When I first entered treatment I had a list a million miles long of foods that I could and would not eat. In the eating disorder world we call these foods, fear foods. To be honest, when you are anorexic, most foods are fear foods. I think the only foods I didn’t fear or label bad were raspberries and lettuce. I’m not kidding. Every other food needed to be compensated for or counted. All other foods were varying degrees of “bad,” based usually upon how many calories they contained, if they broke any of my rules or what the label on them said as far as fat, trans fat, carbs, protein, gluten, dairy etc. were concerned.
So, when I entered treatment, after a lot of therapy and education with my dietician about fear foods and why I feared food and all that good stuff, I needed to start eating foods I was afraid of, aka, most food. This is VERY difficult. When I capitalize the word very, I wish I could make it quadruple the size. Eating fear foods is one of THE most difficult things to do in recovery. It is so hard that there were times that after eating one I would throw up just because my anxiety was so incredibly high my body couldn’t handle keeping it down. I remember being completely and utterly terrified of these foods and what was going to happen if I started to eat them again. I also remember feeling like a complete and total failure when I started to eat my fear food. It was like something in me that I held extremely close had just gotten lost. It was like my identity of being a person that DID NOT EAT THAT FOOD was being stolen from me and I was left being nobody, completely lost and frightened. I know that this sounds dramatic, but it’s how it is, dramatic sounding or not. Eating disorders are mental illnesses and they can and will kill you if you don’t get help. They are powerful enough to make you fear food to the point that you stop eating and your body shuts down. This is not dramatic, this is real! I’ll say this, there are a lot of people out there that diet but don't have an eating disorder. They talk about the guilt they feel when they cheat on their diet, well, imagine that times a billion, and there you go!
Now that we have established that there are fear foods, we must eat them in recovery, and it is terrifying to do so, I want to get to ONE of the ways that has really really helped me to be able to eat my fear foods again. (I emphasize one because overcoming fear foods and eating again takes a large combination of therapy, coping skills, sometimes medication, work with a dietician, and sheer will power along with a LOT of support, sometimes even inpatient/hospital support.)
So, one of the ways that I got myself and continue to get myself to eat fear foods, is that I learn about the nutrients and micronutrients in the foods that I’m eating and how my body needs them to function properly. BOOM! That's it! My guess is you were hoping there was going to be some sort of fairy God mother that showed up and dusted me with extra will power to eat a burger, but nope, I simply learned this from my dietician and let me tell you, it works and it has helped me a LOT.
When I entered treatment I was so ill my doctor warned me I would probably die soon due to cardiac arrest. I may not have looked it but I was severely malnutritioned. I had heart problems, bone density issues, organ damage, nutrient deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, my teeth were a mess, my eye site had gotten worse, my hair and nails were brittle, my skin looked gaunt and sickly…I wasn’t doing too hot. My body, and YOURS, needs nutrients. We get these nutrients mainly from the food we eat. Some of these nutrients even come from our fear foods!
One day I was at treatment and I had been really struggling with eating fear foods. My dietician handed me a piece of paper and on it was a list of nutrients, what they do, where they are found and symptoms and problems the body has when the body is deficient in them. Now, she wasn’t doing this to scare me, she was doing this to educate me. When I cut food out, I am cutting nutrients out, therefore I am making my body deficient of necessary nutrients. These nutrients help cuts to heal, my skin to have elasticity, my bones to stay strong, my eyes to see clearly, my nerves to function correctly as well as even enable my body to metabolize other nutrients well. I also don’t want to scare any of my readers but THIS right here is the reality of anorexia. I, right at this moment, am on medication for my pancreas, because this organ lost its ability to understand and be sensitive to how to give me the correct amount of insulin because I had starved it for so long it just wants to hang on to any nutrient I give it and turn it into fat. It’s doing this to protect me in case I starve again. I now have to retrain my pancreas and body to use nutrients correctly because it had changed its original system in order to keep alive while I starved. This is very common in anorexia recovery but let me tell you, when I was cutting out food I truly was not thinking about how my pancreas was handling it.... WE NEED FOOD. If we don’t eat it, we hurt out bodies. I’ll step back off my soap box now…
So, what ended up happening is that when I went home that week, every time I ate, I had to write down what I was eating and how what I was eating was good for my body. What nutrient was in the food I was consuming and what specifically it was going to help my body do after I ate it. For example, if I chose to eat an egg and toast (which yes, were fear foods), I would write down that eggs have Vitamin B12, this gives me healthy nerve cells, helps with DNA/RNA as well as with red blood cell production and iron function. They also have biotin in them which helps with carbs, and amino acid metabolism. They also have Vitamin B2 which helps break down fats and protein and helps my skin, hair, eyes and liver. OK, enough about eggs, how about toast?! Toast was a BIGGIE. I hadn’t eaten bread without restriction or compensation in years. Bread was a MAJOR fear food. In wheat toast I will find chromium which assists insulin function, increases fertility and copper which gives energy production and helps metabolize several fatty acids as well as helps bone formation. Now these are just micronutrients. If we get into the big ones there are even more benefits! Bread has carbohydrates, which contrary to popular belief are not bad, but are good because they actually give you energy, benefit your heart, provide dietary fiber and promote a healthy digestive system. Get this, we should be eating carbohydrates for OPTIMAL brain function. Think about that the next time you think carbs are bad!
