How to Overcome Fear Foods in Eating Disorder Recovery

This blog article is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical advice.

Do you feel like some foods have to be off limits? 

Do you avoid some foods out of fear of gaining weight or because eating them makes you feel anxious? Or do you fear eating some foods because you think you won’t be able to stop?

Whether you’re experiencing difficult emotions about eating and body image or you feel anxiety about food, eating certain foods can seem really scary. 

These feelings can be really overwhelming, but you’re not alone. 

In this article, you’ll learn what fear foods are and how they may have developed. Then, I’ll share SIX proven strategies you can use to overcome your fear foods for good.

Ready to learn how to make peace with food? Let’s get started.

What Are Fear Foods? 

Fear foods are foods that cause extreme anxiety and distress about what will happen to you or your body if you eat them. Often, people fear a certain food will cause weight gain. Others fear their health will be at risk by eating specific foods or even a whole food group, like carbs or fats. 

Some believe that by eating a fearful food, they won’t be able to stop eating it. Some people call these foods “slippery slope foods,” because they believe eating them will bring on uncontrollable cravings or binges.

Signs that you may have fear foods: 

  • Feelings of distress and anxiety about certain foods 
  • Avoiding food groups due to fear of their effects on the body
  • Avoiding social activities because of food-related fears (i.e. avoiding birthday parties, restaurant meals, or potlucks because you won’t find “safe foods” there)
  • Isolation from normal friends and family
  • Binge eating, or eating a large amount of food in a short period of time, followed by feelings of guilt, shame or distress

Alternatively, safe foods are those that someone can eat without feeling distress, anxiety or the need to compensate for eating them with restriction, exercise, or other disordered behaviors. Safe foods are different for everyone, but often vegetables, some fruits, certain proteins, and low calorie foods feel safe to those who have fear foods.

What Are Some Common Fear Foods? 

Fear foods are often the foods demonized by current diet culture. Commonly, they are foods that are high in calories, carbohydrates, or fats. 

Common fear foods:

  • Doughnuts
  • Chips
  • Cake and pastries
  • Cookies
  • Bagels
  • French fries
  • Breads, rice and pasta
  • Foods high in carbs
  • Foods high in fat
  • Cooking oils
  • Pizza
  • Ice cream and full fat dairy products
  • Cheese
  • Chocolate
  • Candy Bars
  • Processed foods
  • Energy dense (high calorie) foods
  • Larger quantities of foods
Graphic showing common fear foods: pizza, pastries, pasta and ice cream
Pizza, pastries and cakes, pasta and ice cream are common fear foods

Many different foods can bring up negative emotions. Fear foods can even be foods that you really enjoy, but are afraid to include in your diet due your thoughts around the consequences you may experience by eating them, like body changes, health risks, binges, or weight gain.

How Do Fear Foods Develop?

Fear foods may come hand in hand with an eating disorder or disordered eating and are often addressed in eating disorder treatment (see more below). 

However, even if you don’t have an eating disorder, negative feelings about your body or about the “health” of foods can make you feel anxious about eating them. Sometimes this leads to rigid thinking or rules about which foods are allowed and which are forbidden. 

So where do these negative feelings and strict rules come from?

Often we learn information about foods, whether it is accurate or not, that makes us believe that eating them will have a negative effect on our body or health. Hearing this messaging (factual or not) can influence our thoughts about foods. 

Food, body and health messaging may come from:

  • Family
  • Friends
  • Social media
  • Websites
  • Medical professionals 
  • Teachers
  • Fitness professionals

Hearing that some food is “healthy” while other food is “bad for you” may contribute to these fears. Sometimes these messages about food can cause extreme anxiety and distress, so folks end up avoiding the “bad” foods at all costs.*

*It is important for me to say here that all foods can fit into a healthy eating pattern. There are no “good” or “bad” foods. 

Fear Foods in Eating Disorders

Those struggling with Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, or Binge Eating Disorder, as well as Orthorexia or ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder), may be more at risk for developing fear foods. 

Orthorexia is “an obsession with proper or ‘healthful’ eating,” so having anxiety about or avoiding certain foods can play a big part in this disorder. 

ARFID is a restrictive eating disorder where many foods are avoided, to the point where this behavior gets in the way of normal growth in children and, in adults, it disrupts health and well-being. Fear of trying new foods may accompany ARFID. 

 If you believe you may have an eating disorder, you can seek help here or contact me about online eating disorder treatment.

How to Challenge Fear Foods

If you have developed fear foods, even entertaining the idea of eating them may seem like a hard “NO!” But avoiding these foods only reinforces an eating disorder, if it is present, or other maladaptive behaviors, which gives the food even more power over you. 

Challenging fear foods is a critical step towards healing and making peace with food..  

It is both helpful and important to have support from an eating disorder dietitian and a therapist as you begin this process. These professionals can help you identify fear foods, understand their origins and provide you with a safe environment to make progress with your relationship with food. 

Below are some examples of work I do with clients in eating disorder recovery or intuitive eating counseling to address and challenge their fear foods.

Step 1: Make A Fear Food List

We usually start by identifying foods that bring on fear or discomfort. You can do this exercise on your own and/or with your support team to begin challenging your fear foods.

