I have never eaten cucumber, onion – or an egg. Can I cure my extreme food phobias? | Food
Is anyone more reviled than fussy eaters? Exclude the obvious candidates (murderers, estate agents, Piers Morgan) and it seems unlikely. It’s unfortunate that an era in which half the population identify as “foodies” has coincided with one in which the other half are convinced that eating wheat, gluten or nightshades will result in certain spiritual death. Worse still are people who swerve entire food groups on the basis of bizarre childhood whims that should have been abandoned with their teddy bears. I should know, I am one of them.
My diet is comfortably one of the top three most annoying things about me, and I say that as someone whose signature karaoke song is a 10-minute Taylor Swift epic about Jake Gyllenhaal losing her scarf. A non-exhaustive list of foods that I have never eaten includes lettuce, onions, carrots, cucumber, tomatoes (unless in a sauce or ketchup), mushrooms, eggs of any kind … I could go on.
As a child I remember an aunt reassuring my stressed-out parents that I was statistically unlikely to grow into an adult who ate only fish fingers and chips. Well, here we are! If you bumped into me in the supermarket today, you’d be forgiven for deducing from the contents of my basket that I was catering a children’s party, or conducting a medical experiment into how quickly a person could develop diabetes via Party Rings.
I’ve got slightly better with age, gradually adding ingredients such as peppers, peas and tender-stem broccoli (never regular – are you mad?) to my repertoire, which could broadly be defined as “beige”. Still, I dread the moment when a new friend invites me to dinner and asks whether there’s anything I don’t eat (“How long have you got?”). Restaurants are similarly fraught, and the wait to see whether my various substitutions have been successfully accommodated is always an anxious one – not least for my longsuffering boyfriend. For a while I lied and claimed I had allergies, but my self-imposed rules are often contradictory (I’ll eat cheddar or mozzarella, but only if they’re melted). I used to feel self-conscious that people would think I had an eating disorder, then I reconciled myself to the fact that maybe I do.
I’m not obsessed with my weight. It’s more that the threshold of what I find disgusting is much lower than other people’s. I used to watch I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! and consider how I’d rather eat a plate of witchetty grubs than a portion of coleslaw – a substance so offensive it feels transgressive to name it out loud.
There isn’t any real logic to what I will and won’t eat – or at least not one others can understand. People are surprised to learn that I like spicy food, and on a group trip to Canada I discovered that I could eat oysters as a party trick. I’ve never minded seafood, because I’ve always liked the idea of being a mermaid, whereas being in the vicinity of a beetroot repulses me (all that purple juice: sinister). You’ll appreciate that it’s quite hard to explain all of this without sounding unhinged.
It’s possible that I’m a supertaster – I’ve certainly embraced this claim. I can often identify traces of my trigger ingredients that others would fail to notice, and my nemesis is chopping boards that harbour the flavours of foods I detest. I have a keen sense of smell, which meant that in childhood I’d be out the door and down the street before anyone could finish opening a can of tuna (I’d sooner eat a urinal cake, and imagine the taste would be proximate).
My exasperated mum took me to a hypnotist when I was seven, but the session was quickly abandoned when the therapist said that while she could make me “comfortable” around problem foods, she couldn’t go as far as actually making me eat them. Attempts to smuggle feared ingredients into food inevitably resulted in bouts of Exorcist-style projectile vomiting. For a time, Mum tried forcing me to sit at the table until I’d finished whatever was on my plate, but we soon discovered that I had something she didn’t: lots and lots of time.
I often think how much richer life would be if only I could eat like a normal person: I’d be able to go on holiday without stuffing my hand luggage full of safe foods, and could accept dinner invitations without protracted negotiations about potential venues. But is it even possible to teach an old dog (me) new tricks (seeing an omelette without gagging)? I agree to meet psychologist Felix Economakis, who specialises in treating people with avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (Arfid), the official term for food phobia, which was finally added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013.
If I was expecting anything woo-woo, I was mistaken. Economakis, 52, has the assured, no-nonsense air of a man who has heard it all before. In fact, he tells me, I’m a mild case compared with a lot of people he sees, many of whom restrict themselves to just one or two foods, and risk developing scurvy, rickets and even blindness. Having worked with patients experiencing phobias and anxiety disorders, he began applying the same framework to those with Arfid after being approached by the producers of Freaky Eaters on BBC Three. Since then, he has seen more than 5,000 cases, and has a 90% success rate (meaning that patients end a session able to eat foods they were previously terrified to try).
Economakis is confident we will see results in just two hours, and asks me to come armed with samples of five to 10 foods I’d like to be able to eat. It’s an intimidating prospect. After consulting my boyfriend about which ingredients would be most transformative, I settle on a curry containing mushrooms (since I’m an aspiring vegetarian who never knowingly eats a vegetable) and onions (to me, they are like Tories: I won’t have one in the house, never mind my mouth). I also bring a salad from Pret and a quiche, bought from M&S in a blind panic, because I struggle to imagine anything more disgusting.
