The Food Fear & Symptom Cycle

Updated: January 2020

During my dietitian internship, I was fascinated by the science and physiology of food sensitivity. I wanted to learn as much as possible, thinking this was the best way to help clients. I soon realized that helping clients was much more than “knowledge.” Working with clients that suffer from unexplained food sensitivity symptoms over the last twenty-five years has taught me the importance of the mind-body connection.

Janelle’s Story

Janelle’s story is an example of how food sensitivity fears lead to a downward health spiral.

Janelle was frustrated because she was not making progress with her symptoms.  The most troubling symptoms were abdominal pain, headache and fatigue. Her family doctor ran the usual tests, and everything was normal. Each holistic practitioner had a different idea about the cause and best treatment. She tried several approaches, and they helped for a while, but nothing made a significant difference. She was desperate to find something that would help.

She spent her spare time on internet research and talking to people with similar health problems. Through this research, she encountered misinformation about the dangers of everyday food. As time went on, she became suspicious that her symptoms were diet-related.

When her symptoms flared-up, Janelle would get stuck in worrisome thoughts.  Her mind would “run away” with:

  • How bad will my symptoms get?
  • What food caused this?
  • How can I heal my body?

Those thoughts led to impulsive choices, such as:

  • More internet research,
  • Further diet elimination,
  • Additional health appointments.

The more she restricted her diet, the more food sensitivities she noticed. This negative spiral continued until Janelle was down to a few foods. She was worried about poor nutrition and was tired of her bland meals, but her symptoms flared-up when she tried to expand her diet.

Luckily, she realized that her fearful food beliefs had changed how her mind and body react to food. The negative messages from internet research and online chat groups had led to fearful food beliefs. It was a relief to know her beliefs were perpetuating her reactions, rather than a mysterious problem in her body.

When Janelle’s symptoms flared-up, she focused on calming her mind and body. She learned new approaches that prevented the cascade of worrisome thoughts that used to overwhelm her. She still had symptoms, but they did not escalate, and they no longer controlled her life.

Over time, she was able to let go of her fearful beliefs, reintroduce food and enjoy nourishing meals. It was challenging because she had absorbed so much negative information about food. Positive visualization of her food triggers helped relax her beliefs and reactions.

The Food Fear & Symptom Cycle

Fearful food beliefs create a vicious cycle that becomes more severe and entrenched over time.

Figure 1: May not be reproduced without written permission from Wendy Busse.

The cycle often starts with negative food experiences. The experience may be direct (food reaction) or indirect (reading/hearing fearful information about food or repetitive negative thinking - e.g. “I react to cucumbers, so I must avoid them.”)

Eventually, the limbic system sees food as “danger” and initiates automatic reactions leading to symptoms. Preoccupation with food and symptoms further entrenches fearful food beliefs and the cycle continues.

The limbic system is a region of the brain that scans the environment for danger and initiates automatic reactions, such as the fight-or-flight response.

The food fear & symptom cycle can initiate food sensitivity reactions or amplify existing reactions.

Are you stuck in the Food Fear & Symptom Cycle?

It is easy to get stuck in the Food Fear & Symptom Cycle and not recognize the toll it is taking on your health. People that suffer from unexplained symptoms and are searching for answers are at high risk of getting stuck.

If you answer “yes” to many of the following questions, the Food Fear & Symptom Cycle is probably impacting your life. Do you:

  • Think about food more than most people?
  • Experience symptoms when you think about your food triggers (or when the triggers are in your environment)?
  • Participate in online support groups that discuss food sensitivities?
  • Read articles or watch videos about food and nutrition?
  • Assume that every (or most) of your symptoms are food-related?
  • Search for an exact answer to explain your food sensitivities or symptoms?
  • Restrict your diet based on lists – e.g. low histamine, low salicylate, low oxalate?
  • Restrict your diet based on food sensitivity testing?
  • Work with health care professionals that suggest diet restrictions?

Break Out of the Cycle!

When you are trapped in the cycle, it is hard to see the way out. The first step is recognizing that you are trapped.

A turning point is understanding that the “problem” is your fearful food beliefs and automatic reactions to food (i.e. limbic system seeing food as a threat). The challenge is to catch your fearful thoughts and soften them. For example, changing “I react to green pepper.” into “My beliefs are causing the reactions, and I can change that.”

Food sensitivity is usually a combination of physical reactions to food and the Food Fear & Symptom Cycle. You may still have physical reactions after breaking out of the cycle, but the symptoms will be much easier to manage.

The Calm Food Fears articles (right-hand menu) offer a different perspective on food sensitivity and will help you break out of the cycle.

If you would like further support, consider taking the Calm Your Food Fears & Expand Your Diet program.

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