Fear and Food Don't Mix

Fear can be a huge driver of decision making.  It can be motivating in a powerful way.  It's a base survival mechanism to help you avoid danger and get out of harmful situations. 

Since we now live in a world where we probably aren't living under the threat of attack or harm round the clock, we should feel fear less.  But many of us don't.  Instead fear just goes down to the next step and the next until it finds something we're attached to and settles inself in.  There's always going to be something you are emotionally tied to and it's the perfect doorway for fear to enter itself in.

When I was younger, it was fear of not being accepted. When I started a business it was fear of failure. There's always something that threatens you, and if it isn't physical then it can be emotional or mental.  Short-term, I don't even think it is necessarily bad, sometimes you need a little kick in the pants to get you out of complacency or a rut. But once you address those things, the fear should be gone and we can replace it with other driving factors like ambition, the desire to provide for a family, loving what you do and even simply enjoying the process.

With food, fear really shouldn't enter in.  Unless your issue with food is literally whether you have enough to eat or not, we should feel pretty good about what we eat. 

Fear Based Decision Making

Unfortunately, I come across a lot of fear based decision making when it comes to diet and exercise.  Food especially. When I receive intake forms or food journals, people usually reveal their relationship with food not only in their food choices but how they vocalize their decisions.  "I don't do well with carbs" or "I avoid all saturated fat because it's bad for your health" or even something that sounds positive like "I only eat whole, unprocessed foods, nothing refined".  In each of those people are often telling you (without directly saying) that they have created a set of rules and parameters they follow.

While this sounds good, quite often these rules and parameters are constructed out of second hand information, off handed comments from their doctor, issues with weight when they were young, copying what someone else is doing and largely afraid that if they don't do "X" then their world will crumble around them.

Since fear motivates you to make really fast, black and white decisions, eating based on fear will do the same.  It motivates you to construct rules, put foods in categorie like good or bad, cheat foods vs clean foods or whatever you want to come up with.  And you might be surprised how many people, when asked, can't really explain why they are eating the way they are.  Instead, they have a deep emotional connection to something that is driving their choices.  It's so disheartening to hear a middle-aged woman say she doesn't eat protein because she is afraid it'll make her bulky or a busy parent who just eats a piece of toast in the morning because it's the lowest calorie thing they can find.

Clearing the air

It's hard to logic your way out of emotions.  In most situations it probably won't work.  It's why I not only have to provide factual evidence for my decisions when consulting with someone who is afraid of a lot of foods- but also address the emotional side too.  Reassure them. Empathize. Dig a little deeper. Because in the moment, on your own, when you are so soul-crushingly afraid of fat and someone puts a little butter on your corn on the cob - how will you react?  Will it be "science doesn't show a link between fat intake and cholesterol levels plus there is not such thing as bad cholesterol, only the difference in proein-carriers.....aggghhhh" while everyone at the table stands up and applauds while you sink your teeth into the corn?  Nah.  It'll probably be a gut-driven reaction like "fat clogs your arteries" and you'll have to get a new piece of corn.

Have you ever seen Billy on The Street?  It's hilarious.  In one segment, he jumps in front of random people in New York and simply askes them to name a woman.....any woman.  Some people can't name one.  Not even a non-famous one.  Being surprised and afraid from him yelling and appearing on camera, many people can't even think straight enough to name ONE woman.  When emotions are really high, it's hard to think logically or critically.  If you are so fearful and anxious at every meal you won't be able to make healthy decisions.

You might feel safe and secure in the rigidity you've constructed, but it's just an illusion. This is why so many Paleo advocates have loosened up what they eat over the past decade. Shunning all carbs, eating way too much coconut oil and being afraid of even SEEING gluten didn't work out too well for a lot of people.  You think because someone is lean or muscular they don't have eating disorders? Think again.  Everyone is a screwed up as you are, including me! So if we can at least pull back on fearing certain foods we can make much healthier decisions.

Losing your fear

Last week we discussed how to know if your diet is working.  Those tenets apply right here.  If you are solely basing your decisions on how you FEEL when it comes to food then you are down the wrong path.  I'm not talking about feeling digestion-wise or energy-wise but emotionally.  After I lost a lot of my weight in high-school I was afraid (there it is) of gaining the weight back.  So I followed the 2,000 calorie recommendation you see on basically all packaged food and ate about seven 300 calorie meals per day.  Two pieces of wheat bread with chicken and lettuce.  One yogurt.  A small bowl of cereal with half a banana.  Lame ass meals.

