Those with food anxiety worry about the consequences of eating or the impact different types of food will have on their bodies. Their concerns may involve excess calories, being judged, or gaining weight. Some people with food anxiety may be afraid of the texture, allergic reactions, or choking.
Sometimes, this anxiety can lead to restriction or food avoidance. When this worry affects day-to-day life or interferes with quality of life, it also can be limiting or even dangerous. Avoiding certain foods may potentially lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, malnutrition, or other health complications. The good news is that many individuals can overcome their food anxieties.
Food is, of course, essential to life and beyond that, it is a source of pleasure, joy, and community. If you have anxiety around food or think your loved one does, working with a professional and following some specific steps, can bring the joy back to food. Here is what you need to know about food anxiety including causes and tips for coping.
What Is Food Anxiety?
Food anxiety occurs when strong nervousness or scared feelings are triggered by the presence of any food, certain foods, or in specific situations. These anxious feelings interfere with an individuals health, quality of life, and ability to perform daily activities.
Food anxiety may create a physiological reaction called “fight or flight,” which causes a rapid heartbeat, butterflies in the stomach, shakiness, sweatiness, rapid breathing, and feelings of being overwhelmed.
Anxiety around food arises from a number of different sources. When food anxiety stems from a fear of how food will affect one’s safety or a fear of something bad happening when the food is eaten, there may be food restriction in general or restriction of certain types of food. This can lead to eating only certain textures, low appetite, or lack of interest in food, as well as extreme picky eating.
Sometimes individuals fear choking or developing an allergic reaction or they may have had a previous negative experience with food. These causes are typically seen in the absence of body image disturbances or fear of weight gain.
Food anxiety may also stem from a fear of weight gain or body image distortion. Signs may include food restriction, restricting specific food groups, becoming overwhelmed with food choices, and not knowing what to eat. Other symptoms might include an obsession with weight, body image, ingredients in food, and what others are eating.
Regardless of the cause of the food anxiety, it may result in difficulty concentrating, dizziness, fatigue, irritability, significant weight loss, failure to grow, and malnutrition. All types of food anxiety should be treated but treatment approaches will vary based on the root cause or trigger.
Causes of Food Anxiety
Fear of Allergic Reactions
Individuals with food allergies need to be extra careful about what they eat. They may develop anxiety related to their fear of having an allergic reaction—especially if they have recently experienced a severe reaction. Others may have anxiety if they suspect they have a food allergy or experience oral allergy syndrome but do not have an official diagnosis. Certain situations, such as eating in restaurants and in other people’s homes may trigger this anxiety due to not knowing what ingredients are in the food. This can lead to impairments in participating in social events that often involve food.
Previous Negative Experience With Food
Some individuals develop a food anxiety from a negative past experience. For example, if you eat a food that is moldy or has gone bad and experienced food poisoning, you may have an aversion to eating that food in the future. Or you may worry about expiration dates.
Additionally, memories of past eating experiences are influential in shaping food preferences and attitudes toward food. Recalling those memories may stir up feelings of anxiety, guilt, shame, or fear and make eating more difficult or anxiety-provoking.
Fear of Being Judged
Some people are self-conscious about their food choices and are worried about being judged by others. Some may eat differently in front of others than they do when they are alone. If an individual grew up in a household where family members made many negative comments about food or how much food people ate, they may continue to have these fears as they get older.
Additionally, there may be a fear of judgement due to weight gain that is associated with certain food or amount of food on one’s plate. Any one of these fears of judgement may cause someone to restrict food or avoid social situations in which food is present.
Worry About Weight Gain
Living in a society where weight stigma, diet culture, and judging people based on their weight, is so prevalent, many people develop food anxiety rooted in an intense fear of gaining weight. Many may associate weight gain with feelings of guilt, shame, or failure, and might go to extremes to avoid it. Individuals may restrict food and over-exercise in an effort to avoid weight gain, increasing the risk of developing an eating disorder.
Coping With Medical Conditions
Having certain medical conditions that require dietary changes may lead to food anxiety. Conditions such as acid reflux, celiac disease, and irritable bowel syndrome that require an individual to decrease portions of certain foods or eliminate some foods all together can create anxiety and lead to other restrictive food behaviors. Additionally, an individual may experience anxiety if they are worried about possible contamination of their trigger food, such as gluten.
Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder, cause food anxiety for a number reasons. They primarily present as restrictive food intake disorders with a concern about weight gain, compensating for eating through purging, laxatives, or over exercise, or having a very strong desire to control emotions and the environment through food. Individuals with eating disorders may have severe anxiety about eating in front of others and in social situations, particularly when their “safe” foods are not available.
Tips for Coping With Food Anxiety
Pay Attention to Your Internal Dialogue
How are you speaking to yourself when you are eating? Are the thoughts negative? Are you worried about choking, having an allergic reaction, or beating yourself up? Try to notice what goes through your mind when you eat and see if you can change the language to more realistic self-talk.
Reframe How You View Food
Do you label food as “good” and “bad”? Do you view food as a way to control your weight or make you gain weight? Try thinking about food as fuel and energy for your body to do all of the things you do in a day. Neutralize food by not labeling it or attaching a moral value to it and remind yourself that all food can fit in a balanced diet.
Get Rid of Perfectionism
There is no such thing as perfect eating. While eating for nutrition is important, it is not realistic to eat only nutritious food all of the time. We can include fun foods in our diet without punishing ourselves for them or compensating later by being restrictive.
Practice Mindful Eating
Are you present during your meals or do you find it difficult to stay in the moment? Practicing mindful eating can help ease anxiety during meal times. Try deep breathing and using your five senses. Think about the foods flavor and how it smells. Also pay attention to your thoughts while eating. Notice when your thoughts wander and bring them back to the present moment.
Give Yourself Compassion
Be easy on yourself and allow yourself some freedom. Whether you are worried about an allergic reaction, choking, or the how the food will impact you physically, it is important to acknowledge your feelings and not beat yourself up for feeling the way you do. The key is to recognize your feelings and find healthy ways to cope with these feelings.
Get Outside Help
Working through food anxiety alone is challenging and extra support is often essential. Don’t hesitate to reach out to family and friends for support as well as medical professionals. A therapist or registered dietitian can help you develop the skills needed to heal your relationship with food.