Food Anxiety

When I was a kid I was scared of going to camp, or to visit someone, because I had no idea if I would like the food. I remember being sent to the principal’s office because I didn’t taste the food sent to the class by one of the classmates – this is no longer a thing, but back then, at least in kindergarten, there was some sort of rotation where parents sent food to the whole class, I always asked my mom to send chocolate cake. I remember as a teenager, saying I didn’t want to go certain places or claiming I didn’t feel well, because of not knowing what food would be served. I remember my early 20s, refusing invitations to visit or go somewhere because I didn’t know what there would be to eat.

I was called picky, difficult… and I internalized that I WAS picky. That if only I fixed something in me, if only I weren’t such a crybaby… I could just eat anything.

It wasn’t until my mid 30s that I discovered that I have anxiety. One way my anxiety showed up was around food. I’m not experimental with food, I’m not a foodie, food isn’t a big experience for me, and food was a stress from a very young age. I don’t know how it started, I don’t know what triggered it, though I do have some suspicions, but that fact is… food and anxiety walked hand in hand in my life.

I was always on a tightrope of avoiding situations where I didn’t have any control over the food offered (or the possibility of not eating), and simultaneously using food to cope with anxiety in other areas of my life.

As most people, I don’t like ALL foods, and there are certain textures and tastes that are completely off putting for me. With no vocabulary or understanding to articulate this, I became the difficult picky eater. To be completely honest it’s been an uphill battle for me to deal with this, and being able to go out, or visit someone, without that anxiety freezing me into inaction is a huge growth for me. Also, not turning to food to soothe my anxiety in other areas is also a huge win. And I do not do this perfectly.

I say this to let you know that I get it. Anxiety and food are tightly related, and today we’re going to explore this a little bit.

A first distinction is the difference between food anxiety and coping with anxiety through food. Food anxiety is anxiety caused by food itself, and using food to cope with anxiety is when you eat to soothe emotions that are too big in the moment.

Let’s define things…

Food anxiety is the worry about the consequences of food or types of food on the body, leading to avoid food or certain foods. This may involve concerns about excess calories, previous negative experiences with food, fear of being judged, fear of gaining weight, coping with medical conditions – for example, celiac disease or IBS, aversion to textures, and eating disorders. Some people with food anxiety have issues with texture, fear of allergic reactions or choking.

Food anxiety can affect day-to-day life, and interfere with the quality of life and relationships, and can become limiting, or in some cases, dangerous.

Food anxiety happens when strong nervousness or scared feelings occur in the presence of food in general, or certain foods, or specific situations. The indecision and tension when thinking about what to eat can be paralyzing. It may create a physiological “fight or flight” reaction, with rapid heartbeat, rapid breathing, butterflies in the stomach, shakiness, overwhelm, etc. For others, it causes them to simply eat with what seems like abandon, when in fact it is a way of coping with the indecision.

There are many different reasons for food anxiety to occur, a very common one being related to weight gain. We live in a time where there is excessive importance placed on our pant size, and the pursuit of thinness over health is rampant. There is also a common trigger for food anxiety that is health related, a worry about how unhealthy or healthy certain foods are, and the problems eating certain foods will cause, such as illnesses, diseases, and early death.

Food anxiety can lead to

. dramatic restriction of food or types of food, meaning that food groups or types of food or ingredients are restricted or banned from one’s life, and there is a preoccupation with the ingestion of these foods.

. only eating or always avoiding certain textures

. lack of appetite or interest in food

. fear of choking, allergic reactions, or disease

. overwhelm with food choices

. uncertainty as of what to eat, so there is imposed restrictions on foods

. obsession over weight and body image

When the body perceives danger, survival instincts kick in. The sympathetic nervous system triggers the “fight or flight” response. When someone experiences anxiety, this physiological response occurs even if there is no real danger. If food anxiety leads to not eating, or eating very little, it can lead to dizziness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, malnourishment, and in more severe cases, certain eating disorders.

