Maria can’t eat any food with cilantro and parsley. She just can’t. Alisha hates the sight of bananas. It makes her nauseous. Nathaniel avoids foods with garlic and onion. All these UAE residents suffer from food phobia. Yes, fear of food. It’s real.
While we love some foods, we detest others. That’s only natural. What if food is a turnoff? There are people who are disgusted at the sight of some foods, let alone eat them. The condition is food phobia, a fear response to certain foods. It’s not to be confused with eating disorders, which are behavioural conditions associated with distressing thoughts and negative emotions.
Here are the stories of few UAE residents and their struggles with food phobias, and the therapy available.
Why I can’t eat a banana
I hate bananas. Generally, a person hates certain food because of its taste. But I don’t, in this case. I don’t hate bananas in general. Just uncooked ones. I have no problem eating cooked bananas. In fact, one of my favourite snacks is banana fritters. But why do I hate ripe bananas? Well, it’s because I might throw up if I eat them.
I tend to throw up easily since my stomach doesn’t agree with a lot of stuff. The sight of bananas reminds me of vomit. It is a rather unappetising thought, but what causes it? I think it is the way some people eat bananas. One of the popular ways of eating the south Indian breakfast dish called puttu (steam cake made of rice powder) is by mixing it with bananas. And how do they mix it? They mash bananas to a pulp and mix it with puttu to make a semisolid mixture.
It has a very uncomfortable likeness to vomit. It is a nauseating sight for me. My dislike of bananas started from watching people eat bananas after turning them into pulp. Honestly, it’s not just bananas that make me feel uncomfortable. A lot of fruits remind me of this, and I hesitate to eat them.
— Alisha Mariam, a Grade 10 student in UAE
Why I don’t eat cilantro and parsley
I have never liked cilantro, parsley or any vegetable from that family for as long as I can remember. I am one of, I’d like to believe, many people who have never tasted or eaten a tabbouleh salad in their life. My friends often tease me or threaten me with a parsley leaf or cilantro bunch when I annoy them. I cannot stand the taste. When I eat something that has either cilantro or parsley, I immediately make a face, look for the nearest napkin to spit out whatever I’ve eaten, and will probably stop eating at the point because the taste is still in my mouth.
I’ve tried to make myself like it, tried cooking it in my food, tried masking the taste, but nothing worked. My family even tried to trick me by feeding something that contains cilantro as an ingredient but I immediately picked up the taste. I used to tell my friends and family that to me, cilantro tasted exactly like soap — don’t ask me how and why I know the taste of soap.
I did some research and found a scientific explanation for the way I feel towards these vegetables. A Cleveland Clinic report said ‘those who dislike cilantro tend to have a gene that detects the aldehyde part of cilantro as a soapy smell’ and that’s when I realised that this was beyond my control.
— Maria Botros, a multimedia journalist based in UAE
I hate onion and garlic
Garlic and onions are two key ingredients in Asian cuisines, but I hate to eat them. Whether sliced or mixed along with other ingredients, if I bit into them, the raw oily taste would bring shivers. (It's called alliumphobia).
I can’t remember when I started avoiding onion and garlic, but I would remove them the moment I spot them in any dish. Nobody in my family has influenced me or has a similar dislike , so I am unsure when I started hating them.
While cooking, my wife would leave onion and garlic without chopping them, so I could spot them quickly and remove them before eating.
Sometimes, it can be uncomfortable when the family and I eat out and order food with bits of garlic and onion. Being a good father means you must set a good example and eat all your veggies. But I would discreetly claw onions out of my slice of pizza.
— Nathaniel Lacsina, a journalist based in Dubai
UAE resident’s spaghetti phobia cured in three months
He was scared of eating spaghetti or anything of similar texture after a near-death choking experience, said Bushra Khan, Transformation Coach, Wellth, Dubai.
He developed food phobia, fearing a repeat episode. This led to a rapid loss of weight. He became nutritionally deficient and a recluse due to the struggle to find suitable options while dining out, said Bushra.
After undergoing a combination of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and Exposure Therapy for three months, he was successfully able to challenge his negative thoughts and overcome the fear and aversion to food, said Bushra.
Common causes of food phobia
Food phobia, also known as selective eating disorder or avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) typically develops in childhood, said Bushra. “It is often noticed during early childhood or around the time when solid foods are introduced. It could be triggered by negative experiences like choking or vomiting.”
