A phobia is an irrational and excessive fear of an object or situation according to the American Psychiatric Association. We usually associate phobias with things or situations such as the fear of flying or a fear of dogs. These types of fears, while inconvenient, are not normally life-threatening. But food phobia, called cibophobia, can severely limit everyday activities and cause health problems.
The difference between eating disorders and food phobias
Eating disorders, such as anorexia, can look similar to a food phobia. Both can involve food avoidance and restrictive diets, but for very different reasons. Individuals with eating disorders are usually preoccupied with body image and avoid foods because of the fear of gaining weight. They worry about calories and fat content and limit what they eat in order to maintain or lose weight. Those with food phobia have a fear of the food itself, not the impact of the food on their body weight.
Types of food phobias
Not every food phobia is the same. Some people may be afraid of eating highly perishable foods and won't eat anything containing mayonnaise or other foods that will quickly go bad without refrigeration. Others have trouble trying any new foods, gagging or vomiting when they do. Some may have a fear of cooking food, and others may have a fear of being poisoned and refuse to eat foods cooked by others.
Fear of new foods
Young children can sometimes have a fear of trying new foods (neophobia). Most parents remember when their toddler refused to try something new, gagging or vomiting when they insisted their child eat just a bite. But for some, this fear never goes away. Those with this type of phobia continue through life with a highly restricted diet. They may limit their diet, eating the same few foods day after day.
Fear of cooking
The fear of cooking, called mageircophobia, may be the fear of cooking for others - afraid the presentation is not good enough - or a fear of overcooking or undercooking meats. It could include the fear of actually cooking, with excessive worry over cutting yourself or burning yourself while cooking.
Fear of gagging or vomiting
Some individuals worry that they will gag or vomit when eating certain foods. They may limit their diet to soft foods or foods they have prepared. This fear may come from worry about foods not being cooked properly, foods being too spicy, or foods upsetting their stomach. Some people with this type of fear refuse to eat in public or even when other people are present. This fear can sometimes lead to the inability to swallow, or the feeling of having a lump in your throat.
Symptoms of food phobia
For sufferers of food phobia, when faced with the prospect of having to eat certain foods or cook a meal, symptoms are similar to those of any anxiety disorder:
Some may have panic attacks, including feeling as if they are going crazy or going to die.
Dangers of food phobias
In order for our bodies to properly function, we need to eat a well-balanced diet. For those who avoid eating certain foods, essential nutrients can be eliminated from their diet, causing symptoms of malnutrition - fatigue, dizziness, and weight loss. Long term effects of malnutrition can include loss of hair, anemia, low blood pressure, fragile bones, kidney failure, and many other medical conditions. In children, malnutrition can result in the lack of proper growth.
Treatment for food phobia
Recent research has shown that desensitization or exposure therapy is helpful in treating food phobia. A study at Tulane University used a two-part process to treat individuals with food phobias, using a cognitive behavior approach to change thought processes and a psychodynamic approach for discovering and pinpointing the exact cause of the fear. Their treatment used desensitization to help sufferers relax by first having the food that caused a reaction placed in front of the participants and discussing their fear. After that, participants worked with a dietician to try the foods in private, then at home, and finally in public. Follow up literature one year after the study showed that participants were eating a more balanced diet.
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - 4th Edition, 1994, American Psychiatric Association, Washington D.C.
"Extremely Picky Eaters Fear Trying New Foods, " 2010, Sept 27, Vicki Mabrey, ABC Nightline
"Malnutrition," Reviewed 2011, June 14, Reviewed by David Zieve, M.D. and David R. Eltz, A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia
"Selective Eating May Be Food Phobia in Disguise," 2003, Feb 6, Ashley Lord, Tulane University