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Eating Disorder Recovery 101: Challenging Fear Foods

Woman having fun with her daughter while preparing food in the kitchen.

For many people with eating disorders, it’s common to feel as though certain foods are “off limits.” Due to the negative effects of diet culture, we’ve been trained to think that certain foods are “bad” and others are “good” – this is simply not the case.

Instead of thinking of food in terms of “good” and “bad,” it’s helpful to center your meal planning around a nutritional approach. This involves ensuring you’re getting the proper nutrients, all food groups are being included, and you feel good about the food you’re putting into your body.

In this post, we’ll cover everything you need to know about fear foods – including where they come from and how to face them in eating disorder recovery. Let’s dive right in!

What Are Fear Foods?

A fear food is a food or food group that someone fears under the assumption or belief that consuming that food will lead to a negative outcome. The biggest concern surrounding these fear foods is weight gain, especially for people with eating disorders. Many people also have fear and anxiety about foods they believe may pose potential health risks. 

Moving even further, another frequent source of anxiety surrounding fear foods is that the person won’t be able to stop eating a certain food once they start. They may feel as if eating only a small amount may lead to uncontrollable cravings or a binge. This is especially evident in people with bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder.

Here are some common signs that you may have fear foods:

  • You feel as though certain foods are “off limits”
  • You categorize foods based on whether they’re “good” or “bad”
  • You avoid certain food groups altogether in fear of how they will affect your body
  • You avoid social situations where certain foods will be present (e.g.: birthday parties, restaurant meals, and anywhere else fear foods are common)
  • You eat an excess amount of food in a short period of time, then feel intense guilt and shame afterward

Fear foods can look different and vary from person to person. While it’s very common for people to fear foods deemed unhealthy by diet culture due to the fear of gaining weight, others have a fear of foods rooted in separate concerns (e.g. health risks). Nonetheless, all fear foods are rooted in unhealthy, toxic beliefs perpetuated by diet culture.

What Are Safe Foods?

It’s clear that the presence of fear foods in people’s lives can cause extreme distress and anxiety at any stage of the recovery process. In contrast, many people with eating disorders who have fear foods also have what are called ‘safe foods.’

Safe foods are the exact opposite of fear foods – they’re any food that doesn’t cause anxiety or distress for someone. These foods also don’t cause the individual to feel the need to “compensate” for eating through excess restriction, purging, or any other disordered behavior. 

Just like fear foods, safe foods can look different for everyone. However, they typically consist of low-calorie foods like certain fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins.

How We Develop Fear Foods

The reality is that most people with an eating disorder develop fear foods in some way or another. Due to the persistent nature of diet culture promoting “healthy eating” and fad wellness trends, it’s common that you may have developed fear foods without even noticing. For this reason, it’s critical to recognize how we develop fear foods and where they come from.

Diet culture perpetuates the idea that certain foods or food groups should be feared. In turn, social media reinforces this notion by promoting an unhealthy, rigid style of dieting and demonizing “forbidden foods.” Eventually, even for people without eating disorders, this belief can lead to an unhealthy cycle of dieting and a negative relationship with food.

We consume diet culture-ridden beliefs everywhere we turn – it’s become so deeply ingrained into our society that we sometimes don’t even notice it. Oftentimes, fear foods begin to develop when we hear new information about a food that makes us believe eating it will lead to a negative outcome – like gaining weight. 

Whether this information we hear is accurate or not, people with eating disorders tend to internalize this food and body-related messaging. Over time, these negative thoughts can morph into genuine beliefs surrounding food and our bodies.

Negative food, diet, and body-related messages can come from various sources including:

  • Social media, websites, and online forums
  • Family, friends, and acquaintances
  • Books, television, movies, and music
  • Weight loss and fitness ‘experts’

How To Overcome and Face Fear Foods

If you’ve developed fear foods at any level, it can feel like a huge challenge (or even impossible) to attempt reintroducing them into your everyday meals. However, completely avoiding them only further damages your relationship with food and reinforces disordered eating behaviors.

Facing your fear foods is a major component of achieving lasting recovery and rebuilding a positive relationship with both food and your body. The best way to challenge and overcome your fear foods is with the guidance and support of an eating disorder-specialized dietician

Tips for Facing Fear Foods

  1. Make a list of your personal fear foods.

Start off by identifying all of the foods that cause you the most anxiety, fear, or distress. Avoid writing down general types of food (e.g. fast food) or food groups (e.g. carbohydrates) – be specific! Once your list is complete, rank each food on a scale from 1 (least scary) to 10 (most scary).

Then, you can start incorporating the least scary fear foods slowly into your diet and make your way up the list as you feel more comfortable doing so. Again, this is best done with the support of a dietician. 

  1. Reframe your thoughts about food.

After you’ve gathered a full list of your fear foods, start thinking about how you can mentally reframe them. For example, maybe one of your fear foods is pizza.

In this case, try eliminating the idea that pizza is “bad” for you or will cause weight gain. Instead, focus on something factual (e.g., “everyone eats pizza in moderation” or “one slice of pizza won’t make me gain weight”). Another option is focusing your attention on the satisfaction you’ll gain from eating the food.

  1. Make a plan for how you’ll incorporate fear foods.

When reintroducing fear foods back into your life, it’s critical that you go at a slow, gradual pace to prevent becoming overwhelmed. Based on your list of fear foods, make a plan for yourself including what fear foods you’ll be reintroducing, when you plan to eat certain foods, where you’ll be eating these foods, and who you’ll be eating with. 

Of course, you don’t have to map out everything listed above, but having a plan can ease a lot of the stress and anxiety caused by eating these scarier foods. Also, having someone to support you during mealtimes, especially when facing a fear food, can be extremely helpful in conquering your fears and dealing with anxiety.

  1. Journal and reflect on your fear foods and experiences.

Journaling can be a powerful tool for reflecting on your thoughts and experiences surrounding fear foods and body image. You may take this opportunity to reflect on where your fear of food came from or any current triggers in your life that may be reinforcing a negative relationship with food.

You can also choose to write an entry after each experience reintroducing a new fear food, including how you felt physically and emotionally before, during, and after eating. It may also help to reflect on any positive or negative emotions tied to the experience that don’t revolve around food. 

The Bottom Line

We understand that reintroducing fear foods is much easier said than done, especially if you’ve been struggling with an eating disorder for a significant period of time. However, avoiding triggering or ‘scary’ foods altogether can be detrimental to achieving successful, lasting recovery.

For this reason, it’s always recommended to reintroduce these foods gradually and with the support of a professional. By employing the strategies listed above, you can slowly begin to heal and make peace with your relationship with food. 

If you’re looking for support for overcoming and facing fear foods in eating disorder recovery, schedule a free consultation to learn more about VERY can help.