Fall and winter are easily my favorite time of year, between seeing family, my birthday, cool weather, and cozy vibes all around. They also used to be my most anxious time of year, because typically with the holidays and celebrations in these seasons comes a lot of food. In my restrictive days, I saw those experiences as a test of willpower to stay away from food I deemed off-limits. If that resonates with you, I hope you’ll find this post about how to feel less crazy around food through food challenges helpful as we head into a busy season.
If you have a hard time with the holiday season, if this post isn’t what you need today, or if it seems triggering - I hope you’ll close this screen and check back in for my next post, and know that my heart is with you.
What is a food challenge?
A food challenge is a way to clap back at the food police, as well as decreasing your emotional response to food. Without making it sound too rigid, it’s an exposure exercise to help you become more acclimated to eating all foods.
If you are in the midst of an active eating disorder, it’s best to take these on when your dietitian, therapist, and yourself agree that you’re ready and you have the support you need. The NEDA hotline can be reached at 1-800-931-2237.
If you’ve already moved through some early principles of intuitive eating, a food challenge can be a helpful way to create more food freedom and decrease anxiety around fear foods. Many eating disorder (and other!) dietitians use these in the later stages of recovery with clients as they’re exploring intuitive eating.
What are fear foods?
A fear food is any food that gives you anxiety around eating it, whether because you perceive it to be unhealthy or because it was off-limits according to a diet(s) you tried. I’ve found that typically, people know what their fear foods are. It may or may not feel helpful to have a list of your fear foods, but if it starts feeling like a to-do list, or a food rule, to try them all right now - a list probably isn’t best for you at this time.
Moving laterally between foods
A “lateral move” is a term used to describe a food challenge with a food that you are already comfortable with. For example, if you’re regularly and comfortably eating quinoa/chickpea/other non-wheat pasta, a lateral move may be to try whole-grain or white pasta.
You don’t have to pick your scariest food and jump right into eating it. A lateral move is a helpful tool to bridge between foods you already regularly eat and ones you’d like to eat without fear one day.
Different ways to try fear foods
Good news: there’s a lot of ways to do this, and not one right way. Here’s three different strategies you may try to challenge fear foods and rules.
One rule at a time
It may be helpful for you to challenge one food rule at a time rather than food - like challenging yourself to eat after a previously forbidden time, or to eat dessert after dinner consistently. Here’s a helpful post from Kylie Mitchell on rule challenging:
Food Rule Challenge: Noticing When Your Tastebuds Get Bored | Imma Eat That Blog
Schedule your chosen fear food once per day for a while. I say “a while” because only you will know when you’re feeling calm around that food and ready to move onto another. Many people say they know they can move on when eating their daily xyz food feels like an obligation or a chore.
This approach is about stocking up on a fear food and enjoying it whenever the mood strikes without judgment. The neutral approach is key here, which is why this is usually saved for later in the intuitive eating process.
How to start: Stock your pantry/fridge/kitchen with a lot of your fear food - more than you could eat in a few sittings. By that, I mean several cartons of ice cream, multiple boxes of crackers - whatever your chosen food is (do this with one food at a time!), stock way up. Have some of that food whenever it crosses your mind/you want it/etc. And keep stocking up when your supply gets low.
Here’s a podcast episode that mentions stocking that might be helpful:
Tips for Living a Non-Diet Life | Dietitians Unplugged Podcast
Behaviors change thoughts change emotions
I think it’s important to note that the point of food exposures is not to “get sick of” foods, but rather to decrease the emotional response around them. I’ve seen this shared around the dietitian community (Robyn has shared on this recently and is a great resource), but here’s a kind of guide for how this type of change happens:
Behaviors → Thoughts → Emotions
It can be an instinct to feel that all of the work gets done internally (and some does!) before behaviors can change, but it can actually be more helpful to practice changing behaviors (like food avoidance) which ripples into changing your thoughts and emotions around food.
There is no clear-cut “finished” point
One reason an intuitive eating approach can feel scary to a dieter is the lack of rules - aka, the lack of a clear system that tells you if you’re doing it “right”. I view this as an asset of intuitive eating, because it means that you can’t fail if you’re taking steps to find food freedom and enjoying foods you love.
But there’s no number of food exposures/challenges that result in being “done.” You may find you need to do a few of these and then feel calmer about introducing other fear foods, and that works! Or you might like to do this with several fear foods so you have a little more grip on their introduction. Whatever works for you is what works.
I’m introducing this well before the holidays because I thought it may be a helpful way for you to slowly acclimate to eating foods that were previously off-limits, but know that you don’t need to do this before the holidays or feel “done” with food challenges by then. However, this may be a tool that helps you have certain realizations around your relationship with food, like that your body is resilient and can handle a lot of different eating patterns.
Have you tried a food challenge? How did it go?