Stop labeling foods as "fear foods"

autism recovery

As an autistic person who struggled with an eating disorder for many years, I never had “fear foods.” There were simply foods I didn’t trust.

Everywhere in the ED recovery space you will find advice along the lines of “eat your fear foods.” Heck, I even promoted this for many years! However, as I’ve discovered more about myself through reflection, written books, and worked with more autistic people to fully recover from disordered eating, I’ve found the term “fear food” to be incredibly misleading.

To understand why this terminology can not only be prohibitive, but even harmful, let’s unpack what fear really is. Fear is not trusting the outcome. For example, someone may fear getting on an airplane because they don’t have a 100% guarantee that the flight will be smooth sailing or that they’ll land safely.

The reason someone does not trust an outcome is because they don’t know the exact outcome. Just as darkness is the absence of light, fear is simply the absence of knowledge. Thus, the reason fear can be so suffocating and persistent is because we will never know the exact outcome. Nothing is ever guaranteed!

The only way people can dim their fear and find some extent of trust is by engaging in behaviors that they’ve engaged in before, behaviors that more often than not, provide safety. Even though there is no guarantee the behavior will provide safety again, the probability is most likely.

Because autistic people live in a world that feels very unsafe, we are more likely to exhibit “picky” behaviors around food…but as I mentioned in a previous posts about how autistic people aren’t rigid but adaptive and how picky eating is really safety eating, our repetitive behaviors are simply an adaptive mechanism to increase the likelihood of our safety!

During my time in treatment for my eating disorder, I was often told that my non safe foods were “fear foods.” Looking back with the autistic lens I have now, this was the epitome of medical gaslighting. I remember telling the professionals they weren’t fear foods, because my association with these foods was not at all aligned with the definition of “fear” they attributed to these foods.

Of course, this post is no way to let anyone “off the hook” for challenging themselves to foods they really want to eat, but their ED stole from them. I had to face my fear of high-calorie, processed foods to fully heal from my limited life. The only way to do so, however, was by shifting the value of these foods to something that “can’t be trusted” to something that I could trust would nourish me.

Labeling foods as “fear foods” creates a victim mentality as it gives you an excuse to not challenge yourself “because you’re scared.” In contrast, taking an approach that views these so-called “fear foods” as “foods you don’t yet trust” gives you the power to regain trust with these foods…in the end, regaining trust is what recovery is all about!

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