all you can eat
Fitness writer Muireann Carey-campbell reveals the extent of her food phobia – and the way she’s beating it
What this writer thought was just being “picky” turned out to be an eating disorder.
Croissants. Cookies. Chips. These aren’t the kinds of foods you’d expect to find in the pantry of an exercise fanatic. But until recently, I’ve battled intense anxiety before mealtimes, always opting for the same (not very healthy) foods. I’m amazed how other people manage to navigate a billion food choices every day without having dozens of mini-meltdowns, like I do.
I’m not a foodie; it doesn’t interest me. Rather, figuring out what to eat has caused me stress for as long as I can remember. I was a picky eater as a child, despite my parents’ endless attempts to introduce me to new foods. We’d eat dinner together every night – such as a chicken and vegetable stir-fry with rice – but my mother would have to make me a separate meal, like plain chicken with potatoes. Yes, I was that child – fussy. And I never grew out of it.
Now, at 35, I have a list of about 10 “safe foods” and I just eat those. Every day. I’m a spin instructor, teaching more than seven classes a week, I walk everywhere, try out new fitness classes all the time. I move – a lot. I should be eating around 9,800kj a day. In theory, I know I should be eating more, eating differently, adding variety, but the thought of trying to figure all that out is so overwhelming, I simply shut down when faced with the prospect of having to do it.
So far, I’ve done a great job of hiding my fear of food. My friends know I’m picky and they’ve come to deal with it (albeit after several eye rolls), and I avoid discussions about food whenever possible. On the rare occasions I have discussed it, people will say, “Just try some new things!”, much like telling addicts to stop taking drugs. If only it were that easy. Being invited to friends’ houses for dinner stresses me out. What if I don’t like what they serve? I’ll offend them, it’ll affect our friendship. Going to restaurants is equally anxiety-inducing; if there’s nothing I like, will I have to go hungry? Then everyone’s going to ask why I’m not eating. How do I explain I just can’t?
Not long ago, my dog was diagnosed with cancer and given two months to live. All my time, energy and focus went straight to him, and my own self-care went out the window. The way this manifested itself primarily was through my diet. I went weeks on
end without giving myself a proper meal. I was loading up on sugary treats, skipping meals altogether. Trying to care for my dog and keep up my job, where I have to be a source of motivation for everyone around me, was wearing me into the ground. I felt stressed, anxious and exhausted. I finally realised I just couldn’t carry on and that adequate self-care means caring for yourself inside and out. It was time: I had to tackle the food issue.
So I sought the help of dietitian Lucy Jones, who patiently took notes as I talked about all my food concerns – and almost ran out of paper when I listed all the foods on my “no” list (tomatoes, avocados, cucumbers, eggplant, oranges and anything with a texture or smell I can’t handle). When I finished, she told me my current way of eating was low in fibre, vitamins, minerals, fruit, vegetables and protein. When I don’t know what to eat, I resort to biscuits and popcorn – these binge episodes are causing big peaks and troughs in my energy levels and are messing with my blood-sugar levels, leaving me at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The deficiency of any good vitamins and minerals isn’t great for my mental health and will amplify my stress. I’m also at risk of developing certain types of cancers and chronic ageing conditions, such as dementia.
And that was my wake-up call. I went in thinking I was a bit picky; I left realising my attitude to eating was seriously affecting my health. One of Jones’ main concerns was that I’m not fuelling myself for my active life. As a fitness professional, not having a handle on my diet is embarrassing. One of my riders once asked me how many kilojoules I refuel with after a class. I replied: “How many are in an Oreo?”
In a world of fitspo and green smoothies, the pressure to conform can be intense. I often get asked why I never post food photos on Instagram – it’s seemingly unheard of for a fitness professional to show no interest in fuelling your body. But I can’t stand looking at updates of fitness gurus’ meals, and find the obsession with “clean eating” to be even scarier than my own aversion to food (and unhealthier).
Jones set goals for me to eat more regular meals and build variety into them. She also suggested I try cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) to deal with my anxiety around food. It hadn’t occurred to me this was something you might need therapy for, but determined to get to the root of my problem, I decided to dive in headfirst. According to CBT expert Dan Kolubinski, the stress I feel when faced with food is my fight-or-flight response kicking in: can I face this problem, or should I flee? CBT is about changing the way you approach the problem. That’s achieved through systematic desensitisation, which means putting myself in food situations that make me feel uncomfortable, such as eating at a friend’s house, and reassessing my decisions every step of the way. So rather than caving into the feeling of stress and not eating anything, I sit there, feel it and maybe make a pact with myself to at least try one thing.
The idea of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is interesting to me. I can do that with physical challenges, such as a marathon, but my brain seems to short-circuit when it comes to food. My palms get sweaty, my heart rate increases and I get flustered. This is probably due, in part, to the shame I feel. “People get away with being judgemental about it,” says Bee Wilson, author of First
Bite: How We Learn To Eat. “There’s a conspiracy of silence and a sense of shame around a disordered relationship with food.” She says even the words “picky” and “fussy” don’t do the condition justice. It’s neophobia: an active fear of trying new foods. I knew it! I’ve always felt this was some sort of eating disorder, but to describe it that way seemed melodramatic. Fortunately, there’s hope. You can relearn how to eat, although it’s harder for some than others. The key is taking small steps, such as putting a tiny piece of avocado on my plate with the rest of my meal and trying that. And I have to be patient and not beat myself up for struggling.
So I’ve started my journey to getting my eating habits under control. Jones helps me make the best dietary choices I can by assessing the pictures of my meals I send her. I’m learning to deal with food situations that make me uncomfortable, and being honest with those around me about my struggles. Instead of pushing food around my plate when we’re dining out, I explain why I have an issue with the food and we discuss it, then I get around to trying a little.
There’s no quick fix. Many factors influence the way we eat and the answers don’t lie in what the Instagram nutritionists deem is the dietary fad of the day. It’s worth seeking out professional help and being patient with yourself as you make changes that may feel overwhelming. Mainly, if you’ve suffered with a fear of food for too long, don’t be scared to talk about it – there are more of us out there than you might think.
“One of my spin riders once asked me how many kilojoules I refuel with after a class. I replied: ‘How many are in an Oreo?’”