Common causes are a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors. It is believed that genetic predispositions, sensory sensitivities, and early negative experiences with food may contribute to the development of food phobia, Bushra said.
UAE-based mother, 25, can’t eat fried noodles
A 25-year-old mother of a 3-year-old boy experienced a traumatic event while eating fried noodles alone at a restaurant, said Dr Aida Suhaimi, Clinical Psychologist, Medcare Medical Centre, Jumeirah, Dubai.
“Towards the end of her meal, she started feeling extremely uneasy and began experiencing symptoms such as nausea and hot flushes. Eventually, she vomited right there in the restaurant. The embarrassment she felt during that incident led her to associate noodles with the discomfort she experienced that day,” said Dr Aida.
The vivid memory of noodles in her vomit, along with the reactions of the people in the restaurant, kept replaying in her mind, intensifying her anxiety and panic, said Dr Aida.
During our sessions, we employed Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Gradient Exposure Therapy, said Dr Aida.
After the therapy sessions, she was able to sit at a restaurant with her family; although some anxiety persisted. It no longer controlled her life or prevented her from enjoying social outings, said Dr Aida.
How a Homeopath treated a woman’s beef aversion
What you eat is directly related to your personality trait, according to homoeopathy, said Dr Rosamma Sabu, Balsam Homeopathic Centre, Sharjah.
Homoeopathy has medicines for fear of eating, fear of drinking and swallowing difficulties, said Dr Rosamma.
A patient in her 30s came to me saying that she can’t eat beef. It is her favourite food but when her cholesterol levels became a little high, the doctor advised a reduction in beef consumption. After that, the sight of beef would make her nauseous and she would end up vomiting. That continued for three years, said Dr Rosamma.
Her mental state was taken into consideration and medicines were prescribed, and she started cooking and eating beef when she came for her next consultation, said Dr Rosamma.
Homoeopathy offers only medications, and no other mode of treatments other than reassurance and understanding, Dr Rosamma said.
How Ayurveda treats food phobia
Ayurveda uses three terminologies to denote food phobias
• Bhakta Dvesha: Aversion to eating
• Anna Anabhinandana: Food not welcomed
• Anne Dvesha: Aversion to food
Food phobia might be related to psychological factors as per Ayurveda, said Dr V L Shyam, Medical Director, Dr Shyam’s Ayurveda Centre, UAE.
Ayurvedic physicians in ancient India tried to simplify the understanding of physiology by classifying them under three categories:
1. Physiology of movements — Vata
2. Physiology of chemical, enzymatic and hormonal transformation — Pitta
3. Physiology of growth, lubrication and stability — Kapha
When these groups of functions are balanced, it signifies healthy physiology while the imbalance is pathology. The human body has innate capabilities to restore the physiology by creating phobias and cravings, said Dr Shyam.
If joint pain has increased due to overexposure to cold, it's a natural aversion to more cold and an affinity for warmer environment. Similarly, when vata functions are imbalanced by increased intake of spicy foods, the body will display aversion or phobia to spicy foods and develop a craving for sweet tastes. Vata imbalance can also cause a phobia or aversion to bitter and astringent tastes, said Dr Shyam.
• Pitta imbalance: Aversion to spicy, sour, and salty tastes
• Kapha imbalance: Phobia of sweet, sour, and salty tastes
• Vata-Pitta imbalance: Aversion to spicy food and cravings for sweets
• Pitta-Kapha imbalance: Aversion to sour and salty and favours bitter and astringent
• Vata-Kapha imbalance: Phobia of cold potency foods and prefers warmer foods
Similarly, if we have an allergy due to excess consumption of milk or shellfish, we might develop a phobia for them. In Jvara (febrile conditions), people can have an aversion to sweets and an affinity for sour, salty and spicy tastes, said Dr Shyam.
Food aversion could happen suddenly, and it could include favourites foods as well. Treating the underlying disease generally cures food aversions and phobias. Fasting and usage of carminatives and digestives are also treatment modalities in Ayurveda for food phobias, said Dr Shyam.
Food fears seem bizarre since food is nourishment, essential to sustain living things. The joy of a eating a good meal can be spoilt by challenge foods. It seems not everyone can eat everything to their heart’s content.