In a few previous posts, I have mentioned that I experience “food anxieties” and that this has shaped the way I eat (mostly for the worse). Most of it seems to be largely psychological in nature, but there is a bit of sensory processing trouble that comes to the fore as well. It is worse when I am stressed and anxious about other things.
Before I get into what the problem might be (without oversharing) and why I feel the need to try and educate an audience about it, I’ll start with the end result, because it’s very easy to dismiss food anxieties if you don’t have them.
I throw up in my mouth.
That’s right. Throwing up. In my mouth. Even if I manage to avoid this, and force myself to swallow whatever it is that I really, really don’t want to eat, I will be nauseated for the remainder of the day. It will be very difficult for me to eat anything even remotely unfamiliar.
So if anything that I describe from here on out makes you think “That’s ridiculous! You should just eat [whatever it is], or grow up, or get over it,” I’d like you to remember the phrase “I throw up in my mouth.”
Because nobody likes the taste of bile.
In my case, it also tastes like shame, humiliation, and judgement, and this is why I feel the need to write this post. It is actually a difficult issue to write about, because although I have a number of anxiety triggers that elicit empathy from people in my life, the food triggers usually elicit contempt, dismissal and/or confusion. There is almost no empathy or sympathy for them at all. Talking about it usually makes me cry.
This is, I feel, because of the social structures we have placed around eating. We are a society that in large part seems to have a really disordered relationship with food, and at the same time we are a society that is trying to fix that, and seems to be going about it all wrong.
We are a society that associates certain kinds of eating with emotional maturity. Kids are the ones that will refuse to eat healthy food (we are told) and demand chicken nuggets and chips, and spaghetti bolognese. Most of them grow out of it. In large part, I didn’t. It’s understandable that parents put pressure on kids to eat healthy food – it really is. The problem is that when you have an oversensitive kid who responds to disapproval by shutting down and/or crying, that ends up making a bad situation worse. Then, when you get confused parents telling the kid not to cry, because it’s just silly to cry about food (even though the kid is actually crying about the disapproval, not the food; crying about the food is an associative response that comes later, when you start to instinctively link food with disapproval. It did not take me long to reach this point), they feel even more disapproval.
It’s bad enough when it’s your own (well-meaning) parents. Then when you go and stay with friends at their house, you start to panic around dinner time, because what is the food going to be? Are you going to be able to eat it without watning to throw up? Are these really scary (quite lovely, but I was extremely shy) adults that you don’t even really know going to yell at you (or even express mild disapproval or disappointment, which is bad enough) for not eating the meal they are serving the friend of their child?
The answer is usually… well, yeah. Even such innocent, friendly questions as “Didn’t you like it?” bring on a panic attack.
(side note: I can’t even physically handle certain foods without wanting to scream and panic. The sensation of these particular foods on the skin of my hands actually triggers panic. I’ll whimper. It’s involuntary. When going on camps – whether they are work-based retreats or the school camps of my youth – I would hastily sign up for any chore that did not involve handling food or cleaning up food (my favourite is vacuuming. I don’t have to touch anything). This may seem weird. I’m a biologist. I’m perfectly comfortable touching icky things and dissecting them. I give zero fucks about that, which should tell you that the food issue is a serious problem.)
Looking back, I can see that I was a really sensitive kid. I was shy, and anxious, particularly around adults. Around other kids I was more bold – brash, even – but it didn’t take much to get me hiding again. The problem is that, when you cry at the drop of a hat, adults stop taking your tears seriously. Again – like all of this – that’s understandable, but I vividly remember that I never cried unless I was really genuinely upset.
It’s just that I was really genuinely upset a lot, and one of the worst triggers was adult disapproval. I genuinely do have some sensory issues around some foods, which is probably why I didn’t want to eat some things in the first place, but the disapproval factor turned the whole thing into a colossal mess.
Sadly, I don’t have any suggestions to make it better for a kid like me. I imagine if and when I have a kid, I too will be flustered by their refusal to eat the healthsome food I have put a lot of effort into cooking. I will probably get to a point of deathly frustration when I tote up what they will actually eat and come up empty on actual nutritional content.
I do have some suggestions on how to make it better for adults like me.
If an adult friend does not want to try the “totally awesome and amazing” food that you are recommending, do not push them. Feel free to say that it is awesome and amazing, but don’t ever, ever shame or guilt someone into eating something or trying to eat something.
If someone is actually honest and says, “Look, I can’t eat that, sorry,” just accept it. Maybe a response like “Aha! All the more for me!” is appropriate (I actually often say “Hey, all the more for you,” when explaining what I can’t get my oesophagus to accept. It defuses tension).
You would think that I would know better than to do these things, but sometimes even I have over-encouraged people to eat certain things. I quickly realised I was doing it, and backed off, but I do regret those moments of empathy fail.
And here’s the thing. Even with people who handle it with tact and grace, it’s still awkward, because on the inside, I know that it’s weird (and you can tell. I go bright red. We gingers, we do not have good poker faces).