  1. Start by making a list of the foods that feel scary.
  2. Rank your fear foods by putting a single check mark next to the least scary foods, two checks by foods that are more scary, and three checks next to those that are the most scary.
  3. Explore your thoughts and feelings about one of these foods using the ideas below.

Step 2: Reframe Your Thoughts

You can begin challenging these thoughts and feelings by changing the way you “frame” a thought about them. 

Let’s say cookies were one of your single checkmark foods (least scary) and you’re willing to examine them first. If eating cookies brings on thoughts like, “I can’t eat cookies because if I do, I’m definitely going to gain weight,” you can try to reframe that thought. 

You could focus on something factual, like,  “Eating foods at a single meal will have little effect on my body size.” Or, you could try, “People all over the world eat cookies regularly.”

Alternatively, you can focus on the satisfaction that eating a food you really like brings to you. This might sound like, “Eating cookies at lunch can be a satisfying, delicious part of my meal.” 

Or, focusing on the positive feelings and memories that cookies bring, you might try, “Cookies are comforting and remind me of baking with my grandma.”

Challenging your automatic negative thoughts can take a bit of practice and support from your team. You may not be able to immediately change your deeply rooted thoughts and feelings about certain foods, but beginning to shift your inner dialogue can make a big difference. 

Step 3: Explore the Origins of Your Negative Thoughts

Stay with me on this cookie example. Many people have positive memories of baking cookies with a loved one or eating cookies as a child, smelling the amazing aromas in the kitchen, or possibly dunking them in a cold glass of milk. 

But somewhere along the way, negative thoughts about cookies have crept in. Where did these thoughts come from? School? Instagram or Tiktok? Parents? Friends? And are they based in truth or diet culture? 

If your inner voice is loudly shouting, “you shouldn’t eat that,” there’s probably some diet culture thoughts influencing your relationship with this food, making it scarier. 

If the “food police” are knocking at your metaphorical door, you may benefit from exploring your thinking with a registered dietitian who specializes in this type of work. 

Step 4: Check The Facts

As I mentioned above, separating fact from fiction is a helpful part of the process. You can also fact check your food rules and thoughts with your dietitian. Let’s take a look at some cookie facts. 

Cookies can be delicious, satisfying and wonderful. They are made primarily with ingredients like sugar, butter, eggs, and flour, with added ingredients for flavor, like spices or chocolate or nuts. 

Are these ingredients harmful to us? Well, in most cases, no (unless you have allergies to these foods), but the stress and anxiety people experience when they fear these foods can be quite harmful to their mental health. Discussing this with an RD can help begin shifting your thoughts about fear foods.

Step 5: Journal About Your Fear Foods

Another way to challenge the thoughts and feelings you have around a food is by writing about them. For example, recall a time in life before you developed a particular food fear. Think back to when you really enjoyed eating that food, before the fears set in. 

Consider these questions:

  • What did you like about this food? Taste? Texture? Sharing a special moment with friends or family? 
  • Did you have any positive experiences with this food? What are they? Describe them in  detail.
  • How would it feel to return to eating this food freely? 
  • What would it be like to no longer feel anxious about this food? 

Journaling about these questions can help process your thoughts and feelings about your fear foods.

How to Overcome Fear Foods

There is no immediate recovery for a lifetime spent listening to diet culture and internalizing messages about what we should and shouldn’t eat. So, changing the way you think about certain foods will inevitably also take time. 

In addition to the strategies above, exposure therapy is one more way fear foods can be confronted

With exposures, typically clients progress with small, manageable steps, such as purchasing the food. Perhaps opening the food and smelling it could come next, or bringing it to a session with an RD or therapist to discuss it. 

We might explore some mindfulness exercises or distraction methods to cope with strong feelings before they arise during these food exposures. Eating the food is usually the last step after a series of conversations about the food, skill-building to reduce anxiety, preliminary exposures aimed at reducing stressors, and learning coping strategies to manage emotions around the food. 

The exposure to the same food is then repeated until the anxiety the food produces fades and goes away over time.

These exposures may sound stressful – they are meant to be, but only minimally so. Exposure therapy is supposed to induce small levels of anxiety so that the brain can retrain itself in these controlled situations to not be as afraid as it originally was. 

As frightening as exposures may sound, they are actually quite effective at making progress with fear foods. Dietitians and therapists use food exposure therapy and many other techniques, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, or dialectical behavior therapy, to address fear foods.

Talking with your team can help you build a plan that works best for you. 

Final Thoughts on Fear Foods

To sum up, facing your food fears, rather than remaining stuck in avoidance or other maladaptive behaviors, can be a helpful, therapeutic process – one that moves you towards food freedom and stress-free, normal eating. 

Using tools like those we described above – listing fear foods, reframing negative thoughts, exploring your beliefs about food, journaling, and food exposures – using the support of a registered dietitian can help you make peace with food. 

While facing your fear foods seems scary, these strategies really work. You CAN overcome these fears and feel good about food. I am here to help you move towards food freedom.

Thanks to University of Vermont student Greta Smith for her contributions to this article.