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Challenging Fear Foods

Challenging Fear Foods In Eating Disorder Recovery

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What Is A Fear Food?

Fear foods, also sometimes called trigger foods, are quite literally the foods a person is afraid to eat. Varying levels of fear, anxiety, grief or anger all are symptoms of a food fear. 

You may notice that a fear of a specific food for you may be related to:

  • An unpleasant childhood experience with the food
  • Rules of diet culture that give you anxiety about certain foods
  • Texture, taste, color or temperature aversions

Many of us have beliefs about food that are unhelpful in truly honoring both our physical and emotional hunger for overall wellbeing. However, the anxiety that surrounds a fear food is much more intense than simply unhelpful thoughts about food.

In this article we’ll dig into exactly what a fear food is, where fear foods come from, and how to challenge a fear food to ditch that anxiety for good!

woman smiling against a wall

Is It Normal To Have Fear Foods?

It’s very common in America to have a standard list of do’s and dont’s when it comes to foods and eating behaviors we deem acceptable.  While fear foods may be a common place for many, most are expressions of some type of disordered eating behavior. 

It should be made clear that there is a distinct difference between disordered eating and having a full eating disorder. 

It should also be made clear that while trigger foods can be common in American culture, that doesn’t make it any less damaging to one’s physical or emotional wellbeing. 

4 people around campfire

What Are Some Common Fear Foods?

There are really no standard for what can become a fear food within an eating disorder. Some common fear foods include: 

  • Cakes, cookies, candies
  • Foods with many ingredients (lasagna, sandwiches, pizza)
  • Foods high in fat (Burgers, cakes, avocado, pizza)
  • Pasta
  • Foods eaten while dining out
  • Protein rich foods (especially for those who have adopted some element of vegan or vegetarian lifestyle)

Distress associated with food does not always need to come with a specific food type. It can be portion specific, time of day, or quantity of portion consumed. 

Woman on boat with yellow balloons

What Do Trigger Foods Look Like In ARFID

A food aversion can be subtle or abrupt depending on the disordered eating behavior that a person is experiencing. 

For example, if someone experiences ARFID (avoidant restrictive food intake disorder), the foods they may experience fear from will be quite different than someone experiencing anorexia nervosa. 

This is because of the underlying causes of the condition.  Eating disorders such as ARFID may be more correlated with textures and taste aversions when it comes to food.

A person experiencing ARFID typically won’t fear a food because they are afraid it may result in a change to their body weight, shape or size. They may fear foods that are difficult to Chew or swallow, Or foods that are too mushy.  

ARFID fear foods may develop from,  sensory processing issues, trauma, or amongst individuals on the autism spectrum. 

Fear Foods In Anorexia, Orthorexia, Binge Eating Disorder and Bulimia Nervosa

A person experiencing conditions such as orthorexia, anorexia nervosa, BED or bulimia however, will typically fear foods they’ve associated with changing the body. These might be foods high in a certain macronutrient. 

Fear foods in disorders where intentional restriction occurs with the intent to change the body in some way often stem from a combination of family, cultural, and social media influencers. 

Individuals may fear a food because of the nutrients contained in the food, or because they fear they might not be able to stop eating it. 

There is no one cause for the development of a specific fear food.  In fact, because causes are often multi-factoral it’s important to consider all of the layers weaved into each individual fear food (including how and where the food is typically consumed and if it is connected to any specific social experience). 

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How Do I Stop My Fear Of Eating?

In order to challenge our fear of food, we must first identify what our fears are and any association they may have. 

Working with a skilled dietitian, psychologist, and physician can help individuals to identify where their food triggers are and create a safe plan of integrating fear foods into dietary behavior. 

Challenging foods that feed your eating disorder often comes along with anxiety, self doubt, grief, and even sometimes trauma for people. 

It’s important to understand that when we are addressing our fear of eating it will be uncomfortable.  However, working with a team skilled in providing care for eating disorders can provide someone with appropriate coping skills during the process.

They can also help you to lay out the process in a way that does not feel completely overwhelming and help to minimize discomfort. 

Two girls covering each others eyes

How Can A Healthcare Team Help Me Reduce My Anxiety Around Food?

Strategies your healthcare team may use to reduce fear of eating might include: 

  • Having a support person present and providing conversation and support while consuming fear foods. 
  • Creating a list of when to introduce which challenge foods. 
  • Setting up a frequency chart of when each fear food will be introduced. 
  • Supporting individuals with mindful and intuitive eating strategies
  • Setting up a food chaining strategy to minimize anxiety by combining fear foods with safe foods. 
  • Providing meal support when fear foods are introduced
Fear Foods Hierarchy Chart
Create a Fear Foods Hierarchy Chart

Create A Fear Food Challenge List

When we are introducing fear foods, it is important to consider that some foods will create a stronger reaction and more anxiety than others. 

For example, while both cake and tortilla chips may be problematic for someone, one generally creates more anxiety than the other. Creating a food hierarchy chart can really help someone to build a concrete roadmap of how traumatic certain foods are to them at a given point of time.  

When I am helping someone to work through identifying their food aversions, I start with a chart labeled 1-100.  

We then map out which foods go where in terms of fear ranking. A score of 100 means that the food causes a lot of distress for the person.  A food at a ranking of 1 means that the food may be considered a “safe food.” 

