At some point during treatment for an eating disorder, most individuals will meet with a Registered Dietitian. One of the many important things you’ll do during those sessions is identify and discuss your personal list of fear foods. This is an important step that allows the dietitian to individualize treatment, help you plan for and overcome obstacles, and work alongside the rest of the treatment team to empower you in your recovery.
What are fear foods?
A fear food, or challenge food, is a term for foods that one finds difficult to incorporate into everyday eating. This term is used for foods that feel scary to eat, often because of negative thoughts or feelings related to the food’s nutrient content. Fear foods can be items or categories of food that one perceives to be “bad” and which, when consumed, might trigger feelings of intense guilt or shame. As a result, people with eating disorders often completely avoid or restrict their fear foods. Sometimes, just being around a particular food or being faced with the possibility of eating it can result in increased anxiety.
For people with anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder, these fears and the perception of certain foods as “bad” are often related to anxiety about anticipated weight gain and/or an inability to stop eating the food once they begin. In other words, there tends to be a strong belief that eating a fear food will instantly make you fat or that eating a certain food will make you lose control and overeat.
A person’s list of fear foods might be specific, like ice cream or peanut butter. For others, their fear foods might encompass a whole category like all desserts or fried foods. Someone else’s fear food list might include an entire nutrient group such as carbohydrates. Common fear foods are also items considered by many to be tasty, but may also be labeled as “junk food” in our current culture.
Where do fear foods come from?
Fear foods develop from personal values, attitudes, feelings and even memories associated with a certain food. Messages from the people close to you – family, friends, coaches, teachers, healthcare providers – all play a significant role in determining your thoughts about food and can ultimately influence your (dis)comfort with particular food items.
Fear foods may also stem from a variety of impersonal sources including trending cultural ideas about food, media messages, advertisements or even nutrition information intended to be educational and beneficial. For example, there are multitudes of articles and news stories that include lists of supposedly good vs. bad foods, or foods that are better/worse for health.
Another frequent source of fear or shame related to food is dieting. Given that most diets limit or cut out certain foods, dieters start to believe that the eliminated food is bad. The more diets a person goes on, the more fear foods they are likely to have.
What are some consequences of avoiding fear foods?
- Limited variety and lack of enjoyment in meals
- Social isolation
- Obsessive thoughts about the feared food
- Worsening anxiety
- Increased eating disorder symptoms and heightened risk of relapse
- Prolonged negative relationship with food
People without eating disorders may have fear foods too but the consequences for those with eating disorders are much steeper since we know that limiting variety and continuing to avoid specific foods during recovery raises one’s chances for relapse. Two of our CED dietitians recently wrote in more detail about this topic for our friends at Eating Disorder Hope in a post entitled, The Importance of Incorporating Fear Foods and Challenge Foods in Recovery.
Remember, no single food has the power to make you thin or fat. And, ironically, the avoidance of a food is typically what leads a person to overeat it.
If you think you might need assistance reintegrating fear foods or overcoming negative thoughts about food and eating in general, please call The Center for Eating Disorders at (410) 938-5252 for a free phone consultation.
In individuals with different eating disorder diagnoses, or those with co-occurring disorders, fear foods might manifest differently. For example, in individuals with ARFID, anxiety may be related to a fear of choking or to a perceived health consequence of eating the food item. In individuals with PTSD, fear foods may stem from associations with the traumatic experience. In both cases, treatment methods may differ, and the treatment team should take into account the origin and underpinnings of each fear food when providing education and support.
Hannah Huguenin, MS, RD, LDN
Samantha Lewandowski, MS, RD, LDN
Kate Clemmer, LCSW-C