Trust Issues

The People Who Are Afraid of Food

New kinds of eating disorders feed off our cultural obsession with healthy diets

Virginia Sole-Smith
Elemental
Published in
15 min readJun 27, 2018

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Illustrations by Thoka Maer

TThe restaurant in southeastern Virginia is the kind of place that makes its own fresh-squeezed juices and has kale on the menu in three different places. The waiter lets diners know that any grain dish can be made gluten-free. As he takes orders, the dishes, from octopus ceviche with wasabi dressing to pan-roasted salmon with quinoa and lemon aioli, are complex. Elyse, a 29-year-old sales executive, reluctantly opens her menu and prays. Please let there be a kids’ section. Please tell me they have regular fries.

This is a work lunch for Elyse; her dining companions are prospective clients, and she wants to make a good impression. She does not want to give the speech she’s given a million times, answer awkward questions, or pretend not to notice the puzzled looks that follow after she orders her meal. But Elyse can’t bring herself to eat seafood, meat, or most kinds of dairy. She eats no vegetables and few fruits, unless they’ve been pureed into a smoothie. “I’m almost 30 years old,” Elyse says. “And I still eat like a toddler.”

Most days, Elyse drinks a smoothie for breakfast, has potato chips and chocolate milk for lunch, and makes a tray of potatoes roasted with olive oil, plus another smoothie, for dinner. She also eats bread, crackers, chips, mixed nuts, and popcorn. “It used to be french fries every lunch and dinner,” Elyse says. In high school and college, she went to McDonald’s twice a day, nearly every day, to get fries. “I always wondered what the people who worked there thought of me,” she says. “I mean, they aren’t going to judge you for eating fries, but at a certain point I’m sure they wondered, ‘Does this girl eat anything else?’”

Elyse switched from fries to roasted potatoes when, at age 25, she needed to have her gallbladder removed. She suspects her gallstone developed at least in part because of her fast-food diet, although it may have been hereditary, as other members of her family have needed the same procedure. “I try not to eat french fries too often now, but in restaurants it’s often my only option,” she says. Elyse employs a few tricks to escape notice: She likes to sit in the corner of…

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