Fear-based eating: Confusion, anxiety and internet doctors

When I open YouTube, I’m greeted by a garish display of caricatures — a collage of health and wellness thumbnails featuring contorted, misshapen faces frozen in weird expressions of surprise. Claims. Exclamation points. Warnings. Capital letters. Fear and terror. Giant fonts.

One glance is exhausting.

Sadly, this is what we’ve become. Terrified to eat anything.

While the ubiquity of accessible health and nutrition can be beneficial, it also has a downside: the rise of fear-based eating. Internet doctors and self-proclaimed nutrition experts often spread conflicting and anxiety-inducing advice about what we should and shouldn’t eat.

Fear-based eating is characterized by making food choices driven by anxiety and fear rather than nutritional science and personal preference. This issue has been exacerbated by the internet, where conflicting dietary advice can leave individuals feeling overwhelmed and confused. For instance, one day you might read that dairy is essential for bone health, and the next, you might find articles claiming it’s harmful and should be avoided at all costs.

In contrast to credentialed physicians providing telemedicine services digitally or over the internet, “internet doctors” connotes a different kind of doctor talking over the internet. This term can sometimes be pejorative, highlighting concerns over the reliability and safety of medical information provided by unqualified individuals on the internet. These “internet doctors” might include influencers, bloggers or self-proclaimed health experts who share health-related content without the necessary expertise or oversight.

Internet doctors, influencers and self-proclaimed nutrition experts often contribute to this confusion. These figures might not always have formal training in nutrition or medicine, yet they command large audiences and significant influence. Their sensationalized headlines and definitive statements can make it difficult for the average person to discern fact from fiction.

Many internet doctors promote specific diets — such as keto, paleo or veganism — asserting that their approach is the ultimate path to health. This can lead to fear-based eating behaviors, as individuals might feel pressured to follow these strict dietary rules, fearing negative health consequences if they don’t comply.

One of the most significant issues contributing to fear-based eating is the conflicting dietary advice found online. For example, some sources claim that carbs are the enemy, while others insist that a high-carb diet is beneficial. Similarly, debates about the safety and health benefits of consuming fats, proteins and various food groups abound. This conflicting information creates a sense of dietary paralysis, where individuals feel unable to make informed food choices.

The psychological impact of fear-based eating is real. Constantly worrying about food choices can lead to stress, anxiety and an unhealthy relationship with food. It can also result in restrictive eating patterns, which might lead to nutritional deficiencies and eating disorders. The fear of eating the “wrong” foods can overshadow the joy and pleasure of eating, making meals a source of stress rather than nourishment.

Navigating the sea of dietary advice and finding a balanced approach to nutrition is necessary for mental and physical well-being. Fortunately, there are ways to combat fear-based eating.

Consult qualified professionals such as registered dietitians or holistic nutritionists who have formal training and credentials to provide personalized and evidence-based recommendations. Emphasize a diet rich in whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats, which are generally accepted as beneficial for health. Practice moderation by allowing yourself to enjoy a variety of foods without guilt, rather than adopting an all-or-nothing approach.

Listen to your body and pay attention to how different foods make you feel, as your body often knows what it needs. Educate yourself about nutrition from reliable sources such as books, trustworthy online sources and reputable health organizations to gain a clearer picture of healthy eating.

A balanced and healthy approach to eating should nourish both your body and mind, free from fear and anxiety. This is how it should be.

Fear-based eating, fueled by internet doctors and conflicting dietary advice, can create confusion and anxiety around food choices. By seeking advice from qualified professionals, focusing on whole foods, practicing moderation, listening to your body and educating yourself, you can navigate the complex world of nutrition with confidence and ease.

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