When food anxiety leads to overeating, it can lead to issues such as weight gain, health problems, decreased stamina, and certain eating disorders.

Food anxiety can have a huge impact on a person’s quality of life. From avoidance of social events to fear of trying new foods, their social and relational health suffers.

What to do…

I want to take a moment to say that in many cases you can work through this, we can work through it together. I have seen this with clients and friends, where we can work through your anxiety around food and reach different health goals and reach food freedom.

However, there are cases where you need to seek a different kind of professional help. There are therapists specialized in treating eating disorders and generalized anxiety and this is an important route for some people. When working with our clients, we are always careful to look out for these issues and refer to a different professional when needed. Symptoms of eating disorders can depend on the eating disorder, and as many as 60% of people with eating disorders also have anxiety disorder at some point.

If you realize that you have some anxiety surrounding food, or use food as a coping mechanism for anxiety, there are a few things you can try on your own. If you would like more support I would love to hear from you.

We are bombarded with words like good, bad, healthy, organic, all-natural, artificial, sugar-free, probiotic, prebiotic, functional, pasture-raised, certified, super-food, gluten, grass-fed, GMO, free range, made with real ____, whole grain, multigrain, antioxidants, artisanal, local, fresh… the list is long.

These words are either pure marketing or wildly misused to mislead you into buying a product or a program.

Food is more than it’s nutritional composition, and food has no moral value. Food is about preference, culture, relationships, mental health, and yes… physical health. It’s important to neutralize food and understand that any food can fit in a balanced lifestyle.

In my practice I have found that this is one of the hardest things for people to accomplish, simply because since childhood we’ve been untraining ourselves to listen to body cues. Don’t pressure yourself to act on a body cue, but first start simply trying to understand them. Are you feeling hungry? Is this physical hunger or emotional hunger? How do you speak to yourself around food? Are you concerned, anxious, tense or fearful around certain foods?

How we speak to ourselves plays a defining role in how we feel about ourselves, which will inform how we treat ourselves.

There is no such thing as a perfect diet, no matter what you eat, and again, food has no moral value, meaning you are not a better or worse person based on what you eat. Food is not a punishment for what you did or did not do, and food is not a reward for what you did or did not do.

It’s important to make eating an act in itself. We all do this at some point, we eat while watching TV or a movie, we eat while working, we eat standing up while multitasking. While this will happen occasionally because that’s just life, it should not be a habit. To the best of your ability, try to make eating the main act. Sit down, savor each bite. Enjoy the people you’re eating with, or enjoy some time to decompress on your own. This will have the side benefit of improving your understanding of your body cues.

Allow yourself some freedom. I highly recommend you do this with a coach or counsellor, but it’s important to experiment with food, to eat things that may make you afraid, to go through situations that are hard for you. Anxiety builds when it is not addressed or when it is relieved at it’s peak. Giving ourselves experiences and realizing that the world didn’t end, you didn’t do anything irreversible because of that one piece of food… this is important to start healing this relationship with food. For those with diagnosed food restrictions (meaning, for example, that you don’t quit gluten just because it’s supposedly bad, you quit it because you’re clinically diagnosed as celiac), so for those diagnosed with food restrictions or allergies, this is different, since you are not exposing yourself to the harmful for you foods, in this case we work to calm anxiety around other foods and find solutions to make managing the condition easier.

There’s nothing like having someone in your corner to help you through anxiety. Extra support is often essential to work through food anxiety. Reach out to family and friends, as well as professionals such as a nutrition counsellor or a medical professional.

Food anxiety is hard. Coping with anxiety through food is hard.

Having lived with this for decades before beginning my healing, I understand where you’re coming from, and I applaud your willingness to work through it.

I would love to have a conversation with you, and hear your story, and see if I can support you in any way. Fill out this 1 minute form to book a free Simplify Your Health Strategy Session with me. Fill out form here.

I hope to hear from you soon!