Do not demand further explanation. Do not even politely ask for further information. Even “I’m just curious.” If you don’t have these issues, you can’t even possibly begin to imagine how awful it is to be the feature of interest at a perfectly normal adult ritual like a dinner or a lunch and be forced to explain your eating habits. It is awful. We have so much emotional baggage around food it’s ridiculous, and you can’t just reason through it in public and decide to be okay. Please, move on and deflect attention elsewhere as quickly as you possibly can. Change the subject, ignore the plate.
You are not the food anxiety whisperer. Even if your food is amazing. Even if you are the greatest chef in all the land and your hours-long meal preparation process results in the sort of gourmand’s delight that makes angels weep and clutch at their overfull bellies. This is not an insult to you. It is just how someone else’s anxieties and sensory system are put together. It is not about you.
Do not say something like, “I could understand if it was [acknowledged confronting food item], but it’s [widely accepted as easy to eat], you can’t even eat that?” Just leave it alone.
And absolutely 100%, for the win, take-it-home-today-and-pay-nothing:
Do not tell the food-anxious person that they are going to die of nutrient deficiencies (or heart disease, or diabetes, or anything).
This is a little like telling a fat person that they are fat. Let me explain.
People who are fat have grown up in a world that is excessively, ludicrously aware of fat. There is not a fat person alive who does not know they are fat. They would have to be literally brain-dead, as in unable to absorb sensory information from the outside world. If a person that you think is fat does not think they are fat, it is much more likely a problem of fuzzy thresholds and ridiculous definitions, and telling them what your definitions are is just going to make them feel (1) angry, (2) offended, (3) hurt, and/or – in the absolute best-case scenario – (4) mystified by your odd behaviour. They have grown up in a world that is constantly going on and on and on and on and fucking on about how “terrible” it is to be fat, and how death-fat is coming for them, and how much energy and money must be spent in order to get rid of fat, keep fat gone, or prevent fat from ever catching up with you in the first place. It is literally impossible to ignore these messages.
And this is, to a certain extent, linked with food anxieties. We have all been told from a very young age about eating fruits and vegetables, the supposed evils of fat (sigh) and sugar, and the food pyramid (double sigh). Healthy eating programmes are run in primary schools. The idea that you might not know that subsisting on certain kinds of heavily processed, nutrient-shallow foods is unhealthy is similarly absurd.
We, the food anxious, are well aware that we are probably eating a diet that is not medically approved. We are probably very worried about it. We really would like to fix the problem. But you are not going to be able to fix it for us. I’ve lost track of how many times I have told people that I would love to be able to eat salads. Salads seem healthy. They seem like you can make them cheaply, and there are lots of ways to make them interesting and tasty. They seem like a great option for hot summer days. They are very easy to construct around allergies and intolerances like fructose malabsorption and insulin issues. Salads seem great.
I can’t do it. Just can’t. I will throw up in my mouth.
So someone looking at my lunch and telling me, “Gosh that’s really unhealthy!” achieves the following:
- I feel really selfconscious.
- I feel judged and humiliated for my food choices
- I probably want to cry (complete with red face and hot eyes)
- I get really angry, because seriously, what goes in my mouth is my own damn business
Here’s what it does not achieve:
- any measurable or noticeable change in my eating habits, with one exception.
- I will now not eat in front of that person. There’s a reason I eat lunch at my desk.
Food anxieties take a lot of energy to maintain. They’re always there, in the back of your head, because sooner or later, you’re going to need to eat again. One of the greatest side benefits of eating keto and tracking my macronutrients for me is that it enables me to plan ahead, and to be confident in my food choices. I am now pretty comfortable with how I eat and what I eat. I’ve covered the bases in terms of macronutrients and the really essential phytonutrients. What my diet does not give me directly, I supplement. I am perfectly comfortable with a few necessary supplements.
I cannot possibly describe how much happier about food I am now. I am now more willing to try new things (although again, I am very unlikely to do that in front of people, because it’s embarrassing when you throw up in your mouth). This isn’t because my sensory processing issues have gone away, or because I no longer have anxiety; it’s because my overall stress level is miles lower, and that gives me more mental energy to challenge myself.
In the back of my mind, I am no longer convinced that I am going to die because of what and how I eat. I am no longer panicking about how I’m going to eat healthy food while accommodating my various issues.
And part of this is because I’ve accepted that there are things I’m never going to be able to eat, and I’ve written them off. I’m no longer constantly guilty about the things I should try. I figure if I get intrigued one day, I can give it a shot in a safe space.
However, there are still some anxieties around eating in front of people. I’m still waiting for someone to ask why I haven’t eaten my salad (that often comes with various meals), and ask when I’m going to grow up. I’m still suspicious that someone will look at my meat-and-cheese-heavy plate and feel the need to comment on it. I’m still incredibly nervous about going to dinner at people’s places if I don’t know them very well. I’m still scared of giving offense because I can’t process certain sensations. And I’m scared that it will get so bad that I will cry, which is beyond humiliating.
So I write this post to help people with food anxieties understand that they are not alone, and to help people without food anxieties understand that it’s not simply a matter of “growing up”; that our relationship with food is actually much more complicated than that, and that society’s well-meaning attempts to boost our nutritional health have actually made it worse.
I write it in the hope that less people, in future, will ask me:
“Oh. What was wrong with it?”