How to challenge fear foods in eating disorder recovery

What is a fear food

Let’s talk about fear foods. Fear foods are foods (and drinks) that someone might be afraid to eat because of concerns about how the food might impact you or their nutritional content. This is usually due to an incorrect food rule or belief and can happen in anorexia nervosa, orthorexia, binge eating disorder or bulimia. They can include specific foods or broader food groups such as carbohydrates or dairy foods. Eating these foods can cause worry, shame and guilt. These feelings can feel overwhelming and be very difficult to deal with which makes challenging fear foods even harder. However as an eating disorder dietitian I firmly believe that we can eat all foods and working through this process is an important part of recovery.

Why do I feel fear?

Fear can be an important protective emotion. It can keep us safe from threats and get us out of danger. Fear can also be something we feel in response to life events such as a change of job, an exam or new experience. Or we can feel fear when going on a theme park ride, or watching a scary film. You can see that our brains are designed to feel fear and it is part of how we are wired. Which means we have the capability of working through it too.

Fear around foods can come from incorrect nutrition messages, diets, diet culture. We live in a world obsessed with weight and shape which means these messages are all around us. We start to associate certain foods as bad for us, or even dangerous and this can lead to a list of food rules that are hard to break. Those thoughts can become rigid, catastrophising when you eat those foods and very black and white. In reality nearly all foods are safe for us, unless poisonous, it is the balance of what we eat that is key. All things in moderation!

Won’t my fear foods cause me to gain weight?

This can be a common worry. Try to remember a one off food is not going to affect your weight and it can take a lot of extra energy for your body to weight restore after a period of restriction. Rationalising these thoughts can help in the process of tackling fear foods.

What’s the difference between a safe food and a fear food

Fear foods can be common in disordered eating and eating disorders. Learn more about the warning signs for eating disorders here. Whereas safe foods are those that you feel comfortable eating because they don’t challenge your eating disorder thoughts. Safe foods are usually low in calories, sugar and/or fat. They can include diet foods like sugar-free options, rice cakes, vegetable sticks.

These foods aren’t necessarily more nutritious. In fact, their low-calorie value may mean that they are lacking in key nutrients. Consuming only these foods can also mean you’re not getting sufficient energy to support your body’s daily needs.

Eating only safe foods can lead to a diet that is unbalanced, lacking key nutrients and that is low in calories. This can all lead to bloating and digestive issues, poor skin and hair health, low mood, low energy, increased risk of illness, muscle weakness, unsafe weight loss and more.

Some common fear foods

Cakes, biscuits, pizza and baked goods are common fear foods, as are crisps, cheese and sugary drinks. Exactly which foods count as a fear food is unique to you based on your own experiences and relationship with food. For some people it could be certain vegetables and olive oil are on the list. Remember everyone is individual.

Create a fear foods challenge list

Starting working on your fear foods firstly means identifying your foods. Start by writing down all the foods that you can think of that count as a fear food for you. If you’re unsure, think about which foods you don’t feel comfortable eating, or avoid entirely. This can be an ongoing process, so you may need to come back a few hours or even days later to add some foods to the list. These foods don’t need to be whole meals, they could be sides, salad dressings or even ingredients.

Rank your fear foods

Next, draw up three lists titled “slightly scary” “moderately scary” and “really scary”. Start to add the foods that you have listed into one of these lists based on how you feel about them. There’s no right or wrong answer.

Another method is to rate your fear foods out of 10, then highlight those that are 1-4 in green, those that are 4-7 in amber and those that are 8-10 as red.

Steps to challenge a fear foods

The next steps are all about exposing yourself to your fear foods to reduce their power over you. Once you’ve created your list, you know which foods to work through.

Start off with 1-3 foods from the “slightly scary” or “green” list. These are the foods to work on including in your diet first.

Now to challenge your fear foods. Let’s make a start by thinking about the week ahead. Now you can plan when and where you will try to include a fear food. You may also like to plan what you will have the food with (if part of a meal/snack) and who you might have with you. It is usually a good plan to have the food as part of a meal or snack and to do this with a supportive person. Let them know how best to support you. Do you want them to talk to you, to eat it with you, to distract you? Also plan a calming activity to do afterwards with your support buddy. Things you could try include a craft, colouring, a puzzle, a board game.

Remember, it is okay to start slowly. You may initially only have one or two mouthfuls, or only one food per week and that’s okay. Reflect on your food challenge by making a note of how you felt eating the food at each exposure in a journal or notebook.

How often should you challenge fear foods

You will need to keep trying each food on a regular basis to help overcome the fear and discomfort of having it. It’s important to set the pace that is right for you, but you may find 1-3 a week is a good amount -just remember to continue having the foods from the previous weeks!

How to plan a food challenge

As mentioned above, your when where, what and even who are important for planning a food challenge. This is based on the idea of SMART goals. SMART stands for:

  • Specific,
  • Measurable,
  • Achievable,
  • Relevant, and
  • Time-Bound.

In the context of challenging your fear foods, saying “I’m going to stop being afraid of eating certain foods” isn’t a SMART goal. Instead, “I am going to try 2 new fear foods each week using my list and making a note” creates a plan that meets SMART goals. Here’s how:

  • Specific: you’ve identified precise fear foods using the list
  • Measurable: the reflection journal means you can see how your feelings around the food changes
  • Achievable: 2 (or a number of your choice) fear foods at a time is a realistic number
  • Relevant: challenging fear foods will help to achieve your goals of feeling confident around food!
  • Time-Bound: by addressing your fears weekly, you’re staying consistent

Dietitian support for fear foods

For more support, book in for a consultation with the Dietitian UK team here.

For free eating disorder advice and helplines, visit Beat Eating Disorders.

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