This past Sunday was my Dad’s birthday, and after a lovely family lunch we all decided to go to the beach for dessert. Or afternoon tea. Or whatever you want to call it! Anyway, my parents decided to get coffee and cake, while I went around the corner to grab an ice cream.
We all sat, laughed, enjoyed each other’s company and the delicious food. Dad had cheesecake, Mom had a chocolate éclair and I had peanut butter and nutella ice cream (see below). Years ago, in the depths of my eating disorder this same situation was so anxiety provoking that I’d be close to tears.
My obsession with clean eating
made all these fun foods off limits and my eating disorder mind was convinced that consuming them would lead to my greatest fears: instant weight gain and looping thought patterns of how unhealthy I was and how eating a ‘bad food’ made me a bad person.
While ice cream is now one of my favourite fun foods to enjoy, it used to be at the top of my food fear list. I remember the first time I went to Gelato Messina with my Mom – I loved it! But when I had to do it a second, a third, and a fourth time it got harder.
I vividly recall standing outside the shop in Darlinghurst on a particularly busy day where the counter was overrun by school children and just balling my eyes out while eating my ice cream because I was so overwhelmed.
This whole ordeal might sound incredibly foreign to those who have never dealt with disordered eating, or eating disorders, but for a lot of people it’s a common occurrence. Dieting instils in us a sense that food is to be feared and society perpetuates this idea with its ongoing messaging that certain foods are ‘bad’, certain food groups should be avoided, and that consuming them means you are a glutton and should feel guilty.
Going against all of those messages, as well as the ones circulating in your head, can be incredibly challenging. However, facing your food fears and telling them to ‘fuck off’ can be one of the most liberating things you ever do.
Having gone through this process myself, I now get to help others with this step-by-step method in their eating disorder recovery or intuitive eating journey during our health coaching sessions.
Step 1: Write Down And Rate Your Food Fears
Step one is self-reflection. Get your journal out and list all the foods or food groups you’re afraid to eat. The ones you restrict, beat yourself up for eating, or consider “bad” or “unhealthy”. You can also write down any food rules or restrictions that you have. Basically, anything that keeps you living in fear around food is what I want you to list out. Then you need to rate those fears on a scale from 1 to 10: 1 being “I can easily eat this food with no concerns” and 10 being “this food stresses me the fuck out.”
Step 2: Start Small
Tackling a food fear with an intensity rating of 10 straight up might feel like running a marathon you never trained for. You need to learn to walk before you can run. Pick a food or food rule that has an intensity rating of 6 or less and start there. The whole point of this exercise is to build your confidence and break down the barriers that are preventing you from getting your shit together around food.
Step 3: Plan It Out
Where will you go and eat this food? Who will join you? When will you have it? Being clear about the details means it’s more likely to happen. Schedule it into your diary like any other appointment and don’t skip out.
Step 4: Visualise Success
This is something athletes do before a big game or competition. They visualise success. They sit there and think through how everything will go to plan and how they will feel. I like to get clients to do the same thing. During a session I guide them through every step of the experience and record it as a meditation track for some to listen to if the actual act of doing the challenge is too much to face.
When you start to feel confident in your ability to do the challenge and chuck your food fears to the side before you even get to the café (or ice cream shop, or maybe it’s a home cooked meal, etc) then those overwhelming feelings start to decrease.
Step 5: Get Support
When I go on challenges with clients it’s all about creating a safe space for them to tackle their fears. It’s my job to hold their space so they can feel their way through the process with me. They can talk to me about what’s going on in their head, or I can provide distraction in the moment and debrief after when emotions have settled again.
Whether it’s a coach, your partner, a family member, or a friend, try to go with someone. This does two things: holds you accountable, and helps you stay present in the moment, so you don’t get lost in your ruminating thoughts.
Step 6: Rinse and Repeat
Eating *insert food/food group* once isn’t enough. You need to challenge your food fears multiple times until eating that particular food becomes a non-issue. But give yourself a moment to breathe. You don’t need to go eat an ice cream sundae every day for a week straight (but you can if you really want to!). I usually recommend clients do the same challenge one or two more times within a two-week time frame.
I’m not saying this process is easy. It’s far from it. You’re allowed to feel angry, frustrated, upset, confused, lost or any other emotion that comes up for you. Challenging the voice in your head or the societal norms that you thought were true is tough! But so are you!
With the right tools and support know that you can beat your food fears and make peace with pizza and pastries (or whatever it is for you) alongside other food groups.