First, I have to say this loud and clear:
If your food fear is crippling and preventing you from eating a range of foods to the point of a reduced and/or unhealthy caloric intake, seek professional help.
The information shared in this article is here to help assist you in hopefully dealing with a budding issue, or one that still allows for adequate caloric intake. There comes a point when food fear, food hate, and food anxiety can absolutely wreck your life. The information and activities presented could still be beneficial, but you would absolutely still need more intensive help if you’ve gotten to that point.
Food Fear, Food Hate, Food Anxiety
To better understand the topic today, first we need some clear definitions of these three terms. Some people use them interchangeably, but there are differences.
The general fear of food. Being afraid of food to the point of avoiding it. This can lead to unhealthy relationships with food. Sometimes the fear is rooted in previous experiences and other times it’s an “irrational” fear. Either way, the fear must be addressed so the person can have a healthy relationship with food.
Sometimes, we can inadvertently trigger food fear when living with food allergies. It’s a very delicate balance we have to find in life and the kitchen.
This is more related to traditional anxiety, but is very focused on food. Anxiety is generally the fear of the unknowns and what-if scenarios we come up with. Some scenarios are practical and based on previous experiences. Other scenarios are our brains taking something reasonable to the extreme.
Food anxiety can trigger panic-type attacks, anxiety attacks, and unfortunately, can also lead some people to think they’re having an allergic reaction to a food. Whilst the latter is more rare, it’s something that people who manage anxiety disorders have to be aware of. It’s also why food should always be eaten when you’re calm and ready.
This is a term that describes a person who doesn’t have a fear of food, but instead, an intense dislike of it. It’s commonly seen in people who have complex cases or those with conditions such as MCAS. They are not afraid to eat new foods or their safe foods. Instead, they have an overall hate of all food due to their life experience.
Personally, I live with food hate. I’m not afraid of food in the least bit. Food trials don’t scare me, and I don’t suffer from any form of food anxiety. However, given the amount of reactions I have (past & present), I generally hate food in relation to eating it myself. Creating cool stuff for other people? I’m so in for that. In fact, I JUST ordered some freeze dried peaches to make a cool cake. Update: here’s a picture of said cake 🙂
Phobia of Being Allergic to Food
People have asked recently what the fear of being allergic to food is called. Honestly, I can’t find an answer for you. Instead, what I can tell you is that the phobia of having allergic reactions is on the rise, especially in children.
If you’ve not heard of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) it’s worth looking in to. CBT can help people who suffer from extreme food fear, food phobia, and in some cases, food anxiety as well.
Here’s what I really want you to know: there’s nothing wrong with you.
If you’re in this boat, there’s a really good chance that you’ve had a life experience such as anaphylaxis and a series of choices and events sort of got you into a corner. I’m certainly not judging you, and I hope that you go easy on yourself. Get professional help so that your quality of life and relationship with food can improve.
If you’re managing a child with one of these food related issues, please seek help for them. The sooner these issues are addressed, the better. We don’t want these problems to become deep seated.
Can Anxiety Mimic An Allergic Reaction?
In some people, yes. However, their response to anxiety AND their allergic reaction (symptom) to food needs to be very close.
Let’s take a further look. If your main symptoms to food include migraines, GI distress, and extreme fatigue, I’d say no. In the case of this person, if they have traditional reactions to anxiety, those symptoms don’t overlap and therefore, there’s no mimicking.
In another case, if your reactions to food (symptoms) include racing thoughts, difficulty breathing, heart palpitations, and dizziness, then YES. Your symptoms are the same as those found in a traditional anxiety attack.
Again, it’s why it’s so important to seek help so you not only know the difference, but can develop a more healthy relationship with food.
How We Talk About Food Matters
I’ve shared this before about managing kids with food allergies. It’s so important that we not demonize foods, and that we find a healthy balance. Yes, your child needs to know the danger. No, your child shouldn’t be scared to death.
Somewhere in there is a balance you’re going to have to go after. If you find that your child is avoiding social gatherings or trying foods that you KNOW to be safe, THOSE ARE THE RED FLAGS. This is when you have an opportunity to course correct, so jump all over it.
Something I like to encourage people to say about food… Let’s say your child is allergic to milk. When you talk about it, let them know, “Just because milk is harmful to you doesn’t mean it’s harmful to everyone. What’s really cool is that we have safe and delicious alternatives for you to enjoy.”
We’re letting them know the negative, but also letting them know the positive. This is the balanced talk you need to make sure you’re using.
Another thing you can do, depending on the age of your children: have foods in the home that they’re allergic to. This can’t always be done, but here’s an example from our home.
Kid Two has a severe milk allergy (anaphylaxis). Milk is still in our home, away from his food. He has a designated spot on the table when eating so it’s always free from milk and other allergens. We manage our mixed allergy household well.
Kid Two is comfortable around milk. He’s not irrationally afraid of it, and has not insisted that it banned from the home. Yet, he knows not to touch or consume it. I can honestly say he has no forms of food fear/hate/anxiety, and we found the balance with him.
