Mindful Eating

Rediscovering a healthy and joyful relationship with food.

Fear of Food

A doctor looks at fears about food.

Patients have come to me in despair, saying, “There’s nothing left that I can eat! Beef contains hormones, chickens are raised under cruel conditions,

   

salmon is endangered, cheese and eggs have too much saturated fat, and tofu contains estrogen-like compounds, I think I’m sensitive to gluten. I'm avoiding tomatoes and potatoes because I've heard that the nightshade family can make arthritis worse, and dairy products give me gas. I don't have anything left to eat!!“ 

Fear of food is a very real problem in this land of plenty. In Mindful Eating workshops we make a list of “foods I fear.” Then we look more deeply into the reasons for the fear surrounding each food. Can we look back to see when this fear began? Was there a particular incident, physical symptom, conversation, or even a magazine article or web blog that gave rise to fear of this particular food?

Anxiety about food may be based on inaccurate or outdated information, which can be corrected. For example, when I was in medical school we were told that eggs contained cholesterol and we shouldn't eat more than one a week. Eggs were "bad" for at least two decades. Now eggs are "good." Recent rresearch shows that eggs can be an inexpensive source of protein, especially  for older people, and that eating two eggs a day does not raise serum cholesterol.

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Food fears also may be based upon accurate information, which can be the starting point for thinking about or discussing with a dietician how best to implement healthy changes. For example, most people would benefit from reducing the salt, trans-fat and high fructose corn syrup in their diets.

Food anxieties may be based upon misinterpretation of normal or bodily symptoms. For example, intestinal gas does not mean allergy to all dairy products and thus the need to avoid them entirely. It may be the result of gulping air while drinking. It may signal the need for lactase-reduced milk, enzyme supplements or a switch to sensible rationing of dairy intake. Even true severe food allergies can be amenable to desensitization. Everyone is aware of how frightened we have become about peanut allergy. Recent  research with children allergic to peanuts has shown that they can be desensitized by gradually increasing the amount of peanuts they eat each day, beginning with tiny amounts of peanut dust and gradually increasing up to the point where they can safely eat 13 peanuts at a time. The families of these children are then relieved of their terror that their child will die if he accidentally eats a cookie made with peanut oil or kisses somoeone who recently ate peanuts. .

Emotional desensitization can also help. Anxiety about a food may result from fear of tipping over into loss of control and binging. Mindful eating exercises in a group can help. We can try small amounts of such a food while focusing on the sensations in the mouth, body and mind. We can experience the arising and dissolving of fear as we eat slowly. When we eat small amounts slowly, with mindful attention, we experience increased pleasure and satisfaction. We find that eating a "feared food" mindfully does not trigger the desire to binge, but the exact opposite, a feeling of satisfaction with small amounts of food. It's as if mindfulness makes a small amount of food "larger" and very filling.

For example, by eating chocolate chips and checking in with my mouth, stomach and heart, I've learned that I don' t need to eat an entire giant chocolate bar to satisfy that late night chocolate craving. If I savor six to ten small chips slowly, one by one, with full mindfulness, letting ech one melt completely before putting another one in my mouth,  I find that just a few are  quite satisfying!  Try it for yourself! 

      equally satisfying with mindful eating 

 

 

Jan Chozen Bays, M.D., is a pediatrician and Zen teacher who has been practicing and teaching mindful eating for over twenty years. Her most recent book is Mindful Eating.

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