Think about your favorite holiday food. Maybe pecan pie, maybe roast beef, maybe stuffing, maybe sugar cookies. Let’s say you are hungry. Think about eating that food right now. Do you feel excitement? Pleasure? Anxiety? Internal conflict? Guilt? Are you thinking about the calories? The grams of fat? Carbs? Whether you exercised enough today and are allowed to eat it?

If you ate this food, how long would your feelings about it last? Would you feel guilt all day? Would the anxiety about eating it linger and affect your mood? Would you feel fat or uncomfortable in your own skin?

Think about your friends or family members. Do they seem calm and at ease when they eat? Are they flexible and able to be spontaneous about food? Do you feel a vibe of anxiety when you are eating together?

If you can identify pervasive tension and anxieties around food and eating, there is likely an eating disorder at play. People with eating disorders are highly anxious about food and eating. This is because their brain is telling them that food is a threat to their survival. This brain pattern is largely genetic and gets activated the first time the person goes on any type of diet. From that point on, they have a ramped-up fear of food.

The fear of food is a phobia much like a phobia of spiders. Unlike spiders, however, food is an ever-present and essential substance that cannot be fully avoided. And, unlike many other phobias, the fear of food is almost never a conscious fear.

In an attempt to manage their fear of food, people with eating disorders create rules and regulations around eating in an attempt to feel safer. The rules include using exercise to ‘earn’ the right to eat, measuring and counting micronutrients, eliminating or restricting certain food ingredients like sugar or gluten (even though they do not have celiac disease), eating only what they call ‘clean’ foods, or eating in ritualized ways at only certain times of day. They feel calm and at ease when they follow these rules and anxious, guilty, insecure and upset when they are not able to follow their self-imposed restricted diet.

It makes sense, due to the unconscious nature of the food fear, that those with eating disorders might not be able to self-identify or to see that the core of their issue is a fear of food. It is truly unfortunate, however, that this basic truth about eating disorders is seldom understood by mainstream media or health professionals.

Many of those with food and eating issues are therefore in the dark about their own disorder. They often do not get properly diagnosed because they are assessed by body size instead of being asked about whether they feel anxiety around food and eating. (In fact, most people with eating disorders have never been underweight and can be overweight or obese.) Even if they are diagnosed with an eating disorder, they can spend a lot of time and money on counterproductive and ineffective treatment approaches that are not based in accurate and up-to-date information.

People with eating disorders also are continually assaulted with messages from friends, family, media and even health professionals about ‘healthy’ vs. ‘unhealthy’ foods, or how exercise is the ultimate good thing to do, or how sugar is evil or gluten is dangerous. They are told that they need to stop emotional eating and find balance with food. Then there is the barrage of reports on the dangers of overeating or being obese or not controlling your food intake.

This ‘healthy eating and exercise’ mantra of our culture is so widespread and entrenched that challenging its helpfulness can seem like a challenge to the laws of gravity. But the reality is that this message is harmful and misguided for those with eating disorders.

Eating disorders are catastrophic for mental and physical health and have the highest mortality rate of any mental health issue. The absolute most important thing for people with eating disorders to do for their health is to get into remission from the disorder. And the only way to achieve remission and stay in remission is to stop all restrictive rules and regulations around eating and never restrict food again for any reason (other than a life-threatening food allergy.)

These folks with food fear need to be given permission and encouragement to eat at any time for any reason and to think less about eating, not more. They need to be given praise for eating all foods and giving up all rules about good or bad foods. They need to be given professional and personal support to stop their restrictive behaviors and to survive the enormous amount of fear and anxiety that occurs when they stop restricting.

They need to be told that exercise is not healthy for them, even if they say they love their sport or activity, until they are well into remission. They need to be helped to understand that they obsess about food and binge eat because they are restricting and not because they have a food addiction or an inability to control their eating.

They need to be reassured that although their eating might seem excessive when they first stop restricting, it will even out over time. They need to be reminded that they are lovable and desirable at any size and that restricting food or using exercise to control their body size or shape is not ever going to be okay for them.

So, during this holiday season, when food and ‘shoulds’ about eating are everywhere, be compassionate and sensitive with yourself about your food anxiety or with others who might have an eating disorder. Be aware that messages about ‘healthy’ vs. ‘unhealthy’ foods or restrictive diets or ‘eating right’ might be harmful to you or those around you. Get help to liberate yourself from food fear and from this beast of a disorder. And let us all support one another to celebrate eating for joy, for nostalgia, for pleasure and for community.

Cookies photo available from Shutterstock