Cibophobia (Fear Of Food)


Cibophobia (fear of food) is a relatively common phobia characterized by the patient’s fear of food. This phobia may take two different forms that include aversion to certain kinds of foods or the fear of vomiting or choking when swallowing solid food.

Overview of Cibophobia:

Cibophobia is one of the more prevalent specific phobias. Its meaning is derived from the root word “cibo” which is the Latin word for food and “phobia”, the Greek word for fear. It often affects children and teenagers, particularly when it involves food aversion based on texture, taste or smell. The onset of Cibophobia can generally be traced to a traumatic event that occurs in childhood around swallowing, choking, food-borne illness such as food poisoning or abuse that takes place as a child is eating or around the withholding of food.

In its most extreme forms, Cibophobia can have a significant impact on the quality of life of the patient, making it almost impossible for them to consume solid foods making basic nutrition and wellness difficult to maintain. In these cases, the disorder is often linked to other eating disorders such as bulimia or anorexia nervosa. These phobias can be quite persistent and difficult to treat.

In its lesser manifestations, the disorder creates more of an inconvenience or embarrassment for the patient as it can make dining in restaurants or eating with others complicated.

Cibophobia is thought to be caused by a combination of internal and external factors, including family predisposition and brain chemistry as well as environmental factors or events that occur to the patient. This phobia is more prevalent in young children and teenagers but can escalate to a more significant issue if it follows the patient into adulthood, and often occurs in conjunction with eating disorders like anorexia nervosa.

Treatment almost always involves some sort of behavioral therapy or counseling. It may also involve the use of medication, but not generally to the exclusion of counseling.

Symptoms of Cibophobia:

  • Patients with Cibophobia may suffer from symptoms related to their anxiety around food that reflect generalized anxiety symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing (this may be particularly exacerbated in patients with Cibophobia), tightness in the chest, sweating, dry mouth, numbness and lightheadedness.
  • Patients who fear poisoning, germs or illness will often focus obsessively on expiration dates, smell or texture of food items or how food is cooked. They may struggle with eating in environments where they do not control the preparation process, including restaurants, meetings or other people’s homes. Less serious, but relevant are the methods of preparation these patients will insist upon, which will often include overcooking of food. They may avoid meat or dairy products and may refuse to eat in specific restaurants or settings.
  • Some patients suffering from serious Cibophobia will consume very little food at all. Such limited calorific intake leads to other health issues springing from deficiencies and malnourishment. This outcome may be confused with an eating disorder, and indeed these conditions may coexist, but the patient does not necessarily have an actual eating disorder built around weight loss or control, but more around an actual fear of food consumption. It can be complicated to diagnose one or the other because the symptoms and outcomes are similar.
  • Because of the fear of choking or vomiting, the patient may have an emotional response if others try to force him or her to eat. These responses may involve anger, crying or leaving the situation. This is particularly true in young patients.
  • Again related to general poor nutrition, patients suffering with Cibophobia may also struggle with depression, anxiety and sleep disorders. Bed-wetting, nightmares and night terrors are all symptomatic of this condition.
  • Lack of appropriate vitamins and minerals may also affect performance in school and the patient’s ability to learn. For older patients, the ability to think clearly and perform well at work can be an issue.

Causes of Cibophobia:

Most commonly, Cibophobia develops from a combination of genetic disposition or brain chemistry and a triggering event, such as a choking episode or violent allergic reaction to some item of food. That combination of factors results in the fear and anxiety which, left untreated, may continue into maturity. Over time, it can contribute to the development of other health issues and eating disorders.

Cibophobia may also develop following a negative or dangerous experience with a specific food that caused food poisoning or other gastrointestinal illness, such as expired milk or bad meat. Patients may completely avoid this food for the rest of their lives. Depending on the extent of the aversion, this form of the disorder may be more inconvenient than a real problem.

In rarer cases, Cibophobia may develop in children when eating has somehow been conflated with abuse, trauma, authority or danger. This form of Cibophobia can be quite serious as it may make it difficult for the patient to eat at all and also very difficult for him or her to express the nature of the fear or its root cause. This makes treatment of the disorder very challenging.

Treatment of Cibophobia:

There are many avenues of treatment for phobias. A general practitioner is a good place to start, but effective treatment usually requires specialized treatments that may include the following:

  • Talking treatments, which include several different forms of therapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Cognitive Analytic Therapy and psychodynamic therapy.
  • Exposure therapy
  • Neuro-linguistic programming therapy
  • Hypnotherapy
  • Medications, including antidepressants, tranquilizers (in more severe cases) or beta-blockers. In the treatment of Cibophobia, the use of nutritional supplements, additional vitamins and sources of protein may also be required to get the patient to a healthier state.
  • Finding a good support group or network of people who can provide support, encouragement and additional resources is also an important part of treatment.

Providing patients with a good set of behavioral strategies to cope with fear and anxiety is also an effective treatment as the patient transitions from less intense therapies and recovery. These would include breathing and visualization techniques, as well as self-talk and meditation. Energy therapies fall into this category as well – activities such as yoga or tai chi may help the patient control their fears. Acupressure has proven some efficacy in the treatment of a variety of phobias as well.

Prevention of Cibophobia:

Prevention of Cibophobia is difficult because it is such a combination of factors and may spring from an individual event that would be impossible to predict or prevent. However, appropriate interventions delivered in the wake of a traumatic experience may help prevent the development of Cibophobia. This might include immediate counseling or a visit to the doctor. Raising children in a nurturing environment where food and eating are treated as part of the normal human experience and not used as a reward or punishment helps children develop healthy attitudes toward eating and creates a strong sense of well- being. Careful monitoring of children to prevent choking hazards or allergic reactions may also work to prevent the development of this phobia.

Last Reviewed:
June 23, 2018
Last Updated:
June 21, 2018