Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

What can I do when OCD makes me afraid to eat?

By Stacy Quick, LPC

Jan 24, 20236 minute read

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) isn’t just about organizing, cleaning, and washing your hands—it can infiltrate every area of your life. It will attach itself to anything that is important in your life and try to gain a foothold, digging into your fears and telling you that you can’t handle them without doing everything it demands. 

Food is an important and essential part of life, so it’s no surprise that OCD often latches onto fears about eating. What happens when OCD latches onto thoughts and worries about what you can and cannot eat?

Fear of choking, food allergies, and colors

When I was younger, I compulsively refused to eat anything I thought I could choke on. No matter how much I wanted something, I would refuse—the fear was just too great, the risk too high. It was easier to avoid the worry that eating it would cause. 

As I became older, it changed a bit—I became afraid of having allergic reactions to food. This brought with it another list of rules to follow, and there were more and more foods that I felt I couldn’t eat. I had never had a food-related allergy, but the thought of my throat closing unexpectedly felt like too great a risk. If there was even the slightest chance of food allergy, OCD told me that it was best to avoid it entirely. 

Later came my fears associated with colors. Logically, it made no sense. However, OCD told me that certain colors meant certain intrusive thoughts were true. The more I gave in to these fears and avoided foods with certain colors, the stronger my fears grew. Before I knew it, almost every color of food could mean something, and none of them seemed like they were worth the risk. I lost so much weight, living every day hungry and irritable.

I told no one my deepest and innermost thoughts. People around me only knew what they saw. I was praised for my willpower and discipline. I was told that I was doing well and that I was getting healthier. On the inside, I was a mess. I was destroying myself inch by inch. No one knew what I was battling.

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Over many years of treating people with OCD, I have seen how OCD can attack the theme of food in many people’s lives. It can look very different from person to person; some may be concerned with poison, others with allergies, and others may be afraid of certain textures or feelings when eating. Let’s look at some examples from my experience.

Case examples

I remember when I first met Keegan. He was about 6 years old at the time and his mom and dad brought him in for help. They were concerned because he refused to eat many foods that he used to regularly enjoy. It started off gradually; they noticed that he would no longer eat anything that was cut too small. He wouldn’t say why, but repeated that he needed things to be “big.” But as soon as his parents accommodated these requests, they became greater and greater. Before they knew it their entire life seemed to revolve around trying to get Keegan to eat a balanced diet. They were at a loss and couldn’t figure out what was happening. 

Eventually, through Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy, Keegan was able to verbalize that he had intrusive thoughts that small foods would make him throw up, and that this terrified him. It felt easier for him to simply avoid wherever OCD told him to, and he’d never have to worry about throwing up. 

Through ERP, he learned to allow his thoughts and worries exist, without avoiding the foods he enjoys. He learned that the more he gave in to the fears, the bigger they would grow. On the other hand, the more he decided to eat a balanced diet of foods he liked, despite his nagging uncertainty about throwing up, the less his fears interfered with his life. His brain learned that he wouldn’t throw up by eating small foods and that even if he did, he could handle it. It wasn’t long before Keegan was enjoying eating again. 

Vera was eleven when she came to my office for the first time. Her mom was worried because she was not eating anything that felt “sticky” or “gross.” By working with Vera, we figured out that she wasn’t having intrusive thoughts about her foods, necessarily, but rather intrusive feelings. She believed that she couldn’t tolerate the discomfort she associated with certain food items. The idea of feeling certain things made her sick to her stomach. She said it was easier to just not touch or eat them. 

The problem is that the more she did this, the more items were added to her list. Before she knew it, OCD had her feeling like almost any food item was potentially “gross.” Through ERP, Vera would learn that she could tolerate these uncomfortable feelings and let them pass on their own, and she didn’t need to avoid them. They were just feelings. In time, the feelings that had caused such discomfort became much less bothersome, and some foods that she’d avoided even became her favorites. 

How you can avoiding foods out of fear

If you suffer from intrusive and unwanted thoughts or urges regarding food, please know that you are not alone. There is help. You do not have to fight this alone. You do not have to be ashamed of the thoughts that control when you eat, what you eat, and how you eat. This is just the way in which OCD has tried to take control of your life. 

In ERP therapy, you will track your obsessions and compulsions and make a list of how distressing each thought or fear is. You then progress through exposure exercises, at every step resisting the urge to engage in compulsions like avoidance, checking, or repeated cleaning. When you continually reach out for quick relief by doing compulsions, it only strengthens your need to engage in them in the future. On the other hand, when you prevent yourself from engaging in your compulsions, you teach yourself a new way to respond to fears about food, allowing yourself to accept discomfort and feel less anxiety over time. 

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If you’re struggling with OCD and want to take power away from your intrusive thoughts about food, NOCD can help. Our licensed therapists deeply understand OCD and are specialty-trained in treating OCD with ERP. We work side-by-side with the OCD experts and researchers who designed some of the world’s top OCD treatment programs. You can book a free 15-minute call with our team to get matched with one and get started with OCD treatment.

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