When it comes to avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), there is one very critical detail to understand. People with ARFID are not simply “picky eaters.” Period. This is a crucial starting point with ARFID because it takes how this particular eating disorder is often minimized and offers a better understanding.

In fact, not only is ARFID regularly minimized as a disorder, the individuals struggling with ARFID are often made to feel as though their behavior is somehow their fault. Not only is this way of treating individuals with ARFID tragic and toxic, but it can also be traumatic.

The truth is that many people are unaware of what ARFID really is. Yet, many people would probably recognize the symptoms of ARFID if they saw them. However, they most likely do not know the true harm that ARFID can inflict on an individual’s well-being and day-to-day life. This means that more people need to be made aware of ARFID, the issues and dangers associated with it, and how it can be treated.

Understanding ARFID

Many people may be surprised to discover ARFID is a clinically recognized eating disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The DSM-5 defines ARFID as “An eating or feeding disturbance (e.g., apparent lack of interest in eating or food; avoidance based on the sensory characteristics of food; concern about aversive consequences of eating) as manifested by persistent failure to meet appropriate nutritional and/or energy needs associated with [a specific set of criteria].”

Some of the criteria for ARFID provided by the DSM-5 are as follows:

  • Significant weight loss or an inability to gain weight or grow in a healthy and biologically anticipated manner

  • Substantial and consequential nutritional deficiency

  • A dependence on nutritional supplements for necessary nutrients

  • When these disordered behaviors begin to interfere with day-to-day life and other aspects of mental wellness

Now, with a more complete and complex understanding of ARFID, one will be better equipped to see some of the warning signs of an individual that is struggling. This is critical because awareness is the first step toward getting help.

The Warning Signs of ARFID

As previously mentioned, the first misconception that must be dropped regarding ARFID is that it is a willed choice not to eat particular foods. Yes, there are certainly individuals that can be picky eaters. Most people have a certain food they dislike or even detest. This is not what we are discussing here. ARFID is much more than “picky eating,” as can be seen via some of its warning signs or “red flags.” 

The following are just a few of the warning signs to look out for if you suspect someone may be struggling with ARFID:

  • There is dramatic weight loss

  • An individual dresses in a way to hide weight loss

  • There are continuous gastrointestinal issues such as constipation, cramping, and abdominal pain

  • An individual expresses continual and “unwarranted” fears of choking or vomiting

  • There are continual excuses to miss mealtimes

  • An individual continues to narrow down the types of foods they are willing to eat

  • There is little interest in food or a continual expression of a “lack of appetite”

  • An individual expresses a poor body image, especially pertaining to weight gain

If any of these warning signs are present or begin to appear over time, it may be time to seek professional help. This is particularly true with ARFID because, without intervention, there can be severe symptoms and consequences that can occur as a result of untreated ARFID.

Symptoms and Consequences of ARFID

It is important to remember that ARFID is a mental health disorder that has both physical and mental/emotional effects. All of which are negative. A select few of these negative effects are as follows:

  • Difficulty concentrating on even the simplest of tasks

  • Regular dizziness due to a lack of caloric intake

  • For women, menstrual irregularities

  • The feeling of being cold on a regular basis

  • Having trouble sleeping, either too much or too little

  • Experiencing dry hair, dry or brittle nails, and dry skin

  • Having an impaired immune system, and difficulty healing

Focusing On Eating Recovery for the Long-Term

As one can see, the effects of ARFID can be vast, and they can also have long-lasting effects. The truth is they can even be fatal in extreme circumstances. This is why getting the proper care from respected professionals is vital.

One of the most important aspects of treating ARFID is getting to the issues that often underly the disorder. This could be from a past trauma or emotional experience that an individual may have had. These issues must be investigated and addressed. 

One of the best ways of doing this is via therapy. Whether it be individual therapy or group therapy, working with a professional in the field can be a pivotal start to the eating disorder recovery process. Nutrition therapy is also crucial to helping an individual struggling with ARFID reestablish a healthy relationship with food and the joys it can offer.

Considered one of the founders of modern medicine, Hippocrates once said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” This is encapsulated in the long-term recovery process for those that struggle with ARFID. Food is not simply something we eat to grow stronger in our bodies. However, that is important. Food is something that we can love to grow in our souls.

Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) is a condition that many people are unfamiliar with, but it is also a condition that negatively affects countless individuals every day. ARFID can be devastating because it not only limits the potential joy for food but can also lead to poor nutrition and poor health. For a long time, many people have solely associated ARFID with children and adolescents, but it is now more widely understood to affect individuals from all populations, including adults. If you feel like you, or someone you love, may be struggling with ARFID, know you are not alone. For more information on ARFID, other eating disorders, and treatment options for long-term recovery, contact be Collaborative Care today at (401) 262-0842.