Alright so you “recovered.” And by that I mean you did the (very hard) work to stop restricting, or in cases where weight restoration is necessary: you restored your weight. These are both HUGE steps in recovery. However, the work isn’t done here. Weight restoration alone does NOT equal recovery. Only eating safe foods does not equal recovery.
This is the point in recovery that requires even more work (in my opinion). The point in recovery where we have to build a normalized way of eating if we ever want to truly separate ourselves from the eating disordered rules and behaviors. Perhaps we challenged ourselves to fear foods throughout our weight restoration, or at treatment. However, (unfortunately) often times we may fall back into a pattern of safe-food-eating. The “good” news: we actually may still be maintaining our weight on only safe foods! I know I sure did.
The problem? This isn’t sustainable, and it’s not truly living.
Start with a list
You know your safe foods and fear foods better than anyone else. And while it may not be fun to admit what foods you (eventually) want to try, it’s part of the recovery process. Why isn’t it fun? Because admitting it, saying it out loud, or writing it down means that we’re starting to hold ourselves accountable. It means that in the near future, we will be eating the food on the list that we avoided for months or for years. And yes, that can feel scary as hell.
Rank from 1-10
When eating fear foods, the goal isn’t to start with the food that gives you the most anxiety! It would be unrealistic to start there. Creating a list based on “anxiety rankings” allows us to do baby steps and to move down the list until we reach the food that gives us the most anxiety.
The ranking system starts at level 1, which is the food that is the safest to you, while it still provides even the smallest challenge. Moving down the list you’ll start ranking food that are more fearful for you. Level 10 is of course the food that brings about the most fear, the most anxiety, and may actually be the most crucial for recovery. It might also be helpful to write out WHY they are fearful. Is it because of a message diet culture has given you about the food? The way it makes you feel emotionally when you eat it?
Three column list
If the ranking system doesn’t work for you, or part of your recovery is avoiding ALL numbers, create a list in three columns for yourself.
- Column one = slightly scary foods giving the least amount of anxiety
- Column two = anxiety building foods
- Column three = the scariest and most challenging foods
Likewise with the ranking system, start off at column one. The goal isn’t to throw you into a pool of intense anxiety at the start. Gradually move yourself over to column three, where the food becomes more fearful. Reminder: you will have already gained data from column one and column two that you CAN successfully eat fear foods! By the time you reach column three, you’ll be more emotionally prepared, and hopefully more motivated.
Be honest with yourself
It can be easy to “trick ourselves” (and our support system) into thinking a certain food is a challenge, when in reality it actually might not be at all for us. I remember when I began creating a list with my dietician when I was in treatment the first time I went through recovery. I told her a banana was my ultimate fear food. Of course, a banana MAY be someone’s fear food! However, it wasn’t mine. I led her (and myself) to believe I was scared of bananas, so I could avoid the food that was ACTUALLY scary for me.
This doesn’t harm anyone but YOURSELF. The point of doing fear foods is to normalize them and view them solely was what they are: JUST food. If we spend this time during recovery simply eating food that isn’t actually challenging, then we aren’t really moving forward at all.
Write your predictions
When I say “write your predictions,” I mean write what you THINK will happen if you eat ____[some food]____. For example, I (irrationally) believed that I would gain X lbs after eating my fear food. I believed my body would instantly change and everyone would notice. Of course, it turned out, none of these events happened. I was still alive, breathing, and my body did not change. The only thing that changed was the power I gained over my eating disorder.
Gaining data for yourself is one of the most powerful things you can for yourself throughout recovery. Data that debunks the irrational thoughts and messages your eating disorder leads you to believe. Doing these challenges isn’t just about the food, but about facing fears, gaining back control, and learning new (and truthful) messages about food and health.
Pick a day and a meal
Part of holding ourselves accountable means creating a plan. Of course, throughout the more final stages of recovery we are more able to be spontaneous and flexible. However, in the beginning it isn’t always so easy. We can find ourselves “forgetting” to do the challenge itself, or putting it off to the next day (which means the challenge never actually happens).
The more we wait for the next day to overcome a fear food, the further away we’re pushing the possibility of recovery. Pick out a specific day and meal that you plan on doing the challenge. Write it down, maybe in several places, and perhaps even tell one of your supporters that you’re planning to do a challenge. Added accountability is sometimes needed, and it’s okay to admit that it’s needed. We also have more time to mentally prepare for the challenge if we plan ahead of time.
Taking leaps sounds like the faster way to get through recovery, but it’s not always effective. If you’re anything like me, taking leaps made me feel chaotic and I actually seemed to forget the progress I made at the time. I was too focused on the anxiety I was going through instead. Baby steps are STILL progress. And taking baby steps versus full blown leaps does not mean that you won’t reach recovery.
Pair the fear food with a non-fear food
Pairing a scary food with a safe food can help reframe what the scary food means to us. For example, let’s say my fear food is waffles. Maybe for the first time instead of having waffles with syrup, butter, or chocolate chips, I can have it with blueberries or another fruit. The next time, maybe JUST syrup. And by the third time you have waffles, perhaps you’re ready to add some butter to the mix. The point of pairing a fear food with a non-fear food is to cut down some of the anxiety in the moment. To have some sense of comfort all while still challenging yourself.
You don’t have to eat the whole thing!
Again, baby steps here. I remember when I wanted to conquer my fear food of cookies, but I felt this need to eat the entire serving size in order to “succeed.” This isn’t always the case! Sometimes overcoming a fear food means taking bites at first. Eating half of what the fear is, and then gradually working your way up to having the entire fear food.
If your fear food is pizza, start by eating one slice and having something else on the side. The next time you have pizza, have two slices and maybe a small side salad. The third time? Allow pizza to be your complete meal.
Do the fear food with support!
I don’t know about y’all, but when I was doing a fear food and my parents were eating salads, I just about went NUTS. Of course, we later realize that it’s OKAY others around us are eating salads, or that they aren’t eating the same food as us, and it’s also okay that they potentially eating less than us. Reminder: every BODY is different. Which means our bodies throughout recovery naturally need more energy and more fuel. But initially in recovery, these sorts of food comparisons can sometimes stand in our way of completing a fear food,
This is where having support WITH you while eating the challenge food becomes so important and sometimes necessary. When we see others eating the same fear food as us, it can become a little less scary while becoming a little more normalized.
Keep it consistent
This might be the most important thing to remember. Once you eat a fear food, it doesn’t mean it automatically never gets eaten again. “Yay! I did it! Now I never have to eat it again.” NOPE – this is the wrong logic to have here! When you manage a challenge, it means that the challenge KEEPS getting eaten, and regularly. Consistency means we grow comfortable with the food and familiar with how it feels to eat it. When we aren’t consistent, this means that eating disordered habits are likely to start forming again. This is where relapse can sneak its way back in.
How do you FEEL afterwards?
The main way to keep consistent with fear foods is to think about the positive impact it has on you (and your recovery). Rather than focusing on your body in the moment, think about what it means about your sense of control OVER your eating disorder. Think about what it means about you gaining power back. If we’re getting something emotionally positive from a fear food, we’re more likely to do it over and over (and over) again. Of course, there are times it’s going to feel uncomfortable, and times that you’ll immediately want to emotionally attack your body for eating the fear food.
I promise you the discomfort WILL go away.
The temporary discomfort is so worth a lifetime of food freedom.