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  • Writer's pictureRhea Lewandoski R.D.

Challenging Fear Foods

Author: Rhea Lewandoski R.D.

Couple sharing food

Most, but not all individuals with eating disorders/disordered eating will experience what is known as food fear, fear foods, or challenge foods. Recognizing and becoming aware that the eating disorder has rules around particular food(s), can be the first step to naming your challenge foods.

Even though the food may be termed a “fear food”, it is important to note that it is not the food itself that is scary. Challenging the eating disorder can be fear inducing. You have probably heard the phrase “It is about the food, but it’s not about the food” before.

The process of habituation is a form of learning. Repeated exposure allows a food item that once produced fear and anxiety to become neutral or boring. In other words, the more you are exposed to a particular food, the less scary it becomes. The brain can slowly learn that when a challenge food is faced and nothing bad actually happens, it is safe. Over time, the fear decreases, as the body and brain do not activate your fear response.

Now, this doesn’t mean that to challenge a fear food, you would have to eat that food for every meal, every single day. This just means that repeated exposures to that food is often necessary for unconditional permission. The goal of unconditional permission is not to eat a certain food so often that you never want to have it again, but rather to confront the eating disorder with this food so that the beliefs about the danger associated with this food are shown to not be true. This can also help to build trust with your body.

Steps to Challenging Fear Foods:

  1. Pick a food. Depending on how you are feeling, you may choose to challenge a fear food that brings about more anxiety, or you may choose to go with a fear food that feels a bit safer. It is okay to start slowly when challenging fear foods.

  2. Be specific. If it feels helpful, decide what brand, flavor etc. you are going to challenge.

  3. Make a plan. Decide when and where you are going to have this food. What else would be helpful to incorporate into your plan? Are you going to purchase a food and bring it back to the house to try? Are you going to have it out? Would it be helpful to incorporate distraction or bring in support around it?

  4. Repeat.

How do I know when I have unconditional permission?

It can be hard to know how many times you will have to challenge a food before it starts feeling easier. To help guide you, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I feel shame around this food?

  • Do I feel a strong desire to have this food?

  • Is it uncomfortable to know that this food is around me?

  • To have this food, is there an urge to compensate in any way?

  • Do I have black and white thoughts about this food? (ex. Good/bad, healthy/unhealthy etc.)

There is no set amount of time that it will take to habituate to a certain food. It is okay if it takes a long time, or if it happens quickly.

Working to challenge food rules and fear foods can be difficult; however, it moves you towards permission to eat all foods and full food freedom.

Thomas, L. Just eat it.

Tribole, E., & Resch, E. The Intuitive eating workbook.

Tribole, E., & Resch, E. Intuitive Eating.


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