Do People With Food Allergies Have Anxiety?
Some people with food allergies have anxiety. However, it’s important to know, is it food anxiety or “standalone” anxiety? As I described earlier, food anxiety is a specific term. If the person ONLY has anxiety in relation to food, then it’s food anxiety.
It’s entirely possible for someone to have an anxiety disorder, have food allergies, and NOT have food anxiety. I hope that makes sense.
It all comes back to the fact that no two people are the same. No matter where you are though, make sure you’re seeking help and working on these issues. Additionally, make sure you don’t have any other underlying conditions that could be exacerbating the anxiety.
Can Food Allergies be Psychosomatic?
So, this is a controversial question for sure. There have been a lot of people with true allergy and intolerance that have experienced gaslighting from the medical establishment to think it’s all in their head when it is in fact NOT in their head.
On the other hand, in some cases, people have absolutely made themselves sick, usually inadvertently and/or subconsciously. There are a couple of doctors who have written books on the topic, and they work with these types of patients. Said books have mixed reviews and it’s one of those grain of salt type of things.
A better way to think about this: the placebo effect. THAT science has shown to be real over and over again. What it does mean is that our minds are incredibly powerful. So, can you think yourself into an allergic reaction? Not a true reaction in my opinion. More like a state of anxiety or a temporary issue, but it wouldn’t be true anaphylaxis.
It’s a strange thought to me: mentally causing yourself an allergic reaction. I can also say it’s not something most people think about or would want to do. Yet, here’s an interesting story for you. I once thought that what was going on with me during the diagnosis phase was all in my head. I asked a specialist about it. They took a real good long look at me and firmly/clearly said NO. None of this is in your head. It is very real.
At that time, I had been reading about how mental health and psychosomatic health issues could present and just had to be sure that wasn’t me.
How Do I get Over My Fear of Food Allergies?
This is the question I’m most excited to answer. Here’s the thing, it’s a process that’s going to take time and work. You won’t wake up next week no longer afraid. It may take years, but you CAN do this. Remember, if you’re in a corner and are no longer consuming adequate amounts of food, seek professional help.
These are all activities both children and adults can benefit from when overcoming the fear of food allergies. More specifically, these exercises are all about food exposure and trying new foods. These exercises should NOT be done with known allergens. Being (healthily) afraid of what you’re allergic to is not the problem. We’re working on not being afraid of everything else.
If you’re a RAISE Member, be sure to check out the Conquering Food Fear Activity Guide which includes a lot more resources for you to enjoy.
You’ll see FF, meaning Food Fear, below.
Know WHEN To Expose
Before we get into the activities, it’s important to remember when to serve a new food for maximum ROI. If your child is having a terrible day, it’s not a day for new foods. If they’ve just had a meltdown because they didn’t get the new LEGO set at the store, also not a time for new food.
You want food exposures to be done when people are in a neutral or good mood.
Serve New Foods Next to Safe Foods
An easy way to expose someone with FF to new foods is to use a divided plate or muffin tin to serve safe foods and new foods together. The new food should NEVER touch the safe food. Eventually, you’ll want to work up to foods touching. For now, it’s about exposing to the new food.
We’re also building a positive association. The safe food is positive. The new food automatically has a little more “credibility” because it’s being served alongside safe food.
For some people with FF, you’ll need to start slow by having the new food on a plate by itself. Over time you can graduate to the divided plate or muffin tin.
One more thought on this: don’t serve new foods with a food your child doesn’t enjoy. If your kid only tolerates broccoli, don’t serve the new food at that time. Wait until it’s the oatmeal the LOVE, then have something new on the table for the sake of exposure.
Model The Behaviour and Engage The Senses
Let’s look at strawberries in this example. You’d have the person with FF describe the strawberry. What does it look like? Then you would cut it open (if needed) and smell it. Ask them, “Would you like to smell too?” No pressure if they don’t want to yet.
Ask them what the strawberry feels like. Next, let them know you’re going to take a bite because you want to tell them what it tastes like. Take the bite, and try not to have a negative face. Describe in great detail what the strawberry tastes likes. Include texture notes as well. If you’re able, relate it to something the person with FF does actually like.
For some people with FF, it’s the fear of the unknown. This exercise helps them know what to expect, and can make some a lot more likely to give it a try.
Sweeten The Deal
Some people with FF are encouraged to try something new if it’s sweet or there’s some type of reward system in play. You have to be careful with both because you don’t want to create other bad habits. However, as part of your overall approach to new food exposures, these methods have a reasonable place at the table.
You could incorporate new foods into smoothies, ice cream, cookies, or power balls. For savory leaning ingredients try pizza, pasta sauce, and meatballs.
I hope I’ve left you with a better idea on what food fear is all about and how you can work to overcome food fear. Remember, there’s no shame in seeking help if you’re efforts aren’t making enough progress. If you’d like more resources on this topic, you can find them here.