Unpacking the fear of eating in front of others

For many of us, sharing meals with others or going out to eat are the primary ways we socialize and celebrate special events, like holidays or birthdays. We may plan a dinner out to reconnect with our spouse, or host a large potluck when getting together with friends.

While eating with friends and loved ones is a common way to connect, for some people, the process of eating in front of others can be quite anxiety-provoking. Those who develop a fear of eating with others may have an underlying mental health condition, and, in some cases, they may be living with an eating disorder.

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What is the fear of eating in front of others?

A person who has a fear of eating in front of others will avoid social situations that require them to consume food around other people. They may avoid social gatherings altogether, and they are unlikely to eat in restaurants. This is because the act of eating around other people produces great anxiety and discomfort. 

People who have anxiety related to eating in front of others may be worried they will be judged for what they are eating or how they are eating. They may also experience a sense of shame if they feel others are viewing them negatively for eating too much.

How does fear of eating in front of others develop?

The fear of eating in front of others is a form of anxiety. It may develop as a symptom of social anxiety disorder, which occurs in people who have a fear of being judged or rejected in social situations. (1) 

For someone with social anxiety disorder, eating in front of other people can be incredibly distressing, because the person with the disorder worries they will be judged negatively. When it occurs as a result of social anxiety disorder, the fear of eating in front of others can lead people to feel quite self-conscious, and they may have physiological symptoms, such as an upset stomach, racing heart, and sweaty palms when faced with a situation where they are expected to eat with others. 

Fear of eating around others can also be a symptom of an eating disorder. For instance, individuals who live with anorexia nervosa (AN) develop a fixation on controlling their weight, and they severely restrict food in order to avoid becoming “fat.” (2) This eating disorder is associated with social withdrawal and secrecy, which can cause a person to have fear surrounding eating in public. Individuals with anorexia tend to develop eating rituals, such as rearranging their food while eating, and they often have a desire to perform these rituals privately so others will not question them.

Bulimia nervosa (BN) is also associated with fear of eating in front of others. (3) People who live with bulimia engage in binge eating episodes, during which they consume excessive amounts of food. These eating episodes may occur in private, because of the shame and guilt surrounding binge eating. After episodes of binge eating, a person with bulimia attempts to rid the body of excess calories by using purging behaviors, like vomiting, laxatives, or excessive exercise. 

Binge eating disorder (BED) also involves episodes of binging, during which a person loses control over the amount of food consumed, but, unlike with bulimia, individuals with binge eating disorder do not attempt to purge after binging. The sense of guilt that occurs with binge eating can also cause people with this condition to fear eating around others. (4)

The overlap between social anxiety and eating disorders

Mental health conditions and eating disorders often occur hand-in-hand, so, in some cases, a person may have both social anxiety and an eating disorder, which can heighten the fear of eating in front of others. A recent study found that fear of eating in public was a common symptom of both eating disorders and social anxiety. (5)

Not everyone who has an eating disorder has social anxiety disorder, and, similarly, not everyone with social anxiety has an eating disorder. But the overlap between these two conditions could explain why fear of eating in public develops, in some cases.

Overcoming fear of eating in front of others

Regardless of whether it is from a mental health condition, an eating disorder, or a combination of the two, the fear of eating around others comes from underlying anxiety. If you struggle with a fear of eating in public, treatment is the first step toward breaking free from your anxiety. If you’re living with an eating disorder, a treatment program can help you heal your relationship with food and develop new ways of thinking about eating and body image, so you’re comfortable enjoying meals with others again.

If social anxiety is a contributing factor, a therapist can help you to confront your fear of eating in front of others. A specific form of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you to overcome negative thoughts surrounding eating, which can alleviate some of the anxiety you experience with eating in public. (1) Another type of therapy, called exposure therapy, allows you to work alongside a therapist while gradually confronting your fear of eating in front of other people. You may begin by talking about your fear, then move forward with imagining yourself eating in front of other people, and eventually finish by going out in public and eating, with your therapist guiding you.

Reaching out for help for mental health and eating disorders can feel frightening, but you have so much to gain from overcoming your fear of eating in front of others. You’ll be able to enjoy social gatherings and meals out again, without suffering from distress or fears of being judged.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Resources

  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Social anxiety disorder: More than just shyness. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved February 28, 2022, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/social-anxiety-disorder-more-than-just-shyness 
  2. Anorexia nervosa. National Eating Disorders Association. (2018, February 28). Retrieved February 28, 2022, from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/anorexia 
  3. Bulimia nervosa. National Eating Disorders Association. (2018, February 22). Retrieved February 28, 2022, from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/bulimia 
  4. Binge eating disorder. National Eating Disorders Association. (2018, February 22). Retrieved February 28, 2022, from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/bed 
  5. Levinson, C. A., Brosof, L. C., Vanzhula, I., Christian, C., Jones, P., Rodebaugh, T. L., Langer, J. K., White, E. K., Warren, C., Weeks, J. W., Menatti, A., Lim, M. H., & Fernandez, K. C. (2018). Social anxiety and eating disorder comorbidity and underlying vulnerabilities: Using network analysis to conceptualize comorbidity. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 51(7), 693–709. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.22890

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