While I never struggled with an eating disorder, I struggled with eating. I wanted so badly to be thin that at one point I was afraid of eating two apples a day (one of my fave foods).

I’d think long and hard about the sugar content and whether two apples per day over time would add up to extra pounds.

I think the fear of foods – whether it’s high-calorie or high-carb foods or fast food – has become commonplace in our culture, fed, in part, by women’s magazines and hysteria over the obesity epidemic.

Food fears tend to kick-start a vicious cycle of restricting and overeating, leading to disordered eating, and possibly to an eating disorder.

This is such an important topic, so I wanted to get expert insight on it.

Today, I’m pleased to present my interview with Marcia Herrin, EdD, MPH, RD, LD, who specializes in children and adults with eating disorders.

Marcia founded the Dartmouth College Eating Disorders Prevention, Education and Treatment Program. Currently, she sees clients in private practice and co-writes a blog about eating disorders and nutrition.

Below, Marcia discusses the definition of food fears, how they develop, the signs of unhealthy food anxiety and more.

Q: How do you define a fear of food (i.e., what does it mean to fear food)?

A: Typically fear foods are foods that are perceived as “fattening” or “unhealthy.” It makes sense that avoiding fear foods could provide a feeling of safety.

But it is irrational to be afraid of food. It is rational to be afraid of global warming, disease, and other calamities.

Q: How do food anxieties or fears develop?

A: We live in a society that reinforces the idea that certain foods are bad, fattening, and unhealthy. At home and in school, children are taught that some foods should “rarely” or only “sometimes” be eaten.

It seems rational to think that certain foods are so unhealthy that should be avoided, but it isn’t. If truly a food was bad, it would be banned from the food supply. Any food in “bad” amounts can be dangerous. Even too much water can kill you.

Q: What are the signs that a person has an unhealthy amount of anxiety around food?

A: Any anxiety around food is unhealthy and puts a person at risk for an eating disorder. When anxiety around food limits life, it is unhealthy.

All of these seemingly trivial limitations are good examples of unhealthy anxiety around food”: if it matters what the menu is before you can accept a dinner invitation; if you can’t travel because you will be faced with unfamiliar food; if you can’t eat wedding cake at a wedding.

Q: Do you think that our society — with its focus on dieting, “good” and “bad” foods and thinness and hysteria over weight gain and the obesity epidemic — has normalized the fear of food?

A: Yes, society, and even how health is taught in schools, have normalized the fear of food.

Q: What are several ways that individuals can minimize their anxiety about food and develop a healthy relationship with food?

A: In eating disorder treatment, nutritionists “assign” fear foods. Usually these assignments are not made until the patient is at a healthy stable weight. Eating a fear food in a normal amount and circumstance and noticing that one’s weight doesn’t change and the food doesn’t cause sickness is a good reality check.

One by one food fears are assigned and kept in the patient’s eating plan. Usually in a month or two, the idea that eating a cupcake would cause 10 pounds of weight gain and other food fears are gone.

Q: What differences are there between a fear of food in disordered eating and a fear of food in someone with an eating disorder?

A: This question begs for disordered eating vs. eating disorder to be explained. The basic difference is that in an eating disorder low self-esteem, negative body image, feelings of helplessness, problems with school, and/or family or relationship troubles affect eating behaviors.

Disordered eating involves an abnormal relationship with food which puts the person at risk for developing an eating disorder.

What distinguishes disordered eating from an eating disorder is severity and whether a person can still function normally.

An example of fear food in disordered eating would be: “I am  afraid to cake, but I can eat it at a birthday party.” In an eating disorder, “If I eat this cake, I have to make myself throw up or run three miles.”

Q: Over the years, do you think the media (magazines, ads, TV shows) has gotten worse in promoting the diet mentality and a restrictive approach to eating?

A: I actually think the media has improved ever so slightly with more variety in body types appearing. A very thin actress now is asked whether she has an eating disorder. Treatment for eating disorders is talked about.

On the other hand, thinner than average actresses and models are all over the media as are advertisements for diet foods.

Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know about food fears, body image or a related topic?

A: Food fears aren’t normal or healthy and they can be overcome. Holding irrational food fears does affect body image. It is hard to feel good about your body if you don’t feel good about how you are eating.

Thanks so much, Marcia, for your insight into food fears!

Have you struggled with fear of food? How did you overcome this struggle? Do you think our society fosters a fear of food?