Content warning: This post will discuss areas of trauma and events that could be triggering for some people. Please take care of yourself when reading this article and know support is available.
Eating disorders are greatly misunderstood by people standing outside of the experience. While food plays a central role, the development of an eating disorder is less about the food itself and more about using it to cope with complicated feelings, emotions, and life experiences. Not everyone with food trauma develops an eating disorder, but it’s important to recognize the symptoms.1
Food trauma differs slightly because it is a type of disordered eating pattern that can occur related specifically to the food itself. People with food trauma have experienced an event or events surrounding food that can cause them to feel anxious, fearful, and overwhelmed when eating.
Research shows that people who’ve suffered traumatic events are at a much higher risk of also being diagnosed with anorexia nervosa (AN), bulimia nervosa (BN), or binge eating disorder (BED). And the more trauma someone has been exposed to may lead to a more severe presentation of their eating disorder.1
Here we will explore food trauma meaning, why it can happen, and what you can do to manage symptoms (and when to ask for help).
What is Food Trauma?
Trauma is a word to describe an experience or situation that is emotionally distressing.. It’s associated with psychological anguish and feelings of helplessness, fear, or terror.
Children exposed to adverse childhood events (ACEs) can develop trauma that negatively impacts the child’s development. ACEs include direct abuse or neglect, or indirect events like witnessing violence in the home. The more ACEs a child is exposed to, the higher risk of developing psychological health concerns, including eating disorders.2 3
Food trauma, then, is directly related to food and can occur for a number of reasons:
- Restriction or deprivation: Exposure to food restriction from a young age where a family member or authority figure in the home hyper focuses on diet or weight can create a negative association with food as an adult.
- Food insecurity: Trauma with food can also include a lack of access to enough or having to go without food.4
- Forced eating: Food trauma in childhood could also be the opposite of deprivation, where you were forced to eat more than you wanted. Maybe you couldn’t leave the table unless you finished your food or were punished for not eating more.
- Sensory trauma: Sensory trauma may be related to the taste, texture, smell, or presentation of food that triggers anxiety or even a fear of getting sick after eating certain foods. It can result from a traumatic event like choking or illness in childhood or adulthood.
- Misunderstanding of neurodivergent behavior: Neurodivergent children may have been mislabeled as picky, while parents unknowingly caused trauma in their relationship with food by attempting to force the child to eat something that felt wrong to their body.
Food is a sensory experience, and a smell or a taste can transport you to another time or place in an instant. So it’s no wonder a traumatic event or experience with food can connect with emotions.
When is Food Trauma a Problem?
If there’s a specific food or texture you avoid, it doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem or will lead to disordered eating. But if your food avoidance takes up a lot of time and energy or impacts your social life or health, then it’s time to take a second look.
Food trauma can expand into an eating disorder if it severely limits your ability to eat enough to sustain yourself or creates a fear of food that keeps you from enjoying meals with others.
Any trauma, in general, increases the risk of eating disorders.5 Food can be used to regain control when trauma has left someone feeling powerless. Or it’s linked to dissatisfaction with the body or feeling undeserving of food. Since trauma impacts your ability to self-regulate your nervous system response, food restriction or overeating becomes a way to self-soothe.
A traumatic event in childhood could also increase the risk of developing Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID). ARFID stems from various factors that create anxiety, fear, or obsessive thoughts that severely limit what someone can eat, leading to malnutrition if left untreated.6
How to Manage Food Trauma
Trauma is complex. Each person will have a different journey to healing, but there are some general steps to consider.
The first step to managing food trauma is finding your team. Working with a group of professionals that understand trauma, including a therapist and a registered dietitian, will make you feel supported and less alone. Your team can work with you to help you navigate the healing process and understand your triggers.
The second step is to start safely exploring foods in a way that feels comfortable for you. Since trauma with food can manifest in different ways depending on the individual, it’s essential to develop a strategy tailored to your needs.
For example, a sensory-based eating program might benefit someone with texture-based food aversions, but someone with ARFIDS might need to focus more on exposure therapy. Your team can help you create a plan that feels safe but still pushes you to heal.7
Finally, focusing on self-care and implementing strategies to move through the trauma is essential. This could include journaling, talking with friends or family members, or engaging in activities that make you feel relaxed. Remember, healing from food trauma is a journey and not something to be rushed. Give yourself time and allow yourself to take the necessary steps to get there.
If you’re struggling with food trauma, know that there is hope and help available. Nourish can connect you with a dietitian trained to help individuals with food trauma and eating disorders. Visits are often covered by insurance and can be done from the comfort of your home. Get started here.
- Tagay, S., Schlottbohm, E., Reyes-Rodriguez, M. L., Repic, N., & Senf, W. (2014). Eating disorders, trauma, PTSD, and psychosocial resources. Eating disorders, 22(1), 33–49.
- Kovács-Tóth, B., Oláh, B., Kuritárné Szabó, I., & Túry, F. (2022). Adverse childhood experiences increase the risk for eating disorders among adolescents. Frontiers in psychology, 13, 1063693.
- Rienecke, R. D., Johnson, C., Le Grange, D., Manwaring, J., Mehler, P. S., Duffy, A., McClanahan, S., & Blalock, D. V. (2022). Adverse childhood experiences among adults with eating disorders: comparison to a nationally representative sample and identification of trauma. Journal of eating disorders, 10(1), 72.
- Hecht, A. A., Biehl, E., Buzogany, S., & Neff, R. A. (2018). Using a trauma-informed policy approach to create a resilient urban food system. Public health nutrition, 21(10), 1961–1970.
- Brustenghi, F., Mezzetti, F. A. F., Di Sarno, C., Giulietti, C., Moretti, P., & Tortorella, A. (2019). Eating Disorders: the Role of Childhood Trauma and the Emotion Dysregulation. Psychiatria Danubina, 31(Suppl 3), 509–511.
- Thomas, J. J., Lawson, E. A., Micali, N., Misra, M., Deckersbach, T., & Eddy, K. T. (2017). Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder: a Three-Dimensional Model of Neurobiology with Implications for Etiology and Treatment. Current psychiatry reports, 19(8), 54.
- Brigham, K. S., Manzo, L. D., Eddy, K. T., & Thomas, J. J. (2018). Evaluation and Treatment of Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) in Adolescents. Current pediatrics reports, 6(2), 107–113.
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