Fear Foods: How They Can Lead to ARFID
People looking at breads at the grocery store

Even though food is meant to nourish your body and bring joy, it can sometimes cause stress, anxiety, and even fear. Some people may find food in general to be stressful, while others may have certain “fear foods” that evoke negative strong emotions and impact their ability to eat. For people struggling with the latter, these fear foods can come to take on a great deal of power, and may even lead to a diagnosable eating disorder, specifically ARFID.

“Fear foods” may not be something that many people are familiar with, but they can play a large role in the development of eating disorders. By understanding fear foods and how they can contribute to eating disorders, you can help yourself or your loved one confront any distress that might arise from certain foods and get the support you need to overcome disordered behaviors that have emerged as a result of this fear.

Read on to learn what fear foods are, how they can lead to an eating disorder like ARFID, and how to overcome that fear.

What are fear foods?

Fear foods refer to specific foods that a person avoids due to anxiety. This anxiety may stem from fears about how a food will affect their body, or its association with a negative event, like vomiting or choking. Fear foods look different for everyone and can refer to specific foods, or entire categories of foods.

The fear of certain foods can stem from anxiety or distress about:

  • Certain textures. Textures such as slimy, mushy, or crunchy foods, or mixed textures, can cause fear for some people.
  • Strong flavors. Foods that are particularly spicy, bitter, sour, or sweet can be common fear foods.
  • Unfamiliar foods. If a food hasn’t been tried before someone may develop fear around its unknowns.
  • Health risks. Some people can develop disproportionate fears around certain foods that they’re worried will make them sick or cause them pain, in particular gastrointestinal pain. They may also fear having an allergic reaction, even if they’re not allergic to a food.
  • Negative memories. If someone experienced a traumatic event around food, such as choking or vomiting, they may develop a fear around eating that food again.
  • Other food sensitivities. Food temperature and appearance can also be a cause of food fears.

How fear foods can lead to ARFID

While it’s normal to have food preferences, consistently avoiding certain foods due to severe distress may lead to an eating disorder known as avoidant restrictive food intake disorder, or ARFID.

ARFID is an eating disorder that makes it difficult to eat certain foods, enough food for proper nourishment, or both.

Common ARFID symptoms include:

  • Severely limited quantity or types of food consumed
  • Weight loss or lack of growth
  • Lack of interest in food or eating
  • Early fullness or lack of appetite
  • Difficulty trying new foods
  • Reliance on liquid nutritional supplements or meal replacements
  • Anxiety around food and eating
  • Eating habits and preferences that cause significant disruption to daily life

This restrictive disorder can stem from a variety of reasons, including a lack of interest in eating and sensory sensitivities like resistance to a food’s appearance, taste, texture, or appearance. Another common cause of ARFID is a fear of getting sick or past trauma related to the food, such as choking or nausea.

Having severe distress surrounding particular foods can lead a person to limit the variety or quantity of food they eat, which is a hallmark of ARFID. No matter what types of food groups someone has cut out from their diet, avoiding too many foods can prevent their body from getting the nutrients that it needs, which can lead to weight loss or malnutrition (also symptoms of ARFID). If left untreated, ARFID can lead to chronic medical issues and the development of other mental health problems, like anxiety and depression.

How to overcome fear foods

The key to reducing distress around certain foods—and thus reducing the risk of developing ARFID—is confronting and overcoming your fear of those foods. While it’s easier said than done, proper treatment can help you gradually face your fears and reduce unhealthy nutritional, behavioral, emotional, and thought patterns that may lead to ARFID.

At Equip, we focus on your nutrition before anything else. If your avoidance of certain foods has led to malnutrition, then weight restoration is the first step in your treatment. After that, we’ll guide you through evidence-based therapies that are effective in treating eating disorder symptoms and their root causes. We use a variety of evidence-based modalities, including cognitive behavior therapy for avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (CBT-AR) for patients with ARFID.

CBT-AR helps you become more comfortable with the distressing foods by encouraging curiosity and making strategic adjustments to your behavior. Exposure-based therapy slowly exposes you to your fear foods to alleviate the distress that they cause and help you learn that these foods are safe.

It’s okay to not like certain foods. But if you or your loved one have severe distress surrounding particular foods or types of foods, and this distress is impacting other areas of your life, then it’s possible that you’re dealing with ARFID. This can be a distressing realization, but it’s important to understand that lasting recovery is possible for every person with an eating disorder.

Get in touch with our team today for more information or to schedule a free consultation.

About Jessie Menzel, Ph.D

Dr. Jessie Menzel, Ph.D., is the Vice President of Program Development at Equip. A clinical psychologist with over 15 years of specialized experience in eating disorders, Dr. Menzel earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of South Florida and is also the founder and former director of the Pediatric Program at the UCSD Eating Disorders Center. She has conducted national and international training on treating eating disorders and supervising graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and psychiatry residents. Her research experience includes the study of body image disturbance, body awareness, and the development of disordered eating interventions.

References

1. Santonicola, Antonella, et al. “Eating Disorders and Gastrointestinal Diseases.” National Library of Medicine, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6950592/. Accessed 16 Nov. 2023.


Kate Willsky
Senior Manager, Content
Clinically reviewed by:
Jessie Menzel, PhD
Vice President, Program Development
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