Understanding fear of food
Many parents explain to me, almost in wonder that their child seems afraid of food. They seem visibly scared when offered something new or something a little different.
If this sounds like your child then:
a) You are not alone. Many children, and indeed adults, find new foods, certain foods, or most foods truly scary.
b) It is irrationally paralysing like a fear of spiders.
c) Although irrational, there is also logic behind feeling like this.
d) Fears can be overcome.
I remember visiting a friend from way back who was living overseas. By the time I met her son he was 4 years old and already a super selective eater. A large portion of his dinner was biscuits as he refused to eat most things, even usually slam dunk winners like ice cream, and struggled to gain weight.
While chatting I learned he’d had reflux as a baby.
Fear of food is logical when it is contextualised. Imagine you are a baby, and every time you eat, it makes you want to regurgitate food. Not a nice feeling. Even for adults this would be terrible.
Our brain is designed to keep us safe. If something seems as though it’s harming us, it is logical for our brain to avoid it. This is how some children develop a very early aversion to foods.
Reflux may be one reason for this early fear but there may be many others. For example, if a child has sensory sensitivities they may put something in their mouth, and it is overwhelmingly awful.
There are many other big or small things which can bring about fear. It may not even have anything to do with eating. For example, moving house may be very stressful and so a child begins to control one of the few things they are able to – eating.
Controlling food becomes a habit and over time other foods seem impossibly difficult to contemplate.
Developing a fear around food makes sense when we think of it in these terms.
Understanding food fear
Unfortunately, our brain can develop rules that worked at one time but now no longer serve us. It can also blow things totally out of proportion.
For example, a baby’s system is far more sensitive than an adult’s. Therefore, feelings could be exaggerated so a baby feels really uncomfortable about something. As they age, whatever triggered the unpleasant feeling may not feel so bad.
However, the brain’s safety system is aggressive. Its job is to keep us safe. If there is a slight risk it can go into “OMG it’s a tiger mode” and behave as though the broccoli (or whatever food is avoided) is indeed akin to a wild animal that may rip us apart.
The more a child avoids a food, the more the brain gets into a habit of activating the safety system and rejecting foods, the more that becomes a pattern and the more likely it is to behave the same way when the broccoli rolls around again.
Not only does the brain fall into safety patterns but outside influences may also consistently reinforce this.
As a child is faced with the broccoli their parent may encourage them gently to eat it. The brain looks at the broccoli, sees tiger and goes into high alert mode. The child then associates broccoli with a feeling of fear but also stress.
Therefore, broccoli equals fear and stress.
It makes sense how that broccoli may induce an irrational and over exaggerated fear response in a child.
Unfortunately, the more we try to get our child to eat the broccoli, the worse it can get. Just the thought of broccoli may bring on the fight, flight or freeze response in a child.
Anytime our protective system is activated there are physiological changes. Breathing can change but also non-essential functions like digestion shut down as all resources are funnelled to those parts of the body needed to run away or stay safe.
Yes, it’s irrational from the outside, but from the inside it makes perfect sense. It is the same as a 6 foot tall adult weighing 190 kgs being afraid of a spider the size of a fingernail!
Each child is different, and their history is different. Fear is also a spectrum so these fears may be paralysing, or they may be a minor annoyance.
However, hopefully this has explained food fears in a way that enables you to understand them a little better.
What can a parent do to help?
1. Understanding – understanding that the fear is real and logical even though illogical can be helpful. No, a different brand of chicken nugget shouldn’t bring on the same response as a charging lion, but the brain may not know that.
With understanding empathy often follows. Although it may continue to be frustrating, understanding that a child’s brain has hijacked rational thought and is operating in safety mode (there’s that lion again) can help us find kind ways to approach eating challenges.
2. Remove pressure – unfortunately, putting pressure on a child to eat something they are uncomfortable with reinforces their brain’s safety response.
When we are pushing them to eat the broccoli, the brain associates broccoli with feelings of stress and pressure and perhaps even increased fear. “Broccoli is awful and will make me feel terrible and mum and dad want me to eat it, oh no, oh no”.
Often we are not ‘pushing’ them to eat in an overt way. However, watching them like a hawk throughout the meal with our eyes pleading “this might be the time that they finally eat the broccoli” may induce the same response.
In fact, multiple studies show that the less pressure we put on a child to eat, the more likely they are to eat something.
3. The more relaxed the more likely to eat – the more relaxed we feel about coming to the table and about eating in general, the more likely we are to eat, and particularly the challenging foods.
This is easy to contextualise. If we, as a food competent adult, are angry, stressed or upset, food is not front of mind. However, if we’re sitting around the table and having a lovely time, eating is easy and pleasurable.
The broccoli is far more likely to be eaten if a child is happy at the table, finds mealtimes enjoyable and feels as though they can explore new things without pressure.
4. Building comfort around food – is a key part of supporting a child to eat more enjoyably and well.
If we have a phobia of spiders, then exposure therapy is the recommended treatment. This would mean we are gradually brought into closer contact with the spider, so the irrational fear is extinguished.
The broccoli is the same. The more we see it, the more we watch other people eating it, staying safe and even enjoying eating it, the easier it is for our brain to think differently about that food.
Similarly, if we can interact with the food in a non-threatening situation that helps. Interacting with it at the table is all about eating. However, if we’re handling it at a market it is probably nowhere near as scary.
Those interactions we have with it away from eating help the brain to re-evaluate its threat.
The younger our child, the easier it is to change the way that the brain interprets information. However, it is never too late!
Hopefully this has given you a better understanding about food fears. If you know someone who may benefit from reading this, please share. Similarly, if you have friends or relatives who do not understand your child’s eating challenges, perhaps this is a good way to give them a new perspective.
Judith, MA Cantab, Post Grad Dip Psychology, is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
She is also mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/