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How to Recover From Food Fear? (Part 1/2)

How to recover from food fearA host of eating disorders, mental illness issues and traumatic past experiences around food can lead us to experience food fears as adults—even to the point of panic and terror. Perhaps you adhere to a strict diet or are the proponent of a particular food ideology that feels central to who you are as a person. Perhaps you were overweight as a child or adolescent and now desperately fear the foods that may make you gain weight. Perhaps your parents always criticized you for eating sweets and now you are unable to enjoy the occasional indulgence without being overcome by guilt and self-loathing.

Food, body image, past history and personal psychology are tightly interwoven. But negative perspectives around food and body, mixed with a history of strained food experiences and the constant media surge of information on the latest fad diet or exercise trend and a host of mandates on what to eat and what not to eat, can lead to a very conflicted perspective on food, exercise and body as an adult.  Confusion, fear and guilt around eating often result.

When this fear and inner conflict around healthy vs. unhealthy becomes life dominating, it is referred to as orthorexia, or the obsession with healthy food. It is not always quantity-based or motivated by weight issues, as in the case of anorexia. While orthorexia isn’t currently recognized as a full-blown eating disorder, it does manifest some of the same characteristics as other eating disorders. This obsession with eating healthy food is vague, however. How “healthy” is defined may differ according to the individual. In the end, what is important to recognize is that the obsession and fear of certain foods can develop into a disease. If you struggle with fear around eating or avoid certain foods because you fear what they may do to your body, it is time to look rationally at the issue and to take steps to dismantle some of the fears.

While healthy eating is, of course, a good thing, it becomes a bad thing when it begins to paralyze the individual, cause anxiety around grocery shopping and panic around eating. Isolation easily results because the orthorexic is kept from enjoying meals with others or events in which foods may be served that are not in line with the individual’s personal food plan. Food ideologies are not a bad thing and many could perhaps stand to be a little more committed to healthy eating, but it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. In the end, food is not only for nourishment and fueling the body, but also for celebrating community and enjoying the pleasure of eating. Food is meant to be an experience—an enjoyable one. When fear takes over and eating becomes more of a chore to get through than an activity to relish, it’s time to start letting go of food fears.

Healthy? Recognize that “healthy” can be unhealthy. Though your body may be in pristine shape, if your mind isn’t healthy or you find yourself obsessing about whether that tomato was really organic or the soup you had at lunch contained an animal stock, it’s starting to go overboard. Sometimes it’s better for your body and your mind to just eat the salad and hope for the best. You aren’t consuming a plate of chemicals and toxins, even if some of the vegetables might not have been organic. Do the best you can and let it go.

Preempt panic. Try to reduce anxiety around food and particular situations. For example, if eating out in restaurants or in the homes of friends makes you panic, try some guided meditation before the event. And remember, if you follow a paleo lifestyle, your body won’t spontaneously combust if you consume a grain. Checking restaurant menus before you go can help you to plan out some potential meal options and, if necessary, give the restaurant a call in advance to see if they can handle specific diets. But again, even if they can’t or your meal doesn’t come out as planned, it’s one meal. It will not make or break your health.

De-demonize food. Food is not the enemy waiting to get you. Food is for your health and even your enjoyment. When we see food as the enemy, we enter into an antagonistic, fear-based relationship. Food isn’t a demon, it isn’t evil and it doesn’t have a personality. If you feel better about eating a plate of kale than a plate of cookies, that’s great! And your body will probably feel better as a result. But remember, the cookies aren’t out to get you.

Continued in Steps for Recovering from Food Fear - Part 2/2

Posted on January 15th, 2014

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