Sitophobia, or fear of food, occurs when your fear reaches a persistent and excessive level that negatively impacts your life. This is considered a specific phobia and is an irrational fear, since the food that you fear poses no real threat to you. The good news is that most people who seek help for their fear of food achieve significant successful results.
Scientifically Backed Treatments
The most empirically supported treatments for food phobias are systematic desensitization and cognitive behavioral therapy.
Systematic desensitization involves gradually increasing exposure to the feared stimulus in a controlled and safe environment. There are multiple levels of exposure which both do and do not involve the patient actually touching or ingesting the food. If the phobia is severe enough, systematic desensitization may start with simply being near the feared item or observing another individual eating it. The exposure level may then work up to having the patient smell the food, then touching it with their finger, and eventually eating it.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often paired with systematic desensitization to process the internal thoughts and feelings that surround the fear. CBT is a talk therapy where the patient is challenged by their mental health practitioner to evaluate in depth the specificity of their fear, how these negative thoughts affect their mood state, and the avoidant behaviors that then result. The therapist will challenge the patient to imagine the worst case scenario and to rate how bad the outcome would really be. This type of therapy empowers the individual to gain control of their thoughts and emotions, and then their behaviors.
Example: Cottage Cheese
Let's look at a hypothetical example where the food phobia is centered on cottage cheese. At first the therapist would invite the patient to stare at the cottage cheese placed in front of them and have them explain their thoughts, fears, and the level of anxiety they are experiencing.
The cottage cheese stays where it is until the phobic's anxiety drops to a tolerable level. During this whole process, the therapist is teaching the patient to rationally argue against their fears – asking how likely is it for their fear to come true. Is the cottage cheese actually dangerous? Does the level of anxiety experienced make sense, given that the food poses no threat whatsoever?
The therapist will continue this systematic examination of the patient’s internal responses with each level of exposure. The next level would be touching the cottage cheese and feeling its texture, then smelling it. Eventually the therapist will have the patient put some on their tongue. Once that level becomes tolerable, the therapist invites the patient to eat it – assuming that the individual is not allergic to consuming the food.
All of this is done with the therapist’s help and alongside the processing and de-escalation of the patient’s internal responses. This systematic approach teaches the patient to cope with the situation themselves, and not to become dependent on the therapist.
The Merits of Professional Help
Seeking professional help can be extremely beneficial for food phobias. This is because our natural response is to avoid feared items. Having the mental health professional there will push you to expose yourself past your comfort level, which is necessary to deal with the phobia. Seeing a therapist does not mean there is “something wrong" with you, it just means that you are willingly confronting something difficult.
North West Centre for Eating Disorders, – https://www.oakwoodhouse.co.uk/about_eating_disorders/complex.php
US National Library of Medicine: PubMed: Cognitive behavioral treatment of health impairing food phobias in children – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1400116