My first dietician wasn’t the only dietician that did this. My second dietician does it and the dietician at my support group does this as well. When they give us a challenging meal at group, she goes through each food and discusses what nutrients we are receiving from each food and how those nutrients are helping our bodies to work correctly and be fueled appropriately.
Some foods can be a little tricky. For instance, I would go in and say, I don’t really see how a waffle has any nutrients…and my dietician would then tell me to break it down. There is flour (carbs), and eggs (protein), Milk (calcium), vegetable oil, (Rich in Vitamin E), some sugar, baking powder, salt, you get the idea. Now it seems less like a fear food and more like something that contains nutrients that help my bones, muscles, energy, antioxidants etc. When I concentrate more on what these food are doing for me then all the rules and regulations and fears I have around them, I really feel a LOT better about eating them.
Wait! Sara! What about things like cheesecake and donuts or even pop (or soda for everyone not from the mid-west). Honestly, you can do it with these too! Cheesecake is made with a lot of dairy and dairy and cheese brings us many micronutrients like Vitamin D, calcium, Vitamin B2, Vitamin B12, Pantothenate, Vitamin A and more!
When it comes to things like candy or pop that are basically pure refined sugar (not natural sugar like in strawberries) this is what I have to say… sugar is a source of carbohydrates and energy and honestly.. there aren’t really that many health benefits to eating pure sugar BUT there is no need to cut it out! The Canadian Sugar Institute says, “From a nutritional point of view, it doesn’t matter what foods provide the sugars in our diet. Once digested, all sugars are put to the same good uses. Regardless of it’s source, each gram of sugar supplies the body with the same amount of energy per gram.” (1) Sugar also makes things taste good! It’s used in baking and cooking and preserving things like jams which are really yummy! It really comes down to, do I want to be a person that won’t enjoy a cupcake with my friend because mentally I’m drowning myself and beating myself up over some sugar? For me, the answer to that is no. I’ll eat it in moderation because it’s in things that are tasty and honestly, I really like wine and it will be a cold day in hell before I give that up!
I’ll also say, tackle one fear food at a time. You don’t have to rush to 7-11 and down a sprite and cheesy fries, but when you are scared to eat french fries because they are fried in oil and they always have a high calories count maybe remember that they are really just chopped up potatoes that are dipped in oil. Potatoes give us a ton of Vitamin C (regenerates tissue, protects against heart disease, aids in absorbing iron, decreases LDL cholesterol), and Vitamin B-6 ( helps maintain a healthy metabolism, nerve function, liver function skin health, eye health and boosts energy) and Magnesium (helps with blood pressure and bone strength, calms nerves and anxiety) and the oil again gives us vitamin K (regulates normal blood clotting) and vitamin E (a powerful antioxidant) AND no one is telling you to eat them every day or 8 pounds of them!
I think that diet culture plays a HUGE role in why we fear food as well as our societies standard of body image and weight. If we have to be super skinny then we can achieve that by cutting out carbs, but then we are starving our brains and our bodies from energy that we REALLY need to be healthy. If a diet is telling us to stop eating dairy then all of a sudden we are losing essential nutrients that keep our bones strong. Diets tell us cookies are bad, but when it’s all broken down they really aren’t bad at all. Eating too much of them is what isn’t as healthy for our bodies. If there is a true allergy or a religious or personal reason to cutting out a food I understand, but most of the time we start cutting out essential nutrients because a diet told us to, or we watched a very moving documentary on netflix or our bestie is doing a new diet or even because it was a means to losing weight instead of practicing moderation, learning intuitive eating or being happy in the skin we are in.
Starting to eat fear foods is so very very difficult. If you have decided to recover then there is that small voice inside of you that wants to be healthy and wants to take care of yourself and is tired of not eating or being the person at the table that is constantly saying, "I can't eat that!" When you take a bite of pizza ED is screaming how many calories it is or that if you eat it you will never stop eating it or you will be the size of a barn or whatever ED uses to make you feel terrible. FIGHT BACK. Pizza is full of essential nutrients! This is one little way you can renew your mind about food and diet and your body. MOST foods hold nutrients that benefit you in some way. It’s when we go overboard, or when we starve that it causes harm.
When you have a fear food in front of you and your anxiety is high and all you can think of is how bad this food is and there is literally no reason you should possibly be eating that food, try and find out how this food is going to help your body! I have done this with burgers, pizza, fries, cake, pancakes, ice cream, fried chicken, ranch dressing, sausage, jelly, muffins, bread, peanut butter, avocados you name it! ALL of these have some benefit to my body and most of them tasted dang delicious! :)
- Sara -
1 - http://www.sugar.ca/Nutrition-Information-Service/Consumers/Facts-and-Fiction-About-Sugars-and-Health/Nutritional-Value.aspx