Fighting the Fear of Food: How to Create “Freedom Momentum” Around Eating

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I’m Sarah (she/her), a Toronto-based writer, anti-diet nutritionist, and Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor. I teach folks how to have a healthy relationship with food and accept their natural body size.

Hi, I'm Sarah

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Detaching emotionally from “trigger” foods is one thing. Last week, I spoke about how to make trigger foods feel less addictive by eliminating scarcity. But what about the fear of food? We’re afraid we won’t get to eat al dente pasta tossed in fresh tomato sauce in Italy, bite into French macarons, or experience authentic guacamole in Mexico — and then we’re afraid when we’re confronted with the possibility.

Each one of us occupies a different stage of recovery. I say that because I feel like it’s almost impossible to escape the ravages of diet culture in the Western world unscathed. Either we learn to hate our bodies, challenge our eating behaviours and attitudes to food, develop eating disorders, disconnect ourselves from our food and exercise choices, criticize our bodies, criticize the bodies of others, or adopt some other negative beliefs and perceptions around eating and exercise.

Some of us are established intuitive eaters with few hang-ups around food. We eat when we’re hungry, stop when we’re full, and let our choices exist without judgment. Some of are moving in that direction, slowly releasing years of restriction, deprivation, and self-loathing. And some could use a bit of extra support and guidance as they step into the bright white light of intuitive eating, perhaps for the first time in their lives. But wherever you find yourself on the spectrum, the fear of food is very real, very powerful,and often incredibly damaging.

And because making peace with our plates and developing a healthy relationship with food is a process, I’ve created a lil’ somethin’ somethin’ I’ve called “Food Freedom Momentum,” or a suggested step-by-step system for creating comfort around food. I know how overwhelming the intuitive eating world can feel. My goal here is to highlight an area (or areas) of focus for you for where you are at the moment, so you can move forward without feeling like you’re doing something wrong, can’t eat intuitively, or as though you’re losing steam because your steps are a bit smaller than those of others. We all wear different sized shoes, take different sized steps, and walk at a different pace. But we’re in it together.

By breaking the ultimate BIG goal into bite-sized steps, you can inject momentum into your relationship with food and begin to re-write your story in a way that feels safe and meaningful.

Ready, darlin’? Let’s hit it.

1 | Your fear of food or your history with food makes eating without distraction feel impossibly hard.

Eating without distraction is one of the goals of intuitive eating, yet if you have a history of disordered eating or have struggled with an eating disorder in the past, this may feel unbelievably daunting. Those previously diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa, in particular, approach reward and punishment differently than other people, and sometimes feel anxious around food. I know the fear of relapse is strong. I definitely emphasize with that, because recovery itself is a long, arduous process that takes everything you have and then some. If you aren’t ready, you may need meal plans and distractions. That’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with this. But if you feel ready to progress — and really, this is your call — here’s what I suggest doing.

Start small.

a| Try eating a snack without distraction and experiencing how it feels. Even if it’s just a few bites.

b | Start with foods that feel safe(r) to you and work towards eating a variety of foods.

c | Once you’re comfortable with snacking consciously, consider eating consciously during a meal.

d | You can also tune in and tune out throughout the process. If focusing on the food alone feels like too much pressure, eat with distraction and then try to tune in during the process. If you are comfortable with it, ask yourself some of the following questions: “Am I hungry?” “Am I full?” “How does this food taste to me?” “Do I enjoy the texture?”

e | Consider read food writing and memoirs. When I was battling with food, food writing became a bit of a light at the end of a long ass tunnel. I loved how much Molly Wizenberg loved food, and wanted to feel the same way in A Homemade Life. I liked Gabrielle Hamilton’s rise in the culinary world as articulated in Blood, Bones, and Butter. And who can overlook Ruth Reichl, Melissa Clark, Amanda Hesser?

f | Journalling. Writing about the process can also be a really meaningful way of developing a stronger relationship with food, with your feelings, and with yourself.