Fear Foods Hierarchy Chart Example: 

  • 100-cake
  • 100-beef
  • 85-snickers bar
  • 85-pasta
  • 80-soda
  • 70-tacos
  • 70-cookies
  • 70-french fries
  • 65-tuna sandwiches
  • 65-sushi
  • 50-restaurant salad
  • 50-macaroni and cheese
  • 45-potato chips
  • 40- starbucks latte 
  • 40-chicken strips
  • 35-bacon
  • 25-bananas
  • 10-broccoli
  • 10-carrots
  • 10-chicken breast
  • 10-diet soda
  • 10-cereal
  • 10-yogurt
Chocolate pieces

How Often Should I Include Trigger Foods In My Eating Plan?

Once we are able to truly identify what foods give us anxiety, we begin  the process of eradicating the behavior of avoiding fear foods. 

Set up a plan to incorporate anxiety foods into the meal plan 1-3 times per week.  Ensure that appropriate support is available when engaging in a fear food. 

Support in introducing challenge foods may include a family member, a practitioner, or a close friend that knows about your eating disorder history and how to support you. 

Start at the bottom of your hierarchy list and work your way up when challenging foods that cause distress. It might be helpful to keep a record of what your healthy voice and your eating disorder voice are saying to you as you consume each fear food. 

Getting clear on what the eating disorder voice says to us gives us power in dismissing its messages. 

Heart lights in sand

What Are Some Ways to Challenge Food Fears?

Starting with a safe food and incorporating a fear food into this can be a powerful way to challenge a fear food. 

For example: 

  • Safe food: oatmeal and fruit
  • Fear food: Store bought baked goods 

Try this to challenge food fears: 

  1. Try initially making breakfast bakes with fruit and oats. 
  2. Try making breakfast bake as a cobbler at home
  3. Choose store bought baked good. 

Challenging a fear food in this way helps to reorganize our relationship and behavior associated with the food. 

Woman on swing over water

Words Of Affirmation To Try While Facing Food That Causes Anxiety

Sometimes it is helpful to get really personal with foods that cause us grief or distress.  

Many times I will ask someone what color they might associate with the emotions of a specific food (for example- what color is a hamburger. This is not the physical color of a hamburger, but rather the color image we associate with it in our mind). While this attaching emotional colors to food isn’t a way that we think of food- how people associate other senses with the food can tell us a lot about their relationship with that food. 

As we challenge a food, it may also be helpful to have a mantra we state along with consuming the food. These might include things like: 

  • I deserve to be nourished
  • There is nothing more powerful than my ability to have freedom with food
  • My body is more valuable than my eating disorder voice
  • I have the strength to deal with this
  • All foods are neutral. No food holds moral or nutritional superiority over others.
Hot Air Balloons

Give Yourself Grace In Incorporating Challenge foods

Some important things to remember when incorporating challenging foods in eating disorders include

  • Recognizing it is not a linear path. Foods on the hierarchy may change as you progress in recovery. 
  • Safe foods can easily become fear foods when consumed in excess
  • The more challenge foods we incorporate, the louder our eating disorder will likely get
  • Finding alternative restrictive practices when incorporating challenge foods does not mean you have failed in recovery-it just means we need to alter the recovery trajectory. 

Remember your eating disorder will do anything to try to survive! This might include including challenge foods but only in certain amounts or certain amounts.  

We may begin to allow certain challenge foods, but only under certain conditions (e.g. at a birthday party).  Be very cautious of how the eating disorder gets clever when we try to include foods that cause us anxiety. 

What are some great coping strategies that you have been successful with when facing your fear foods?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below! 

The Most Common Questions Surrounding Food Fears

What Is A Fear Food?

Fear foods, also sometimes called trigger foods, are quite literally the foods a person is afraid to eat. Varying levels of fear, anxiety, grief or anger all are symptoms of a food fear. 

What Are Some Common Fear Foods?

Cookies, candies, cakes are all common fear foods. Foods with many ingredients (lasagna, sandwiches, pizza) often cause a lot of anxiety.
Foods high in fat or carbs (Burgers, cakes, avocado, pizza, pasta) tend to get a bad reputation from diet culture and are often feared. If fear of food comes from ARFID (avoidant restrictive food intake disorder) food fears will be very different and do not tend to follow any specific trend from one person to the next.

Whats The Best Way To Challenge Food Fears?

Create a fear food challenge list (1-100). List out which foods cause the most anxiety with 1 being the least anxiety associated with the food (accepted) and 100 being very anxiety provoking. Set up a schedule with your healthcare team to challenge eat fear food, working your way from least challenging to most challenging.

Why Do We Have Fear Foods?

Fear foods are a very common product of toxic diet culture. There are also intense food fears in eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, orthorexia, bulimia nervosa and ARFID. People with restrictive eating disorders such as anorexia will often seek out safe foods to avoid anxiety around food.

© 2022 Peace and Nutrition

Shena Jaramillo. Registered Dietitian

Hi I'm Shena. I'm an eating disorders dietitian in Washington state. I hold bachelors degrees nutrition & dietetics, cultural anthropology & psychology. I believe in honoring your hunger, having your cake whenever you want it, and that critically analyzing diet culture can change the world!

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