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Food Anxiety: How the ‘Good Food/Bad Food’ Mentality Could Be Affecting Your Brain

Food Anxiety: How the ‘Good Food/Bad Food’ Mentality Could Be Affecting Your Brain

Food phobias are becoming the norm in the fitness industry. Many times it is what fuels the “dedication” of many athletes who display rigid food restriction year round. It’s not always just a matter of willpower but, in fact, a fear-based avoidance of something that they mistakenly feel is genuinely harmful to their health or their aspirations. This fear is passed on to those observing, or under the guidance of said individuals, as they voice the supposed danger of things like sugar, wheat, dairy and even carbohydrates in general. The more you search the more you come across some form of information speaking out against the consumption of almost every food imaginable.

This is problematic because it generates a lot of confusion at best, and a lot of unnecessary anxiety at worst. Anecdotally speaking, I have experienced the more severe “side effects” of this type of fear based attitude towards food; having suffered from an eating disorder, and I have also witnessed it’s negative effects on many individuals I’ve worked with over the years. This has led me to feel very strongly that the widespread cultivation of food fear mongering in the fitness industry is not just unnecessary, but potentially robbing individuals from their ability to function in their own lives.

To be clear, my stance is that if an individual wants to eat nothing but wholesome foods, I would never say that is wrong so long as they understand that eating less nutritious foods here and there is equally acceptable. The focus of this article is to address how the mentality promoted by some of the high profile athletes, or fitness personalities, could be affecting you and your life. The high profile athletes and fitness personalities will not be named individually but this applies to any of them who celebrate severely restrictive eating and/or demonizes food groups or macronutrients entirely.

So why do I feel that the good food / bad food mentality is an issue?

Putting aside the fact that restrictive eating can open up an individual to nutritional deficiencies, labeling foods as “good” or “bad” has the potential to have an unwanted effect on your brain’s response to said foods. I unknowingly experienced this effect myself, and it was only after recovery that I began to make some sense of how and why this could have occurred. It was my newly learned perspective on the food that put things in motion. It became clear, in hindsight, that treating certain foods as off limits can turn the food into something more than a source of energy for your body. The food changes from an edible substance into something threatening. It is regarded as harmful or shameful. In other words, all of a sudden, that food is associated with fear and guilt.

You don’t need me to tell you that feeling guilty about anything is unpleasant. But feeling guilty about food is something that I feel is against our very nature. I can’t imagine early man ever feeling guilty about eating the fatty part of an animal he hunted down, and fear of food (not to be confused with picky eating) is rarely an issue in children who have not been exposed to the concept of dieting and/or weight management. I certainly never had any issues with guilt around food growing up. It was only into my late-teens when this new outlook on food emerged. In the depths of my eating disorder I used to think back on those times and wonder what happened to me. How on earth was I once able to be so casual about food and how did I get to this point where so many foods drive me into a state of fear and intense panic?

Now that I am out of the woods, I am able to see my plunge into food anxiety more clearly. It was only when I started to take up eating styles that prohibited certain food groups that I started to get anxious about what was going on to my plate; and from there it spiraled out of control. The progression makes sense when looking at the different conditioning theories for fear acquisition. Just being told that something is harmful could be enough to create a fear pathway in the brain [1-2].  If, that alone, doesn’t do it then the emotional upset experienced from consuming “bad” could be a strong enough stimulus to do it. When you feel guilty about eating that same food yet again it serves as negative reinforcement and strengthens the already existing pathway.

 

You see, the brain is constantly taking notes about your emotional experience and, anticipating the threat of future emotional upset, it learns to regard that food as something to fear and avoid – and trigger you to do so. This can change your behavior around this food and, in some cases, snowballs into more serious responses like intense urges to binge on said food, the urge to purge the food once consumed (whether or not consumed in abundance), and panic attacks.  It seems to me to be an example of fear conditioning with your own unwanted emotions serving as the adverse unconditioned stimulus [3]. This is why I feel that it is so important to maintain an objective perspective on food and food groups and not buy into the thought that any food is inherently “bad” or “harmful” unless you are actually allergic to it.

A simple way to view this is that allowing yourself to believe that a certain food is truly bad can condition your brain to respond to the food with fear and/or anxiety. If the “Little Albert experiment” on Pavlovian conditioning holds merit then the fear does not necessarily become confined to that food alone but also anything even resembling it [3].  In that highly-controversial experiment, they attempted to condition an 11-month-old baby to develop a fear of rats by banging a steel bar every time Albert reached out and touched a rat. Long story short, the baby did develop a fear of rats – but he also displayed signs of fear and avoidance of other furry objects (a fur coat, a rabbit, and a dog).

 

Do you now begin to see how this food fear mongering can be a problem? The more foods that are regarded as off-limits potentially creates a wider scope of foods to fear. Soon a person can find themselves lost and confused about what they should be eating and inevitably give up on dieting altogether. Or even worse, one can find they living in a state of anxiety about their next meal and inching down the path to developing an actual eating disorder. Even if it doesn’t escalate to such extremes it is safe to say that having irrational fear about food and its effects on the body would likely be detrimental to one’s quality of life.

In a perfect world, no birthday, Christmas, or special occasion would ever be dampened by unrealistic concerns about what a single night of eating a lot of added sugar or over-indulgence could do to the body. For some dampened is a gross understatement as they actually dread these celebrations due to the food that comes along with it. Instead of it being an opportunity to relax and eat foods that only come about once a year they spend it suffocated with anxiety, and view it as a battle of willpower against fat gain, sickness and shame all because of the idea that the food present is somehow “dirty”.

So how can we fix this problem?

A simple place to start would be to do away with negative word associations when speaking in regard to food. I’m not referring to refraining from pointing out that something is rotten or spoiled, but to terminology that links the food to disgrace or failure; terms like “dirty” or “cheat” foods. I think that we could also benefit from realizing that anything that isn’t unprocessed is not automatically “crap” as well. You don’t need me to tell you that eating nutritious foods will improve your health, however it does seem that some people need reminding that no food group will inherently make you fat once you are not consuming them to the point where they put you at a caloric surplus.  There is a lot of information out there debunking many of the food myths circulating on social media and to address them all is beyond the scope of this article though some of it has been touched upon already on our site

Is Consuming Grains Bad For You: http://stackingplates.com/2013/11/is-consuming-grains-bad-for-you/

Epidemiological Studies and Killer Red Meat: http://stackingplates.com/2012/03/epidemiological-studies-and-killer-red-meat/

The Paleo Diet – A Comprehensive Review:

http://stackingplates.com/2012/04/the-paleo-diet-comprehensive-review/

To my readers who are already battling with food anxieties, I hope that this article sheds some light on why you may be feeling the way that you do and help take some of the power away from the strong, negative, reactions associated with eating certain foods. Sadly, sometimes knowing is not always enough, and so in my follow up articles I will share some insight on my own approach to overcoming food anxieties.

References:

[1]Hofmann SG. Cognitive processes during fear acquisition and extinction in animals and humans: Implications for exposure therapy of anxiety disorders. Clinical psychology review. 2008;28(2):199-210. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2007.04.009.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2268629/

[2] Phelps EA, O’Connor KJ, Gatenby JC, Gore JC, Grillon C, Davis M. Activation of the left amygdala to a cognitive representation of fear. Nat Neurosci. 2001

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11276236

[3] Kim, Jeansok J., and Min Whan Jung. “Neural Circuits and Mechanisms Involved in Pavlovian Fear Conditioning: A Critical Review.” Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews 30.2 (2006): 188–202. PMC. Web. 16 May 2017.

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