5 foods people fear and how to get over it

The egg recall isn't the only reason many people avoid the breakfast food. (Thinkstock Images)The egg recall isn't the only reason many people avoid the breakfast food. (Thinkstock Images)
Like certain foods, some questions really strike a nerve. A few weeks ago, I asked Shine readers to share their biggest food phobias. Responses poured in by the minute. One person wrote: "eggs = dry heaves" another commented: "Onions -- they are slimy & crunchy...........need I say more? They are my food in hell."

The specific items that may have earned us the label of picky eater as a kid are now certifiably "gross" as adults. There's a freedom to not having to like or eat the things we hated as kids. But why don't we like them? And why are some foods so remarkably unpopular?

In the 200-plus comments, these five foods were singled out the most:

  • Mushrooms
  • Raisins/dried fruits
  • Cheese
  • Eggs
  • Milk
As a member of Team I-Hate-Raisins, I wasn't surprised it made the list. But it was a revelation that the four other items imposed the same kind of gagging and cringing. In particular mushrooms; how could one of my favorite foods inspire such collective nausea? "People have a real aversion to things that they think of as fungus or bacteria," explains nutritionist Sondra Kronberg, MS RN CDN. "Mushrooms are technically a fungus, so it makes sense someone would equate it with germs and growths. Maybe even subconsciously they think they'll contract a fungus from the food."

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That fear of cultures and bacteria may also explain why cheese had a presence in the comments. "It feels like it's milk gone bad or it's not wholesome for some people," says Kronberg, who treats patients for food phobia as Founder/Nutritional Director of Eating Disorder Associates Treatment & Referral Centers and Eating Wellness Programs.

That makes sense but then how do you explain milk that's perfectly fresh? "Milk was something most of us were force fed as a child. We were raised on it, and if we didn't like the taste, we were still forced to drink it," she says. In a way we may be playing out an act of defiance.

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Eggs have long been an unpopular food, but the recent egg recall is only fostering the aversion. "It's validating a lot of people's fears that eggs can make you sick," says Kronberg. But the fear of eggs for many runs deeper. "If you've ever cracked an egg with blood in it, you're reminded that it's actually a cell designed to develop into a living thing. That can turn a lot of people off." And it does.

The raisin phobia hits especially close to home: I blame it on a friend's guinea pig, whose fecal matter looked a lot like the meat of an oatmeal cookie. "They look like little poops or bugs," agrees Kronberg. "When you see a dark thing in a cereal that can even looks like it moves, it looks like something that shouldn't be in your food." She also connects the "dried-up" aspect of the fruit to something we're hard-wired to consider rotten.

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So there you have it. Just don't give me raisins and no one gets hurt, right? Wrong. While some people with food aversions have mild reactions, others can have such strong reactions over time that it interrupts their lives. Common reactions to accidentally consuming food you hate ranges from gagging and headaches to vomiting and total panic attacks that can last for up to two days, according to Kronberg. The bigger the reaction, the more inflated your fear becomes. That's when an aversion turns into a full-fledged phobia.

People with even mild obsessive-compulsive traits can find themselves food-phobic, notes Kronberg. "It gives you a sense of control but when it gets inflated it can interrupt your life." Excuse the pun, but an aversion to one food can mushroom into a general fear of eating out, or a fear of eating an expanding number of foods.

"When it interferes with your quality of life, you need to get help," she says. The truly phobic should seek professional treatment. But if you want to get over your own mild disgust before it becomes a bigger deal, there are some home remedies.

"Many food aversions have to do with texture. With these foods people don't mind the flavor when the texture is altered," says nutritionist Lauren Slayton, MS RD. "So one thing to do is alter the form of the food if texture is suspected. The take-home message is not to accept your aversions as gospel." If you hate the texture of beets or peas, puree them into a soup. If you find raw onions too slimy, try frying them up into crunchy rings.

"Other food dislikes, like stinky cheeses and plain yogurt, have to do with odor," says Slayton. "People with a more acute sense of smell can be prone to these aversions." In this case, Slayton advises sampling the product in question in small quantities. "Some people can handle a drop of crumbled feta but not a forkful," she says.

If your problem is more deeply rooted, try a little DIY-exposure therapy. "You can do a version of exposure therapy where you confront your fear in a safe environment slowly and in a controlled setting," suggests Kronberg.

"First start by talking about the food and why it disgusts you. Then have someone explain how it's actually made and where it comes from," says Kronberg. This will help to dissociate the food with your own negative association. For example, learning the process of how grapes become raisins may thwart my brain's involuntary leap to imagining raisins coming from a Guinea Pig's behind.

The next step is picking up the food, touching it and smelling it. A gradual re-introduction to the food allows the eater to feel in control, a key to overcoming any phobia. Finally, Kronberg recommends a repetitive process of tasting, in my case, the dreadful raisin, and measuring the reaction with each tiny bite. "It's a kind of risk taking," says Kronberg. I believe it could work, but I'd rather jump out of an airplane.

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