How can someone be scared of food? It is essential for survival. Being scared of a murderer makes sense, if he finds you, he is going to kill you. Being scared of falling makes sense, if you fall, it’s going to hurt. Food, however, has no emotions, it is not a malicious being ,intent on killing me. The chances of dying from food poisoning are literally, 3,000,000 to 1. You have a higher chance of dying via falling out of bed, than eating food.
These anxieties are not rational, though, no amount of statistics is going to slow my heart rate or lower my temperature if I were to accidentally to eat one of my “trigger foods”. My google history is still filled with questions like; does (any food I can think of) contain gluten/dairy? How to tell if chicken is defrosted? Can eating uncooked broccoli kill me? These questions never used to matter to me, but I also didn’t used to suffer from IBS. My IBS journey has resulted in a strong fixation of every ingredient, a refusal to reintroduce basic foods, and a strong anxiety towards new ones. Despite IBS being strongly associated with GAD, neither I nor my GP, saw this coming. That my anxieties would attach to food this hard, and have yet to let go.
So You Have an IBS Diagnosis?
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a functional gastrointestinal disorder, often characterised with abdominal pain and altered bowel habits. It is often difficult to diagnosis and treat, as each individual differs in both their symptoms and triggers, and therefore will respond differently to the same treatment. My symptoms often shift, ranging from constipation to diarrhea, along with moderate stomach cramps. While difficult to deal with, thankfully the severity of these symptoms (on the majority) remain low. Now that you have an intimate, more than you asked for, knowledge of my bowel habits, we can continue.
If you have ever been suspected of having IBS, you will know that the first thing that comes up is about finding your “trigger food” and working through an “elimination diet” or perhaps the nightmare of all diets, the “FODMAP diet”. I needed to start eliminating foods out of my diet, in order to determine which foods were causing these abnormal symptoms. The first thing to go was dairy, it seemed like the most obvious solution. I had been allergic to dairy as a child, and still couldn’t drink milk straight from a glass. I didn’t take the removal that seriously until I ruined a magical evening by being trapped on the toilet due to a burger that had cheese on it. (I had been too awkward to ask them to change it!)
This vicious reaction, to what I assumed was dairy, terrified me. I was worried there were other foods out there, that could cause the same reaction. That I would be caught without a toilet somewhere, and all hell would break loose. So I removed all dairy from my diet. If a food tasted too “creamy” I would panic, regardless of whether it had dairy or not.
Despite the religious-like removal of dairy, the symptoms persisted.
Along with dairy, gluten is considered to be top on the ‘allergy list’. So naturally, the next thing to be removed was gluten, despite a blood test informing me I was not celiac. Honestly, I had no idea what gluten was. I quickly found out, gluten is in everything I love. I had toast for breakfast, I had pasta for lunch, and Japanese food (soy sauce, teriyaki sauce…) for dinner. To make matters worse, the closest supermarket to me was Lidl, which does not have a gluten-free section. Finally, the heartbreak at finding out I was expected to pay £3 for a small loaf of gluten-free bread nearly broke me.
I had removed the top two known allergens caused to trigger IBS, but I didn’t feel a lot better. I was on two types of medications, as well, to combat the “hodge-podge” of symptoms. Yet nothing improved.
This is Stress-Related IBS
It is not uncommon to find no food intolerance, in fact, about one-third of IBS patients tend to have the same problem. This could be the due to the fact that psychological factors can also play a large role in IBS. While I had removed gluten and dairy, I was going through exam week, finding new foods to eat, and I have generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). GAD is often characterized with excessive worry, which can often make stressful tasks such as exams, significantly worse. Individuals with an overzealous stress response, such as those with anxiety disorders, can lead to significantly altering their gut motility, visceral sensitivity, and enteric microbiota composition. Basically, changes here can lead to maladaptive symptoms often seen in IBS, such as constipation, diarrhea, bloating, and abdominal pain. It became painfully obvious that I was suffering from stress-related IBS.
If it seemed to be predominantly associated with anxiety and stress, that meant I could reintroduce eliminated foods back into my diet, right?
Here comes the catch. It cannot be said for definite that my anxiety is the sole cause of IBS. I have had anxiety for longer than IBS, and have suffered through a number of nerve-wracking exams without these symptoms. What if there was a mysterious food out there still triggering my IBS? What if reintroducing the food I have eaten made it worse?
I had developed an irrational fear towards food.
Hello, Food Anxiety.
I get extremely anxious towards eating certain foods. Often I have to say I have an intolerance or I don’t like a particular food rather than having to say “I’m too scared to eat this.” If anyone feels the same way, you’re not alone, research has found that those with IBS and food allergies often have higher levels of state anxiety. So it is no surprise that one would develop an anxiety towards food. While, that is little help, there is a certain comfort in knowing that you are not the odd one out.
When I tried to reintroduce these foods, it was difficult to determine whether the resulting stomach ache was because it was a trigger, or because I had fixated so much of the possibility of a consequence, I made one. In a ‘silver-lining’ type way, this panic attack is reserved for a particular set of foods. There was a week, after a bad IBS flare up, that all food became off-limits. I forced myself to eat, ignoring the fact I felt like I was on fire, the crying, and intense nausea. Often I’d fall asleep after eating in the effort to avoid any symptoms. (This does work, but please don’t take a nap in a restaurant.)
I won’t list off the foods I consider off-limits, besides gluten and dairy, because sometimes I think that when I read foods other people don’t like, I find myself removing them too. This is quite counterintuitive, if I have created a blog aimed at helping others.
As a result, I had lost 9 kg in 7 months. Considering I spent a lot of time revising, and little time exercising, this was a lot. Part of me feels happy about the weight loss, I had some weight that did need to go, and I was getting a lot of compliments for my new slimmer physique. But part of me saw the weight loss as a sign of a bigger problem that people were missing. I was losing weight not cause I had worked out or through dedication, but because I had caused myself to be so anxious, the pounds were just dropping off. In my eyes, that is nothing to compliment.
What have I learnt?
At the time, I did not know better, but now I see that these types of elimination diets should always be done with a dietitian. The same diet can have differ in effectiveness depending on the individual, so a dietitian will know the most appropriate method. While the internet can help, there is a lot of misinformation, backed with little evidence.
Unfortunately I don’t have an ending to this story, as I am still living it. I drink only water, and I actively avoid gluten and dairy. Anything else depends on the day, how I feel, and if I am emotional capable of dealing with any consequence.
I cannot pretend to know the solution, but I do think it can help to know that others feel the same way. Often the best we can do is manage the anxiety, and develop techniques that keep us calm. Hopefully in future posts I will upload my favourite “calming” food recipes, along with foods I consider to be safe.
I hope you get less,
Anxious and Hungry.
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