
3. Control: Labeling foods, actively avoiding foods, and guilt for eating certain foods all result from excessive thoughts about food. If you're spending too much time thinking about and controlling food, food will *ironically* begin to control you.
Challenging Fear Foods
Challenging fear foods can be a terrifying process, and will likely get harder before it gets easier. Those with eating disorders or disordered eating should seek professional help. Likely, the reason we fear certain foods or attempt to control our bodies is deeply rooted in trauma, low-self worth, or unhealthy learned dynamics. If you want to learn more about fear foods, check out Fear of Food: a History of Why We Worry About What We Eat by Harvey Levenstein.
P.S. If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, contact the NEDA helpline at (800) 931-2237, find a treatment center or therapist near you HERE, or find an Eating Disorders Anonymous (EDA) meeting near you HERE.