Ahead of  Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2018, we hear from Bethany Francois, Ellern Mede Assistant Dietitian with some advice on Fear Foods. We hope you and your family find this useful.

Definitions

Fear: The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm.” It describes Food as “any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink or that plants absorb in order to maintain life and growth.” Two very different things – but with an eating disorder, inexplicably they can become very closely related, with some foods becoming ‘Fear Foods’. When this happens, it is really important that a person finds help to tackle the situation.

What is a Fear Food?

The term ‘fear food’ is used to describe certain foods a person feels they are afraid to eat, possibly because of negative thoughts and feelings about the nutritional content. It might not be just particular items but whole food groups. When eaten, the person may experience guilt and shame. So they avoid them.

In the context of an eating disorder, the person’s perception of a food being ‘bad’ may relate to the fear that eating it will result in immediate weight gain or result in over-eating and a feeling of a loss of control.

Why do Fear Foods develop?

Among the reasons could be memories attached to a certain food; comments and views of family and friends about that food; messages from the media; fashionable or cultural ideas; even nutritional material which is intended to be informative and valuable but may just have a counterproductive impact on a person with an eating disorder. For example, the public health campaign, intended to counter obesity in children, suggesting snacks should not be more than 100 calories each, could encourage avoidance of certain foods among people who far from being in danger of obesity are in danger of self-starvation.

What results from avoiding certain foods?

  • Increased anxiety and obsessive thinking
  • Prolonged poor relationship with food
  • Lack of variety in diet and enjoyment of meals
  • Inability to participate in social activities leading to isolation
  • Increased risk of relapse in people who may previously have had an eating disorder
  • Cravings for a food you like but are denying yourself, which can lead to bingeing

Continuing to avoid a fear food will lead to increased anxiety and reinforce the idea that you are unable to manage it.

How to overcome the fear of food

Challenge the fear. Try the food in small steps, because the more something is done, the less anxiety-provoking it becomes.

Don’t let an eating disorder lie to you about your own taste preferences. Gradually introducing the foods you fear helps you to determine your true tastes. Did you stop eating this because you disliked it? Or did you stop because of the false messages from your selective eating disorder condition?

Challenge the idea of ‘perfect eating’

Attempting to follow a ‘perfect’ diet can mean you are being rigid and inflexible. That spells problems socially. You may then find yourself choosing self-isolation rather than participate in social gatherings due to your fear of straying from safe foods.Choosing not to pursue a ‘perfect diet’ is a powerful self-administered eating disorder therapy that will help enhance your relationship with food.

Face the food – step by step

  • Write a list of fear foods starting with the least challenging to the most and gradually work through it.
  • Pair the fear food with a less challenging item
  • Team up with someone who understands how hard it is for you while you do this
  • Record each challenge and rate how you feel from 1-10
  • Verbalise the fear e.g. if I eat this, XYZ will happen. Then you can see whether your ‘prediction’ comes true. Usually it will not.

Improve your ‘relationship’ with food

A normal and healthy diet should include a variety of food. Eating is supposed to be a pleasure. Recovery is both a physical and a psychological journey. If you have been well below the weight you should be, getting to a normal weight is not enough. If you continue to avoid and fear certain foods it means you still have to progress to achieve a healthy relationship with food.

Help your recovery to last

You may achieve recovery from an eating disorder and judge this from being weight restored. But if you still have Fear Foods, it’s a slippery slope. The problem will escalate over time. People who are able to include foods they once feared have a much better chance of maintaining their recovery long-term.