Written by: Dale Conlon
Medically Reviewed by: Dr Mateen Durrani – MBBS, DPM, MSc, BCPsych
Last Updated: January 10th, 2023
ARFID (Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder) is an eating disorder which is less commonly talked about than conditions such as anorexia or bulimia. Nevertheless, like all eating disorders, ARFID is a severe mental health condition that can happen to anyone regardless of age, gender, or background. Similarly, it can result in excessive and unhealthy weight loss, which has the potential to cause nutritional damage.
It’s essential to understand what ARFID is and to spot the signs of ARFID in yourself and others as soon as possible. Doing so will help you refocus your thoughts on healthy coping mechanisms so you can avoid extreme cases such as tube feeds to bring you back to good health. Read on for common symptoms of ARFID, possible causes and how ARFID rehab can restore your mental and physical health.
What is ARFID?
Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) is an eating disorder in which individuals select what they eat based on factors such as appearance, brand, taste, smell, texture or associated past negative experiences. Formerly known as a selective eating disorder, ARFID was previously classified as an illness in children and adolescents. This classification was eventually expanded to include adults who meet the criteria.
It is essential to note that some people are naturally picky eaters with no related psychological or physiological problems. Therefore, ARFID needs to be diagnosed by a medical professional for people to get the appropriate treatment.
How is ARFID diagnosed?
ARFID eating disorder is diagnosed by clinicians, who take the following into consideration:
- The variety of foods you consume
- How long have you been avoiding a particular food
- The reasons why you have unconventional eating habits
- The portion sizes of the food you eat
- Any related medical issues, such as malnutrition
Unlike most eating disorders, ARFID is not associated with the fixation on body size or shape. Moreover, it’s imperative to note that losing weight is not a goal for people suffering from ARFID.
Spotting the signs and symptoms of ARFID
The signs and symptoms of ARFID can be categorised into behavioural and physical. If you or a loved one are experiencing some of the symptoms listed below, it is vital to seek professional help immediately.
Behavioural symptoms of ARFID include…
- Choosing to eat only foods with certain textures, appearances or tastes
- Avoiding social situations where food is served, including family meals
- Nausea or vomiting when faced with adverse foods
- Dramatic weight loss
- Wearing clothes that hide dramatic weight loss
- Loss of interest in food
- Lack of appetite
- Gastrointestinal issues or abdominal pain with no known cause
- Lack of body image disturbance
- No fear of weight gain
- Using supplements
Physical signs of ARFID include…
- Stomach cramps
- Abnormal results from lab tests, including anaemia,
- Low blood cell count, low thyroid and hormone levels
- Weakened immune system
- Menstrual irregularities
- Dizziness and fainting spells
- Lack of body heat
- Dry skin, brittle nails and hair
- Hair thinning or hair loss
- Lanugo – fine hairs all over the body
ARFID eating disorder and anorexia characteristics share symptoms, as both disorders involve a lack of appropriate calories. However, while anorexia sufferers are often concerned with body image and weight loss, ARFID sufferers are usually not. Additionally, “picky eating” and ARFID do share similar traits, but there are some crucial characteristics which differentiate the two. You can see the main differences below.
A notable limit of on the amount of food consumed…
- Avoiding foods based on the sensory characteristics of specific foods even when hungry
- Lack of concern about body size and shape
- Irrational fears surrounding eating
- Feeling hunger and “overcoming” hunger pangs allows sufferers to gain control
- A fixation with body image, size and weight
- Eating habits are often cantered on weight control and calories
- person will eat in response to hunger
- No irrational fears regarding food intake
- There is always a choice and picky eaters can clearly explain why they like and dislike certain foods
What are the causes of ARFID?
There is hardly ever just one causal factor for ARFID. Instead, ARFID develops from a complex mix of genetic, psychological and environmental factors. For example, individuals can develop eating disorders due to hereditary traits passed down through generations, predisposing them to certain behaviours. In addition, there are psychological and environmental reasons why people may become susceptible to developing ARFID.
Psychological causes of ARFID…
There are some possible psychological causes of ARFID, such as:
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): It’s not uncommon for people with ARFID to have ritualistic tendencies around preparing and eating meals. These tendencies can reach an extreme formulaic level, such as: only eating foods that are specific colours, nutrition of a distinctive texture, or only eating at a particular time. Intrusive thoughts likely bring on these rituals, e.g., a person may be convinced that if they eat a specific food, something terrible may happen in their life.
- Anxiety: Some people who suffer from ARFID tend to have anxiety surrounding food intake that may include irrational fears and thoughts such as a fear of choking on certain foods, vomiting from specific foods or being poisoned.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): In a few scenarios, people may develop ARFID because of a previous traumatic event; certain foods, flavours, smells and textures may trigger a person into thinking about something upsetting, thereby causing them to avoid eating them altogether.
Sociocultural causes of ARFID…
In recent years, the media have brought to light the nature of veganism or exposed the arguably disturbing process of extracting certain foods derived from animal products. This may have resulted in people becoming traumatised by specific foods. However, it’s important to mention that a healthy vegan diet is not a sign of ARFID. Only in a case where person refuses to eat products derived from animals and lives in an environment where no alternative options are available could they display ARFID symptoms.
Other media exposure has resulted in people wanting to eat clean to avoid disease or to feel stronger and healthier. Again, a healthy diet is not a sign of ARFID, but if someone were to avoid foods due to concerns related to hypochondria, they might severely limit their food intake, thus resulting in ARFID.
How do we treat ARFID eating disorders in the UK?
Our treatment programme focuses on your physical, emotional, and psychological health. With our team of highly experienced counsellors and therapists, we address the root cause of your eating disorder, helping to deal with any underlying mental or physical issues that aggravate your condition. To achieve a full recovery, you need to understand why your eating disorder came about and how to overcome any triggers that bring about ARFID. Fortunately, we can help you do just that.
Reach out to us today
If you want to know more about ARFID or are worried that your loved one is suffering from ARFID, we are here to help. You can chat with us today, and a member of our team will support you through any concerns you are having and help you take the following steps toward recovery.