An Introduction to Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)

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The major eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are fairly well known because of characteristic symptoms and media coverage, but there is one eating disorder that remains relatively unknown, ARFID. Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), occasionally referred to as Selective Eating Disorder (SED), is one of the more recent types of eating disorder to come to light, and is beginning to be treated consistently at eating disorder treatment centers. A lot of parents may not be aware of ARFID’s existence, however, and can miss the symptoms in their daughters. Take a look at some of the common questions associated with ARFID, selective eating disorder treatment, and more. 

How Often Does ARFID Appear?

ARFID has been understood for less time and hence, studied less than bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa, so the statistics on its occurrence are less clear than those disorders. In one study of adolescents in eating disorder recovery, however, about 14 percent of thepeople replying to the survey met the diagnosing criteria for ARFID, according to the National Eating Disorder Association

There is a high probability that ARFID is underreported simply because many parents confuse picky eating with disordered avoidance. However, while many children are picky and won’t eat certain vegetables or flavors, this is usually temporary. ARFID sufferers, however, have a disorder that can affect their health. Most will avoid certain types of food to a point that it causes them problems with being malnourished or have other health issues. 

Who Does ARFID Affect Most Often?

ARFID affects both men and women, but unusually for eating disorders, it affects men more commonly. Also, younger children seem to be more at risk than older children, since the picky eating tendencies smaller children display tend to disappear as they age. About 20 percent of children with ARFID also have an autism spectrum disorder, which is statistically significant and may indicate a link in brain patterns between the two disorders. 

Is ARFID Recognized as a Mental Illness?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V), the official register of mental health disorders, lists ARFID among the eating disorders anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. 

Does ARFID Co-Occur With Other Mental Health Illnesses?

About a third of children receiving help from aneating disorder treatment center also have another kind of mental health illness. For example, 75 percent of individuals in treatment for ARFID also have an anxiety disorder in addition to ARFID. 

What Causes ARFID?

The formative causes of most eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, the underlying cause of the disorder is often a fear of gaining weight or looking a certain way. However, ARFID differs from other kinds of eating disorders because weight loss or distorted body image is rarely an important contributing factor. It is suspected that anxiety may be a major contributing aspect of ARFID, as well as food-related phobias. For instance, half of the children who need selective eating disorder treatment avoid certain foods, not because of the flavor, but because they have developed an irrational fear of choking on them.

What Does ARFID Treatment Look Like?

After receiving a diagnosis of ARFID from a doctor or specialist at an eating disorder treatment facility, typical treatment can involve multiple levels of therapeutic care. Mindful eating and self-awareness training is usually the central focus, employing cognitive behavioral therapy, group therapy, food and nutrition counseling, and family therapy as a comprehensive continuum of care. The recovery process must be tailored uniquely to the individual, so while the structure of the treatment program may be similar, the details will change from person to person. 

If you are afraid that your child is dealing with ARFID or another kind of eating disorder, reach out to a treatment facility to speak with admissions specialists who can help you get started.