2 | You haven’t incorporated trigger foods because you’re afraid you won’t be able to stop eating once you start. 

If you’re not ready to keep trigger foods in your house, that’s totally okay. Even if you understand the damage diet culture does on an intellectual level, integrating these beliefs into the architecture of your daily life is a whole other issue. Maybe you feel okay eating dessert every night…but find yourself over-eating cake despite your best efforts to listen to your body. You know it’s okay to eat cookies…but it still feels like it’s not. Here’s what I recommend:

a | Eat these foods when you’re out of the house. It may feel safer to order a scoop of ice cream and enjoy it, as opposed to carting come a container of ice cream only to eat through the whole thing and feel miserable.

b | Continue to work on the diet mentality and any “food rule hangovers” you might be experiencing post-diet drink fest. It may be helpful to solicit the help of a Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor or emotional eating coach at this time — someone with an anti-diet, weight-inclusive approach to wellness.

c | Immerse yourself in positive food experiences. Food writing, Julia Child documentaries, potlucks and dinner parties with friends and acquaintances who can support you in your efforts.

d | When you’re ready, it’s time to buy a favourite food. Start with one. Add a new one according to cravings and comfort level.

e | Practice self-care. This can feel really tough, so go easy on yourself. Identify alternative coping mechanisms and lock ‘em down.

f | Journal about your experience.

3 | While you’ve made peace with some foods, you would still feel more comfortable with a few constructive boundaries. 

If you feel mostly comfortable with trigger foods, but still feel like you could use a few well-intentioned boundaries to help you to bridge the gaps, here’s a few steps for you:

a | Avoid having “play foods”, like ice cream, potato chips, and so on, by themselves for dinner. Serve them with other foods to enhance the satisfaction factor and prevent discomfort. I generally like to avoid substituting snacks for meals when I’m “meal hungry”, because chances are good that I’m craving a balance of macronutrients (protein, fats, carbs) vs. 1-2 of them.

b | Continue to work on gentle nutrition (that whole balanced diet thing that gets tossed around a lot), connecting with your hunger and fullness cues, and generally listening to your body.

c | Focus on self-care vs. self-control. It’s all about those positives.

d | Continue to immerse yourself in positive food experiences through media and in-person interactions. Take cooking classes. Develop food confidence.

e | Journaling. 

4 | You feel mostly confident about your decision to become an intuitive eater and reject diet culture, but you could use some reassurance and positive reinforcement.

a | Advocate for eating disorder awareness. If you’re not politically-inclined, you can always donate to your local treatment centre or attend fundraising events in your area.

b | Follow social media accounts promoting body positivity, Health at Every Size, and the joy of eating.

c | Experiment with new recipes, cuisines, and restaurants. 

d | Join a body positivity-inclined Meetup Group.

e | Immerse yourself in #bopo literature. I personally love The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, Intuitive Eating by Resch and Tribole, and Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon.

f | Practice an intuitive lifestyle – intuitive movement, intuitive self-care.

g | Unfollow social media accounts that make you feel shitty about yourself.

If you are in the process of adding new foods to your lifestyle, which foods do you find the most challenging? Do you still feel guilt when you choose to eat favourites, like cherry cheesecake or dill pickle potato chips? If you don’t feel comfortable leaving it in the comments, you can connect with me directly or join my tribe on Facebook.

how to stop the fear of food

Comments +

  1. Jill Conyers says:

    I’ve come so far and yet it still feels like I’ll never totally stop the temptation to restrict my eating. And, trigger foods will always be trigger foods. At least both of these feelings are happening less and less often.

    • Sarah Berneche says:

      I totally hear you, Jill. Restriction is definitely so tough, especially when we’ve basically been conditioned all of our lives to do it. I think the "less and less" portion is already so momentous and shows a lot of progress. I find just being able to identify it and call it out for what it is can help a lot in working through that part of our relationship with food.

  2. […] eating is far more complicated than I could have predicted when I started working with eating difficulties several years ago. In full transparency, I used to think intuitive eating would take care of any […]

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