Food Phobias Explained: What Are They And How Do They Come About?

18/04/2016 8:47 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
Peter Dazeley via Getty Images
Woman with bipolar


Fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth. Fear of chopsticks. Fear of sourness.

These might sound like made-up fears, but these are very real phobias that cause people absolute terror.

How can the thought of peanut butter or mushrooms cause such an intense reaction? Can't people just stop being scared of these harmless foods?

"A phobia is an irrational fear, usually involving an avoidance of some stimulus," Dr John Malouff, Associate Professor of Psychology at University of New England, told The Huffington Post Australia.

"If we’re talking about specific types of food, it would be a fear of that food -- of either eating it or seeing it -- and an avoidance of it."

When people encounter their food phobia -- or any kind of phobia -- they experience typical anxiety symptoms.

"They look terrified, their heart rate is up, they get highly excited and they want to escape," Malouff said. "The flight-or-fight response can kick in. Their life focuses on this feared stimulant."

According to Malouff, there are a number of different factors involved in why people develop phobias.

"Some people may have a genetic predisposition of becoming anxious and so they’re more inclined to develop a phobia than other people," Malouff.

Certain experiences are another important factor in the formation of phobias.

"There are different types of experiences that can contribute," Malouff said.

"One is observational learning, so learning from somebody else who has a strong fear. Often it could be observing a mother, a father or sibling who is very afraid of something. For some people, even observing that once can cause a phobia, particularly if they’re predisposed. This is referred to as modelling, or observational learning."


Does the thought of certain foods make you feel like this?

Another factor that can cause phobias is called classical conditioning. In simple terms, if you get stuck in a dark space and feel terrified, in any future situation which involves a dark space, you might feel the same terror.

"You feel trapped and that you might die, so you’re afraid and you want to get out of there -- that's what we call the conditioned stimulus of the situation," Malouff said.

"The conditioned response was fear, but now the person has attached it not to a truly dangerous situation, but just being in a dark, enclosed space where they could always leave. That then becomes an irrational fear which makes no sense. It isn't the rational part of the brain that did that, it was the irrational, unconscious part. This is how many phobias kick off."

Psychologist Janet Rodd agrees with this sentiment.

"Often we associate a food with a negative situation and that’s there the phobia develops. For instance, food poisoning can put you off food for the rest of your life, and it just gets reinforced by avoidance," Rodd told HuffPost Australia.

Rodd also believes food phobias can be due to the certain textures of foods.

"Sometimes it’s about the texture of food that creates phobias, such as lumpy mashed banana," Rodd said.

According to Malouff, another possible cause of food phobias is the social fear attached, as well as the possible discomfort eating them can cause.

"Food does have some danger potential, depending on the food. They aren’t going to kill a person, but they could make you suffer. For example, hot foods or spicy foods can make you feel uncomfortable," Malouff said.

"Fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth sounds like a social fear. Some people people are afraid of choking, so swallowing food or pills can be a cause of fear. Some people have social fears, that they will do something wrong or humiliating while they’re eating."

eating peanut butter

If the idea of eating peanut butter gives you anxiety symptoms, you might be Arachibutyrophobic.

What ever the reason may be, phobias are an irrational fear and by avoiding the stimulus (for example, a certain food) that makes us fearful, we are simply making it worse.

"Once you have that experience -- say, having peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth -- it’s going to come off eventually and you’re going to feel much better," Malouff said. “You conclude that you’re just never going to have peanut butter again and, as you avoid or escape it, the phobia can become stronger and stronger, and the person might avoid it forever."

Of course, if you're scared of something, you're not going to feel inclined to be around it. You continue to escape that fear because as soon as you do, your fear “drops like a rock”.

"It’s the relief people feel when they can escape their fear that makes the phobia worse," Malouff said.

Can people with food phobias get over them? According to Malouff, proper phobia treatment has a success rate of 85-90 percent, even for phobias that have lasted for decades.

"There’s the old expression, ‘If you fall off a horse, get back on’, and it’s true. There’s psychology to that. As long as the horse is safe!" Malouff told HuffPost Australia.

"The treatment usually is to go towards what you fear, as long as what you fear is safe. Peanut butter is safe. And we gradually expose them to what they fear. We might give them a tiny bit of peanut butter and work up very gradually. We habituate the person to this.

"Telling people to stop fearing things doesn't usually work because it’s an unconscious process in the brain that’s only going to be convinced by personal experience. It has to experience it to believe it."

Here are 10 food phobias you might never have heard of.

  1. Acerophobia -- Fear of sourness
  2. Alektorophobia -- Fear of chicken
  3. Alliumphobia -- Fear of garlic
  4. Arachibutyrophobia -- Fear of peanut butter sticking to roof of your mouth
  5. Aromaphobia -- Fear of spices and spicy food
  6. Carnophobia -- Fear of meat
  7. Consecotaleophobia -- Fear of chopsticks
  8. Geumophobia -- Fear of taste
  9. Lachanophobia -- Fear of vegetables
  10. Mycophobia -- Fear of mushrooms

Visit HuffPost Australia's profile on Pinterest.

More On This Topic