I can vividly remember the first time I felt fear and frustration around food. I was 10 years old, I had just learned about Weight Watchers, and I had found a book containing all of their point counts in my living room. People had made subtle and not-so-subtle comments about my body and weight from when I was around seven or eight, and even though I was young, they didn’t go over my head.
That morning, instead of just filling up a bowl with cereal and regular milk, I grabbed a measuring cup, and measured out an amount of Rice Krispies and skim milk that was far less than what any 10-year-old should have been eating. I wrote down the “points” for that meal in a journal.
A few hours later, I found out that we would be going to a family member’s house for lunch, and we would be having pizza. I instantly felt anxious because it wasn’t “healthy” and wouldn’t fit into the points that I was allowing myself that day. Instead of allowing myself to enjoy some hot pizza with gooey cheese like most kids would, I was focused on the anxiety it was giving me. My scared, shame-ridden 10-year-old self never imagined that nearly 11 years later, I’d be recovering from an eating disorder and beating food guilt everyday.
For many people in recovery from eating disorders, a crucial part of the recovery process is conquering fear foods. A fear food is pretty much what it sounds like, a food that someone is afraid of. Someone who hasn’t experienced an eating disorder, might think, “How could someone be afraid of a food?” but the anxiety is very real for those living with eating disorders.
Fear foods typically trigger intense guilt and shame for people in eating disorder recovery. Even just the prospect of eating a fear food can cause a spike in anxiety. For some people, fear foods are specific foods, like ice cream or pizza, and for other people, fear foods are entire categories of food, like fats or carbohydrates.
After over a year in recovery, I’m in a pretty strong place. However, I still struggle with food guilt, and I still have some fear foods. One of the food categories that gives me the most anxiety is fast food.
I’m gluten intolerant, and most fast food restaurants don’t have gluten free options, so for most of my eating disorder and the beginnings of my recovery, I had a convenient “excuse” for avoiding fast food. This past summer, Shake Shack started carrying gluten free buns, so that excuse was no longer valid.
Over the summer, I ate at Shake Shack a few times, however, the anxiety surrounding fast food has still stuck around. Something I’ve learned in my recovery is that challenging a fear once doesn’t mean it will automatically stop being a fear. Fears, especially fear foods, have to be challenged until they’re normalized, until they’re able to exist as a normal part of your life.
So, when my new friend Sammi, who I met through the eating disorder recovery community on Instagram, wanted to meet up for lunch earlier this week, I decided that once again challenging my fear of Shake Shack would be fitting.
As I walked from the subway to the restaurant, I could already feel my anxiety brewing. While practicing some deep breathing, I opened the door and found Sammi. We got in line to order our food, and my anxiety increased.
Several thoughts were running around in my head from, “Eating that is bad” to “Are you really going to order that?” to “Do you think you need that much food?” Those disordered thoughts, coupled with the triggers I’ve been feeling lately due to New Year’s diet talk made me scared to order what I really wanted, not what my eating disorder wanted.
However, I decided to find the strength to push past that fear, and instead do the opposite of what my brain was telling me. As the cashier called me up to order, I asked for a double bacon cheeseburger on a gluten free bun with a chocolate shake. For most people, the act of ordering the food they want seems trivial, but for me, it was a huge win.
One of the hardest things about conquering fear foods is that it really isn’t even about the food. Eating the food is the easiest part. It’s about the feelings around the food. It’s about the unshakeable anxiety that latches onto you and makes you believe that the food is the enemy. It’s about realizing that controlling your food intake isn’t going to solve anything, and it will actually make you feel worse. It’s about letting go of dangerous coping mechanisms that you’ve been using for years. It’s about digging deeper and realizing that while you may truly be afraid of that particular food, the fear runs much deeper than the act of eating.
As Sammi and I shared our recovery stories with each other, we simultaneously ate our burgers, and I realized that I wasn’t even feeling the immense anxiety I had felt just 10 minutes before. Just the simple act of sharing a meal with someone who has experienced the same struggles was enough to ease my fear, and provide the kind of support that I needed to challenge my fear.
When I bit into my juicy burger, I was able to enjoy my meal and appreciate the taste of the salty cheese and savory bacon, instead of solely feeling guilt and anxiety. I found love for the feeling of the melty cheese coating my tongue. While I drank my shake, I paid attention to how amazing the thick, cold, sweet drink made my taste buds feel, instead of trying to calculate calories in my head. I was actively choosing to fight my fears effectively, rather than giving in to the deadly disorder that ruled my life and stole my happiness for far too long.
Something to note is that this one occasion of enjoying a burger and shake isn’t the end of that fear food, and while I didn’t experience negative feelings while I was eating, I did experience some guilt and shame once I got home. When these feelings have been ingrained in your brain for over a decade, it takes more than a few instances of challenging them to eliminate the anxiety. The difference is that now, instead of reverting to old, disordered behaviors, I choose to use more effective coping skills like making art and allowing myself to experience the feelings, as opposed to pushing them away.
Each instance of choosing to use healthy coping skills over giving into my unhealthy urges brings me one moment closer to kicking my eating disorder to the curb for good. While I still have a lot of work to do in recovery, enjoying this meal was an awesome step. Here’s to continuing to fight my fears, redefining my thoughts about my body, and regaining my life, one bite at a time.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, contact the NEDA Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. If you’re experiencing a crisis, text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained Crisis Counselor at Crisis Text Line.