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Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder: Mystery Disorder But Treatable

Reviewed by: Dr. Steven Knauf, D.C.

By Martha Michael

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder

Mental health issues can take a toll on relationships, careers, energy levels, or other functions of the mind and body. Eating disorders may also cause symptoms affecting physical aspects of life, including weight and body shape.

Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, or ARFID, is a fixation on the type and amount of food you eat. It’s different from a mental health condition such as anorexia nervosa, which is closely connected to body image distortion. ARFID may be less understood, but the channels for treatment resemble those for other forms of disordered eating.

What is Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder?

Unlike eating disorders stemming from anxiety about how food will affect your appearance, people with ARFID have an aversion based on the appearance of the food. They limit the types and amount of food they consume due to mental patterns that create an aversion to it.

ARFID is an eating disorder causing a person to have a negative internal reaction to aspects of food, such as:

  • Color
  • Texture
  • Smell
  • Taste

Those with ARFID tend to avoid certain foods because they’re turned off to the sensation brought on by those aspects, and it erodes their interest in eating altogether. Some people have anxiety about the prospect of choking or vomiting, which makes them lose interest in food.

Sometimes referred to as “selective eating disorders,” ARFID and other similar struggles with food intake can cause complications and eventually lead to health problems. Though it may look like picky eating behaviors that are common among children and adolescents, ARFID is a broader, more permanent condition that requires treatment.

It’s a more recent diagnosis among mental health professionals, first published in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Other, more widely recognized conditions, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, have a larger body of research available, so less is known about ARFID.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of ARFID?

Children, adolescents, and adults can develop symptoms of ARFID, says an article by the Eating Recovery Center. Symptoms of the Condition affect all ages and genders and is rooted in both biological causes and sociocultural factors.

ARFID is an anxiety disorder with common comorbidities, including:

  • Autism
  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • Anxiety
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Like other mental health issues, the origin can be traced to a person’s genetic makeup. Familial illnesses can be a part of your genetic code, but there are also temperamental traits that predispose you to developing an eating disorder.

Environmental and social influences can play a part as well. Food preparation and the natural tendency to follow family behaviors can lead to disordered eating habits. Cultural pressures also affect your eating patterns. Strict messaging about clean, pure food processing or an emphasis on personal appearance can trigger food avoidance behaviors.

Symptoms of ARFID include:

  • Extreme pickiness at mealtimes
  • Drop in food intake
  • Food avoidance due to texture or consistency
  • Refusing new foods
  • Increasingly finicky about food preparation
  • Fear of food allergies, choking, or vomiting

What Impact on Health Does ARFID Have?

The consequences of battling ARFID begin with mealtime discomfort but can lead to serious, life-threatening health conditions, the Cleveland Clinic says. Many who battle ARFID eat less and less until they’re depriving their bodies of nutritional needs. The weight loss that follows their reduced interest in food can result in such issues as dizziness, lethargy, and muscle atrophy.

An article on WebMD talks about some of the health problems that can result when you have ARFID. Your body may appear healthy, but it’s a condition that attacks your overall wellness.

Health issues caused by ARFID include:

  • Hair thinning
  • Lower body temperature
  • Low iron level
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Constipation
  • Stomach cramps
  • Weak immune system
  • Swollen feet

Children have a significant need for proper nutrition to have healthy rates of growth and development, so young patients with ARFID need early intervention, acccording to an article by Nemours KidsHealth. Lack of food impedes a child’s physical development and triggers the loss of growth that can result in lifelong health problems.

Health issues that stem from a lack of nutrition include:

  • Slower pulse rate
  • Dehydration
  • Bone weakness
  • Puberty delay
  • Menstruation instability

How Should You Deal With Someone Who Has ARFID?

Some mental health challenges are more easily managed than others. Due to the years of research addressing issues such as depression and anxiety, there has been an expansion in the range of treatment options available.

When you know someone suffering from ARFID, and they’re open to your support, it helps to have some understanding about their experience and potential for managing the illness. The good news is there are treatment options for people with ARFID, says an article by the National Institute of Mental Health. If you know someone with symptoms of an eating disorder, you can provide them with helpful resources.

At the outset, you can encourage them to build a support system by reaching out to family members and friends while also looking into professional channels for assistance. Psychotherapy is one of the most common treatment options for individuals with eating disorders. Medical and mental healthcare practitioners can work together to help patients meet their treatment goals.

For many patients, positive movement in the effort to manage symptoms through ARFID treatment involves:

  • Building better nutritional choices
  • Reducing excessive exercising
  • Bringing weight to a healthy level
  • Stopping a cycle of bingeing and purging

Professional help can come in various forms, the KidsHealth article says. Some ARFID sufferers get help through nutrition counseling, desensitization, or hypnotherapy. Children with a fear of choking can see a speech-language pathologist who can evaluate their swallowing and feeding ability.

You can’t see the internal suffering of a person battling an eating disorder such as ARFID, but over time their struggle can lead to a cluster of real world challenges. There’s no quick fix for problems with excessive rumination about food. It requires a step-by-step walk that can be stressful and difficult. You can accompany them on that journey to bring unhealthy patterns of disordered eating down to a manageable size.

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