From a very young age, I was always described as being "bigger." My dad would tell me stories about my infancy, how friends and family would pick me up and be shocked at how heavy I was. When I was eleven, my friend called me a caboose in reference to my weight.

Eventually, I lost my baby fat and maintained what is deemed a fairly “normal” body type. However, those statements made about me since a very young age have always stuck. In middle school I chose to become vegetarian, originally as a way to restrict what I was eating. I am still vegetarian today, but no longer for the purpose of restriction, but rather for the health benefits and other, more sound reasons. My gradually positive attitude toward eating developed throughout high school, but my food anxiety showed itself in a different way when I started my freshman year of college.

I noticed myself eating frequently in my room, a diet consisting of canned soup and frozen meals. I only went out to get food on campus if someone else accompanied me — usually one of my roommates — and then just go back to my room to actually eat. I wouldn’t dare eat by myself outside of my room; to this day, as I face the last few weeks of my freshman year, I have yet to sit in my campus’s dining hall to eat by myself.

It took a while for me to realize what I was doing. To deal with my anxiety toward food, I did my best to avoid eating in public — and definitely not eat alone in public.

I decided to consciously recognize my harmful eating habits and actively work toward changing my views around food.

Here are three actions I am taking to help combat my food anxiety

1. Confide in someone

Before I was able to really start working toward changing my eating habits, I decided to talk with one of my close friends. I told her about the anxiety I felt when eating in public and how it was affecting my overall social behavior. She agreed to help by asking me to eat in the dining halls and venues with her consistently and be with me as I ate. In addition to her support during meals, the biggest relief was being able to open up about my struggles with someone I trust. For others, this step may look different. It could be talking to a parent or even a trained physician or therapist about how disordered eating. Regardless, opening up about food-related issues is a great first step.

2. Set goals

For me, setting goals was simple as I had a great support system to help me. I decided  I wanted to challenge myself to start eating in public with other people. Whenever I was asked to eat at one of the dining venues with someone, I always said yes when I could. Once this habit started feeling normal without much extra thought, I set a new goal to start getting food by myself, which I could then eat in my room or some other secluded, safe area.

Usually after class, I would go alone to grab food. At first, just the act of walking alone in public while holding food was daunting and anxiety-provoking. As of right now, this is still a goal I’m actively working toward being completely comfortable with.

My final goal is to eat by myself in one of my campus’s dining halls. I only have a few more weeks left of spring quarter, so I’m trying to achieve this in a relatively short span of time. Whether or not I fully achieve these goals before summer, simply setting goals for myself is helping motivate me to work on myself and my relationship with eating.

3. Be conscious of how you talk to yourself

As I began to work toward my goals, I found that when I did retreat back to old habits, I was very critical of myself. Recovery of any kind is never linear, so small setbacks shouldn't be something to beat yourself up about. By being open with others and discussing what I was going through, I became more conscious of how degrading and harsh my comments to myself were and developed better ways to deal with my progress.

For everyone, this step may be different. I chose to write Whenever I feel self-deprecation toward my actions or setbacks, I try to sit down and write positive affirmations about my progress. Constantly thinking about how poorly I was doing didn't actually fix the problem, so now I try to focus on the positives and encourage myself that even one small act is still contributing toward my goals. It is easy to become your own harshest critic, but this thinking is detrimental. We need to focus on the care we need.

Working toward healing

Although these are only a few steps I am taking to cope with my food anxiety, others may find different actions much more helpful as food anxiety isn’t experienced the same by everyone. To this day, I am still working on bettering my perception of food and — don’t get me wrong — I am not an expert on this topic. All I can do is offer my personal experience and what helps me. 

Most importantly, opening up to someone makes the healing process a lot easier to deal with. Don't be afraid to reach out for help.