Economakis’s London office feels more like a study than a clinic, replete with slouchy sofas and thank-you cards from former patients, presumably scribbled between mouthfuls of ceviche and steak tartare. He begins by explaining the evolutionary roots of food phobias. In early childhood we are naturally suspicious of the two things most likely to cause us harm: animals and food. For some people, this fear sticks and we rationalise it by creating our own “rules” to keep us safe. He has seen people who won’t eat green foods, or mushy foods, or two foods that they would eat individually but won’t when they’ve touched on a plate. He has even seen chefs who can prepare all manner of dishes but have a mental block when it comes to eating certain ingredients. The fear, which I share, is that “unsafe” foods will cause you to retch or be sick. But the food itself is blameless, he explains. There is nothing inherent about an onion that makes me retch, it is – don’t laugh – my fear of onions. By eliminating the fear, you eliminate the symptoms.
Because my fussy eating has always been such a huge source of personal embarrassment, I’ve become adept at evading questions about it, or obscuring my feelings with jokes at my own expense. It’s a relief to have it taken seriously by somebody who understands the complexities, and approaches them calmly and without judgment. Economakis’s confidence in my capacity for change is infectious. Before long, a problem that has felt insurmountable begins to seem like a simple misunderstanding that Economakis is helping me to put right. He does most of the talking, occasionally pausing to ask whether I agree or disagree. Our aim is for me to develop into a “scientific eater”: someone who tries foods before deciding whether they like them, instead of discounting them on the basis of their old rules.
Economakis explains that food phobia is not a rational fear, which is why logic-based solutions such as cognitive behavioural therapy tend not to work. Instead, he aims to speak in the language of the subconscious, and we complete a series of visualisations geared towards overcoming barriers to change. These are deceptively simple. In one, we extract the Arfid part of my brain, the gatekeeper for which foods I do and don’t feel comfortable eating. He thanks it for its attempts to keep me safe, but explains that these are now unnecessary. In another, I imagine a fork in the road where I can either choose to continue being restricted by my fears, or embrace a new path. By following the “right” path, I will become freer, healthier and less anxious. Finally, I close my eyes and enter a relaxed state as he reinforces the decisions I have made during our session.
After just over an hour, it is time for me to climb my own personal Everest, and eat a mushroom. That morning, I’d opened a Tupperware to inspect the curry my boyfriend had lovingly cooked for me, and violently retched. Now, I feel calmer. Determined. Like Tom Daley on the high board, assured that I can execute a daring stunt with grace, elegance and not a trace of vomit. I transfer a translucent sliver of onion into my mouth and feel an immediate wave of crashing embarrassment. It tastes of … nothing much. Was this what I’d spent decades running from? Emboldened, I try a larger piece of mushroom. The same again. It isn’t slimy and doesn’t have a strong flavour – it’s like a large piece of Quorn. Spongy, but not unpleasant. Next up: quiche. Having loaded my fork with a gelatinous mound of yellow egg, I retch. This isn’t ideal, but after some reassurance I am able to try again. This time, although it’s not tasty, I manage to chew and swallow it.
By now I am on a roll, tipsy on my own power. I feel invincible. Recklessly, I eat a piece of cucumber. It’s fine! Like a slice of apple. The Earth may not have moved, but I can see a new vista on my horizon, one dotted with working lunches, fine dining and no hushed requests to please see the kids’ menu. “How do you feel?” asks Economakis. In truth, I feel a sense of anticlimax. It’s as if I’ve spent years steeling myself to enter a haunted house, only to find it occupied by a fluffle of bunny rabbits. This is to be expected, he says: “One of my colleagues described it as an underwhelming therapy that can have overwhelming results. The aim is for it to feel normal, because eating is a normal activity.”
Now comes the hard part: over the next few weeks I will have to commit to continuing to try new foods. If I can try 30, enjoy 10, hate 10 and feel indifferent to 10, then we will consider this session a success.
Walking to the train, I feel slightly dazed, and begin to doubt that I will be able to repeat the results without Economakis’s hand-holding. Perhaps I could employ him as a kind of hype man who accompanies me to restaurants and shouts encouraging words when I’m confronted with dishes containing three or more ingredients? As it happens, I don’t need to. In the weeks since our session, I have been so brave that a Pride of Britain award has begun to seem, if not inevitable, then certainly not impossible. I have continued to approach trying new foods scientifically – with an open mind about the results rather than an expectation of failure. I’ve tried everything from the everyday (roasted carrots) to the exotic (kimchi). At a wedding, I eat a canapé consisting of squash on some kind of unidentified fritter, and draw gasps from my friends. Is this how to upstage a bride without resorting to wearing white?
It’s not a complete transformation. During the wedding meal, I balk at my burrata starter and swap it for the pasta and tomato sauce served to another guest (Jack, 11 months. Shut up, he loved his burrata). Still, I’m making progress. I have eaten curries and ramen and even added some onions to a sauce when I was alone in the house without anyone to congratulate me. If you are what you eat, then I can finally say that I am the whole package.