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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 are the foods a person experiences extreme fear, anxiety, shame, or guilt around eating. You will know a food is a fear food for you if:

  • You feel you cannot keep the food in your home
  • Stress or anxiety begins to build when you think about the food becoming available (for example going out to eat)
  • You start to avoid social situations where a food that causes anxiety might be available
  • You create rules about how much, when, and how frequently you can have a food you are afraid of
  • You experience extreme shame,guilt, or feel the need to get rid of the food from you body through exercise or purging after you eat it

There is no way to know which foods will become a fear food for someone. This will be highly variable from person to person depending on their culture, gender, family upbringing, socioeconomic status, personal experiences and so many more variables that are not often readily apparent.

Most fear foods will come from body dissatisfaction, media messages which label certain food or food groups as being unhealthy, or even healthcare messages which elevate certain foods over others.

Having a long list of fear foods can cause social isolation, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders.

Let’s dig into exactly where fear foods come from, how to challenge a fear food, and ultimately how to create peace with food.

Is It Normal To Have Fear Foods?

No. While it is common to fear foods because food because of food rules, fatphobia, white supremacy, and capitalism dominate American culture it is NOT normal.

None of us were born with a list of good and bad foods. In fact, all of us were born intuitive eaters, with an innate ability to allow our bodies to dictate when we were hungry and which foods were necessary for appropriate nourishment.

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

  • Messages from the masses that demonize certain foods, food groups, or food preparation methods
  • Rules of diet culture that dictate good foods and bad foods
  • Distorted body image or body dysmorphia, and a fear food will change the body
  • Previous experiences feeling out of control of having a binge restrict cycle following having certain foods
  • Fear that food will cause chronic conditions or poor health outcomes in the future
  • Information from healthcare systems that promote off-limits foods

I want to be clear here when we are discussing fear foods, we are not referencing foods that you actually have a medical allergy to or clinical condition that causes a physical harmful reaction in the body. In these cases, it is normal for food to be avoided and to have some fear around the food for medical reasons.

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What Are Some Common Fear Foods?

Some common fear foods include: 

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

The common denominator for which food will become a fear food is messages from the media and which fad diets are trendy in the given generation.

Foods that cause fear will be different for everyone. This list will likely change from decade to decade as fad diets change and we get new messages from the media.


Fear Foods Hierarchy Chart

Challenging Your Fear Foods

Create A Fear Food Challenge List

In order to challenge a fear food, we need to know what we’re afraid of and what we’re not. In order to do this, create a fear foods challenge list.

Steps for creating a fear food challenge list:

  1. Label a chart 1-100
  2. Start at the bottom of the list (the number 1) These should be foods that cause no or very little anxiety.
  3. Work your way up the list with foods that cause more or less anxiety. For example a food at 20 is one that would cause more anxiety than a food at 10 but less than a food at 50.

Fear Foods Challenge List 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
  • 5-carrots

Steps to Challenge A Fear Food

You can choose to challenge a fear food on your own but it is best to get meal support. If you are able, have someone sit with you while you challenge your fear food. This support person could be:

Make sure you are in an environment that helps you to feel peaceful. This might be a quiet environment. This might involve soft music.

For some, especially those with eating disorders where their eating disorder voice is loud, a distraction such as television or a game might be critical for reducing anxiety enough to eat a fear food.

Start with a food on your challenge list that causes some anxiety, but try not to start off with the fear food that is the highest on your list.

Introduce a new fear food 1 time per week to start. Gradually increase this to 2x per week to daily after a few weeks. Work your way up the fear foods chart linearly.

Sometimes it might be helpful to ask your support person to spontaneously provide fear foods. This way we don’t have the anxiety leading up to having the food.

Using Safe Foods To Make Fear Foods More Acceptable

One strategy for introducing foods high on your fear food list is to combine them with safe foods. Starting with 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 goods (fear food). 

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

Writing Down Food Rules To Challenge Our Fear of Food

When we have fear foods, most of the time we’re only vaguely aware of WHY we avoid them. Figuring out what exactly it is that causes us to experience anxiety around a certain food can be powerful.

Because of this, I encourage you to write down any rules about food that come up as you go through the journey of identifying and challenging your fear foods. These food rules might look like:

  • Lower calorie foods are okay
  • I must eat clean
  • I can’t keep peanut butter in the house
  • I can only eat brownies if I run for an hour afterward
  • I can only have potatoes once a week

Identifying and writing down food rules takes away their power, and lets us choose whether we want to accept or challenge them. It gives them a voice of their own instead of having them be part of our identity.

image with food rules

Ways Your Eating Disorder Will Sabotage Fear Food Challenges

Some important things to remember when incorporating challenging foods into 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 challenging foods we add into our diet, the louder our eating disorder will likely get
  • Finding alternative restrictive practices when incorporating challenging foods does not mean you have failed in recovery-it just means we need to alter the recovery trajectory. 

Remember if you have an eating disorder, the eating disorder will do anything to try to survive! This might include:

  • Trying out fear foods but only in certain amounts or certain amounts.  
  • Allowing fear foods, but only under certain conditions (e.g. at a birthday party).  
  • Attempts to change the eating disorder recovery meal plan as a negotiating tool for the fear food being consumed  

What Do Fear Foods Look Like In ARFID?

ARFID fear foods are different than those which tend to come from diet culture and body dissatisfaction.

Eating disorders such as ARFID (avoidant restrictive food intake disorder) may be more correlated with textures and taste aversions when it comes to food.

While we will take a brief look at these types of fear foods in this article because the origin of the fear food is different the way we treat fear foods with ARFID will also be slightly different.

ARFID fear foods are more commonly associated with:

  • Difficulty tolerating certain tastes or textures of foods
  • Temperature aversions with food (not accepting foods above or below a certain temperature)
  • Avoiding certain food colors
  • Difficulty tolerating mixed meals (lots of food items in one entree)
  • Disliking food touching
  • Avoiding certain food preparation styles (for example fried foods)
  • Fear of choking
  • Only eating food with certain utensils or with their hands

ARFID fear foods may develop from,  sensory processing issues or trauma. People on the autism spectrum have a higher risk of having symptoms of ARFID.

The way that we deal with fear foods with ARFID will be different than dealing with other types of fear foods. Some ideas of dealing with fear foods with ARFID include:

  • Creating a fear foods challenge list
  • Grouping food likes/dislikes to look for patterns of accepted foods (for example crunchy versus soft foods)
  • Practicing food chaining
  • Repetition of food introduction and food exploration

Words Of Affirmation To Try While Challenging Your Fear Food

Challenging a food that causes us anxiety can be filled with sadness, grief, depression, anger, and even a feeling that we are losing part of our identity. Be kind to yourself.

As we challenge a certain 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
  • No food holds moral or nutritional superiority over others.

If you are struggling with finding the motivation to continue to heal your relationship with food check out these eating disorder recovery quotes.

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 are the foods a person experiences extreme fear, anxiety, shame, or guilt around eating.

What Are Some Common Fear Foods?

Cookies, candies, and 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.

What’s 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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