What Are Safe Foods? The Connection to Eating Disorders

What Are Safe Foods? The Connection to Eating Disorders

What Are Safe Foods? The Connection to Eating Disorders

Table of Contents

Written By:
Julia Zakrzewski, RD

Key Takeaways

Many people who suffer from an eating disorder limit their food and beverage choices to a small list of options. In their eyes, all food choices are black and white, and few options are “safe” to consume. 

Moving away from their unique safe list can bring on intense feelings of fear, fear that they will gain weight (common in anorexia nervosa), or fear they will get sick (if they have orthorexia). Having limited food choices can make it harder to get enough nutrition in your diet to stay healthy. It can also make it harder to heal from an eating disorder; your brain needs to be nourished to make sustainable changes and build new habits around eating. 

This article will teach you how to safely approach your fears of eating, and help you expand your food choices so you can start healing from an eating disorder.   

What is a Safe Food?

In an eating disorder, most safe food options offer little to no calories and have a high water content, like watermelon or cucumber. Your stomach feels full quickly when you consume large amounts of liquid, although the effect is temporary. Sticking with safe foods will prevent weight gain and makes it very challenging for someone to heal and recover from an eating disorder.

Do All Eating Disorders Have Safe Foods? 

Eating disorders present in several different ways. Sometimes people will limit their total caloric intake (anorexia nervosa) or focus on restrictive practices and only eat “healthy” foods (orthorexia nervosa).

Extreme picky eating in childhood can develop into food avoidance as an adult (avoidant restrictive food intake disorder). People suffering from this condition will only eat foods from their safe list, which can be limited to as few as twenty foods.1 

Other types of eating disorders, such as bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder, do not classically have restrictive tendencies like the examples listed above. Anyone with an eating disorder can stick with foods they feel safe eating, but it is less common in bulimia and binge eating disorders.  

Am I Limiting Too Many Food Choices? 

If you have an eating disorder or not, you can do a simple exercise at home to investigate your motives for restricting a certain food. 

Try this: the next time you catch yourself restricting or denying food, ask yourself why? Are you afraid the food is too high in calories? Are you worried you will gain weight? 

These are big thoughts and can put too much pressure on making the right food choices. Scientifically we know a single food can't cause you to gain weight. If the narrative in your brain tells you a different story, like eating a donut will make you gain five pounds, it's time to reach out for help and learn how to mute or challenge these fears. 

Health Risks of Only Choosing Safe Foods 

Everyone will have different perceptions of what foods are safe while managing an eating disorder. The potential health risks of following a very restricted diet are: 

  • Undernourishment. 
  • Vitamin and mineral deficiencies. 
  • Malnutrition. 
  • Decreased energy levels. 
  • Immune function may decline. 
  • Long-term restrictions can contribute to loss of bone mineral density or hair loss. 

Do I Have A Safe Food Eating Disorder? 

There is no medical diagnosis for a safe food eating disorder. Sticking with safe foods is a by-product of the disease, and these habits can pop up in anyone who suffers from an eating disorder. 

Getting proper treatment to manage and heal from the eating disorder should resolve safe food tendencies and increase variety in the diet. 

Expanding Safe Food Options 

We highly recommend seeking support when expanding your safe food options. Having someone in your corner, whether a friend or family member, can help you achieve greater results than working alone. 

The ladder technique is a useful tool that can help you face foods that cause the most anxiety and fear. To build your imaginary ladder, rank the foods you are the most scared to eat, from least to most scary. 

Choose a day every week when you can commit to sitting down and eating these foods, working your way up the ladder until you eventually challenge the scariest item. This process can take months and even years! Even taking a small bite can be a sign of progress.

Be gracious to yourself as you move up the ladder, and recognize that staying at one notch for three weeks and eating food that used to scare you is a huge win in the big picture. 

Here is an example of a five-step food challenge ladder. Picture the top of the list as the starting point, meaning it will be the least scary for this imaginary person:

  1. Whole fat cheese and crackers.
  2. A double chocolate chip cookie. 
  3. A brownie square. 
  4. A slice of pizza. 
  5. A donut. 

Doing this process in front of others at a kitchen table may not be the best environment, depending on your situation. People facing their fears need to be in a space where they feel comfortable and safe; most people with an eating disorder don’t like being watched as they eat. 

Having a 1:1 meal with a dietitian can be a better environment. The dietitian can coach you, help you through any emotions, and still help you stay accountable. If you want to learn more about what you can expect while working with a dietitian, you can read this article; it reviews the benefits of working with a disordered eating dietitian. 

Work With Nourish 

Eating new foods you are scared of is not easy and has nothing to do with a lack of willpower. Deep-rooted fears take hold of the brain, making it harder to just “eat it”. Working with a registered dietitian specializing in eating disorders can help. 

Nourish has a team of compassionate and expertly trained dietitians. All appointments are remote and are 100% covered by insurance. Click here to learn more about our services and find a provider!


  1. Fox, G., Coulthard, H., Williamson, I., & Wallis, D. (2018). "It's always on the safe list": Investigating experiential accounts of picky eating adults. Appetite, 130, 1–10.


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