When you think of the word “fear” what comes to mind? For me I have thoughts and images such as ‘scary, panic, ghosts, dark alleys, heart racing, and skeletons’. When I add the word ‘food’ in front of fear what comes to mind? For most people it’s foods like pizza, donuts, ice cream, hamburgers and fried foods.
I often wonder how food has become something as scary as something that might actually be life threatening, such as walking down a dark alley alone. Food is something that is basic to our survival. How did something so essential to our lives become something that so many people fear on a daily basis?
I understand the fear of food. I used to live it day in and day out. When I was struggling with my eating disorder there was a very short list of foods that I deemed to be “okay” or safe to eat. I would adhere to this list and never let another food pass my lips. It didn’t matter what anyone said to me about my restrictive intake. I avoided most social food situations anyway since I wouldn’t eat at restaurants, friends’ houses, or anywhere I didn’t have control over my food. The most important thing to me at the time was that I followed my food rules.
Once I began my journey to recovery I started to loosen my grip my foods, but to everyone else I was still very controlled with food. This was difficult for me as I had just started college and I was in many situations where my safe foods were not available to me. So, I had two choices; either eat nothing, or let myself eat those fear foods. Often I choose the former, but I realized I could not continue to do this and appear “normal” anymore. I had to figure something out. I vowed to myself that I would let myself have other foods and deal with it somehow.
I remember the first time I went out on a date when I was 18 years old. I told myself that I was going to be normal (whatever that meant) and just order something off the menu without altering it 10 different ways. The panic in my body of letting myself eat that food was almost unbearable. I wondered if the guy I was with could tell how anxious I was. I hoped that he thought I was just nervous about being on a date.
I managed to get through the date and actually had a good time once we got through the whole eating part! Then something miraculous happened: I woke up the next morning and realized I did not gain 10 pounds from one meal. Also, one other amazing thing happened that I did not anticipate. When I woke up the next day I was not obsessed with the food I had eaten the night before. My first thought wasn’t “how can I make up for what I ate the night before”, as it was so many times before. My first thought was about the guy I was with and how much fun I had.
It was a very slow process for me overcoming all of my fear foods. Now, I don’t think twice about eating something that used to be scary for me. I realized this recently as I talked about how I use half and half in my coffee, and my client thought that was crazy! I remember when adding half and half was something that “normal” people did but I would never touch it. Now I can’t imagine my coffee without it!
There is no set formula for overcoming fear foods, but I have realized there were a few key things that helped me slowly conquer my fear foods.
Drop the Good Food/ Bad Food mindset
Viewing foods as either good or bad makes it difficult to let yourself eat a “bad” food. There are no good or bad foods. Every food, yes EVERY food can be part of a healthy diet. There is no single food that will cause you to instantly gain 10 pounds or develop heart disease.
Recognize that fear is part of the process
Sometimes in life, fear is necessary in order to move us forward. Think back to the first time you had a job interview, asked someone on a date, or gave a speech in your class. Was it comfortable? The answer is probably no. Feeling afraid is a normal part of doing something outside of our comfort zone. This is not a bad thing. And usually stepping out of our comfort zone is where the big changes really happen.
Focus on your goal
Focus on what you want out of recovery. Do you want to be able to enjoy your friends and family at social situations involving food? Do you want to have a healthy body and mind? Focusing on the overarching goal can help you when you feel like it’s too hard or not worth it to challenge your fear foods.
Enlist the support of others
Nobody can do this alone. Tell someone you trust what your goals are and ask for their support. When I really needed help with challenging a fear food I would ask my best friend to sit with me. He would eat with me and gently encourage me that it was okay. Also, seeing him eat the same food helped me to know that I wouldn’t die while eating it! Yes it’s dramatic, and yes, it’s really how I felt.
Pair the fear food with a safe food
Eating the food you fear with something that feels safe can help facilitate the process. For example, one of my fear foods was butter. Vegetables always felt very safe for me, so in the beginning, I would use a small amount of butter to saute my vegetables. This felt doable for me. Bread was another fear food of mine. If I had started out trying to eat bread with butter that probably would have been too much for me and I would have freaked out and given up.
Don’t push yourself too much
Start small. In the example above, I started with a small amount of butter. I would use ½ teaspoon to start. Yes only ½ teaspoon! It’s what felt comfortable to me. I would gradually add more as I felt more comfortable. I went to 1 teaspoon, 2 teaspoons, and so on. Now I don’t measure butter and just use what looks good to me. If I would have tried to push myself to use 2 tablespoons right off the bat, that would have felt like too much for me out and I would have given up! Give yourself the grace to start with what feels okay at the time.
Tell your eating disorder to eff off!
Last but not least, tell your eating disorder to leave you alone! Most of these fear foods are born out of our eating disorders making up arbitrary rules for us of what we can and can’t eat. You can acknowledge your eating disorder telling you that you should not eat a certain food, but it doesn’t mean you have to do what it says. Those thoughts are not helpful and will not help you achieve your goals in the long term.
Conquering fear foods is tough. If you are struggling with any of these, help is available. You do not have to do this alone.