TCS Daily

Food Phobic Nation

By Jonathan Robison, PhD, MS - November 14, 2003 12:00 AM

"Good nutrition is getting a bad name -- one that smacks of rigidity, guilt-making and extremism... Worse still, some eight out of ten (Americans) think foods are inherently good or bad... every single bite they take represents an all-or-nothing choice either for or against good health." (1)


This statement from the Tufts University Diet and Nutrition Letter over a decade ago accurately sums up the current nutrition atmosphere in the United States. Americans live in a constant state of anxiety and confusion when it comes to food. For many, if not most adults, a longing glance at a desired food is sure to elicit the following inner dialogue:


"I wonder how many calories, fat grams, carbohydrates, etc. are in that food.

I don't know if I should eat it...Will it give me heart disease, diabetes, cancer?...

Will it make me fat?"


If the desire to eat ends up winning out over the fear, which it usually does, the anxiety, now intensified by the guilt of not having resisted, returns:


"I've really blown it many miles am I going to have to walk, run, bike, etc. to get rid of those calories...?"


We have become a food phobic nation. Over the years the ongoing barrage of proclamations from health organizations about the "badness" (unhealthiness) of various foods has managed to wrench from us the natural pleasures of eating while turning food selection into an intellectual activity, replete with mathematical calculations, "shoulds" and "shouldn'ts," dire warnings of dreaded consequences and heightened awareness about the hidden dangers lurking in almost every imaginable type of food.


It all began with "lipo-phobia," the mother of all food phobias. We have been told for decades now that fat was a killer, something to be avoided whenever possible. As the Tufts Nutrition Letter quoted above also commented:


"Two out of 10 Americans are even under the false belief that all fat should be eliminated from the diet."


But, of course, lipo-phobia was only a foreshadowing of phobias to come. Perhaps ironically, the latest such phobia sweeping the nation is focused on just the food that we have been told for decades should replace the dreaded fat in our diet -- carbohydrates. It seems that the pasta, bread, rice and potatoes that were supposed to keep us thin and healthy are now making us fat and giving us diabetes and heart disease. Is it any wonder that in a recent survey in the Journal of the American Dietetics Association, 43% of those polled said they were tired of hearing about what foods they should or should not eat and 70% said that the government should get out of the business of telling people what to eat? (2)


To make matters worse, special interest groups have promulgated a host of other food phobias that continue to haunt people as they try to decipher what might be left that is still safe to eat. With little or no scientific basis for the claims, and often in direct opposition to strong scientific evidence to the contrary, we have been told that meat is bad for the kidneys, that milk should not be consumed past childhood, that the cholesterol in eggs causes heart attacks, that sugar makes children hyperactive, and so on. Consequently, in addition to our lipo-phobia and carbo-phobia, many Americans are also struggling with:


Carne-phobia à fear of meat               Lacto-phobia à fear of milk  


Dextro-phobia à fear of sugar             Ovo-phobia à fear of eggs


And, of course, we can't forget the ever present:


Choco-phobia à fear of chocolate.


This widespread fear of foods is having some troubling consequences. Recent national data show that 50% of teenage girls are undernourished. Many are so scared and confused that they are eating too few calories and exhibiting potentially serious deficiencies in calcium, Iron, Vitamins A and B12, and minerals magnesium, zinc and copper.(3) In increasing numbers, others are smoking, bingeing and purging, engaging in dangerous weight loss practices and losing their lives both figuratively and literally to eating disorders, body image disturbances and exercise addiction.(4)


We are in desperate need of a serious serving of common sense when it comes to eating. Viewing foods as weapons of mass destruction is scientifically unsound and psychologically destabilizing. In fact, our burgeoning fear of foods has actually spawned a new eating disorder -- orthorexia nervosa -- the obsession with eating only "healthy" food.(5)


With all of the admonitions to avoid this food, eat less of that food, and be sure not to get more than this percentage of calories from this food, maybe it is time to get back to basics. Wasn't it grandma who said many years ago -- drink your milk, eat your fruits and vegetables and go out and play? Maybe we need to reevaluate our alimentary recommendations. In this regard, perhaps we could follow the lead of our mother country across the sea, whose enlightened number one dietary guideline is -- Enjoy Your Food!(6)




1.         Just what is a balanced diet, anyway? (1992). Tufts University Diet and Nutrition Letter, 9(11), 3-6.


2.         Patterson et al. Is there a consumer backlash against the diet and health message? Journal of The American Dietetic Association 2001;101:37-41.


3.         Berg FM. (1997). Three major U.S. studies describe trends. Healthy Weight Journal, 11(4),67-74.


4.         Kassirer JP, Angel M. (1998). Losing Weight-An Ill-fated new year's resolution. New England Journal of Medicine, 338(1),52-54.


5.         Bratman S. Health Food Junkies: Orthorexia Nervosa: Overcoming The Obsession With Healthful Eating. Broadway Books, New York, 2000.




Jonathan Robison PhD, MS, holds a doctorate in health education/exercise physiology and a master of science in human nutrition from Michigan State University where he is adjunct assistant professor. You can visit him online at

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