I created a structure and rigidity that made me feel safe but it didn't actually do anything other than make me more neurotic, controlling and afraid to leave my perfect little world.  The worst part, like most people experience, is that this fear based way of eating is actually making you worse.  You get trapped in your plan.  If you eat a muffin you might literally feel anxiety and fear, you think it's going directly to your love handles and that the whole day is ruined. Hmmm this sounds like the start of restrict-binge behavior does it not? For others who's grandparents were so obsessed with bran and fiber as mine were might think muffins are healthy and feel the same fear based reaction when they eat eggs instead.

So much of this emotion is filtered through and directed by your own personal experiences and emotional history.  But it doesn't reflect the physiology happening inside your body.  So that egg might be helping you build muscle but in your head you think it's hardening your arteries.

If fear is driving most of your food choices then I like to have people take objective measurements so we have PROOF that carbs don't make you fat or even take some bloodwork so you can see eating eggs didn't raise your cholesterol.  But having that evidence doesn't mean you will feel totally free overnight. Those feelings take time to go away. I think these people need a coach to help guide them, take objective measurements so we have solid proof things are working, have a great support system so friends and family can encourage you and start with food choicees the person feels comfortable with.  From there, slowly adding in new foods and getting comfortable with them is so important. It's like inching towards a scared animal.  Move too fast and it'll attack or run away.  You need to move slowly, steadily, stay calm, reassure it and take your time. That animal is afraid and has two options: attack or run.  If you can gain some trust and lessen the fear the emotional landscape and it's ability to make decisions opens up quite a bit.

If you are afraid of carbs, giving you 400g of carbs a day will end in you attacking me or running away.  OK, not literally but emotionally. Maybe I know this person can actually eat quite a bit of carbs but I am going to take my time raising them so they can adjust. 

When people diet-hop and go from one extreme to another they are changing so much so quickly that it is bound to create a poor relationship with food.  On this diet only calories matter but on THIS diet, only how many carbs you eat matters.  You are creating neuroses and control issues not to mention confusing the heck out of yourself. Dietary extremes are usually left to athletes and the genetically gifted.  These are rare people who have found something that works in a very specific context and usually for a short amount of time.  But all things come back to the middle eventually and that is where most of us live.

So if you are always trying to live on the extremes, that becomes all you know.  And the middle scares you.  It doesn't have enough rules or restrictions! So my job as a coach or your job as an individual is to slowly take your time working back toward the middle.  Once you are there, good practices over time widen that middle so you have a huge playing field to figure out your own normal routine.  Maybe this is when you opt for more carbs and less fat or vice versa.  But you can't know unless you've been in the middle for a while. Dr. Ben House likened this to bumper lanes.  If you have been all over the map with diet, you need to come back to the middle.  But your bumper lanes are super narrow.  You need to just live right down the middle until you lose that neuroses and fear and improve your general health.  Once you do, those bumper lanes widen more and more.  And THIS is where everyone really wants to live, they just don't know it.

You want wide bumper lanes.  You want to have bumper lanes so wide you can try eating 400g carbs per day and not gain any fat.  But you cannot do that until you've lived in the middle for a while.  And fear does not allow you to do this - it drives you to the extremes.

I like that Paul Chek makes people address this at every meal. For a long time, people prayed over their food. Even if you don't believe in God, the act of taking 15 seconds to close your eyes, relax and be thankful for the food not only helps improve your relationship with it but it will improve digestion and blood sugar response too.  Anxiety and fear will dump glucose in your blood and halt digestion, not very good for enjoying a meal.

But you don't have to pray of course.  Just taking a few seconds to feel gratitude for the food, take some deep breaths, live in that moment and simply be present in that meal. It doesn't take long.  And suddenly sweet potatoes don't look bad or olive oil isn't bad.  It's just food.  In most of these cases, the problem isn't the food, it's the person.

Working on yourself, working on your relationship with food, being grateful for your meals and using objective measurements to help quell the anxiety is key.  Then slowly exposing yourself to new foods and situations helps build out those bumper lanes.

Fear has plenty of other places to live, your dinner plate is not one of them.