10 signs of ARFID – the eating disorder you’ve never heard of
Is your son often turning up his nose during mealtimes? Is picky eating a more common problem with your daughter than other children of her age?
It is not unusual for children to be selective about their foods. But normally, it doesn't take long before they grow out of this behavior and develop healthy eating patterns.
However, for some children, food anxiety can be a more severe problem and is often ignored because parents think it’s “just a phase”.
If your child shows a general lack of interest in eating and has issues with food to the extent that it starts to affect their growth and development, it could mean that they're not just a fussy eater.
Rather, they're going through something more serious—which, if left untreated—can have harmful effects on their lives.
Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), or in simpler terms, "extreme picky eating," is a food disorder where a child faces issues with food, but their fears around eating are very different from more common eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia.
Because of these differences in symptoms, ARFID can be confusing, so doctors may not recognize the problem, which may leave your child undiagnosed, untreated, and at great risk for their lives – and the problem might follow them well into adulthood.
It follows that having a good understanding of ARFID symptoms and being able to recognize them is vital to save your child from unhealthy weight loss, malnutrition, social issues, or other problems that may come with Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder.
To help you gauge your child's condition better, here are some telltale signs and symptoms of ARFID.
1. A lack of interest in food
A child suffering from ARFID knows that they must eat, but they have no interest in eating. This lack of interest in eating is not due to fears related to body shape, size, or concerns about fatness as it is in other eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia.
Your child may complain of having no appetite, but they may have no solid reason other than the food itself to explain why they don't want to eat.
They likely do not have issues with how they look, low self-esteem, or medical or physical problems that prevent them from eating fully. Additionally, they say they are “full” sooner, have typically low appetite, and show increasing indifference to food.
2. They avoid eating certain foods for their sensory characteristics.
Their concerns are more focused on the food itself and not that much on its impact on their body image. For example, their primary reason not to eat food is certain textures, colors, and smells that bother them.
If the food does not have the particular characteristics they desire, they refuse to eat it. This rigidity often also extends to how food is served, such as different foods on a plate cannot touch or should be cut into fine pieces; otherwise, they can't eat it.
3. They avoid and restrict themselves to only certain types of food.
They have a very restricted list of acceptable foods that becomes more limited over time. Almost all of these foods have certain traits, such as a similar texture, taste, temperature, odor, and color.
Other than their desired foods with specific characteristics, they may ignore whole food groups such as fruits, vegetables, and meats because these foods distress or disgust them.
4. They are afraid that foods without specific characteristics might make them choke or vomit.
Their extreme picky eating can occur because they experience distress about certain foods. It is not just a disciplinary issue. They have an adverse emotional or physical reaction associated with the foods, such as fearing that they might choke or vomit if they try to eat those foods.
Again, this fear is not associated with body shape, size, or weight. It's more focused on how they feel about the food itself while eating it.
5. They are very reluctant to try different or new types of food
They are precise with their food selection and refuse to try anything else. Similarly, they may even have rigid standards regarding how a particular food should be cooked, and they may not eat even a desired food if it's cooked in some other way than they want it to be.
For example, refusing to eat a fried egg if its texture gets too hard or turns brown during frying.
6. They experience social problems due to restricted eating.
This food anxiety can stop them from healthily engaging in social activities. For example, your child might refuse to go to a camp with their friends because they are afraid of the food that will be offered and have a lot of trouble eating at unfamiliar places, so they avoid the interaction altogether.
They may refuse to sit at the dinner table or have lunch with their family because of the stress related to the foods they dislike. They may also say they are feeling full when they've barely eaten anything. They experience dread and anxiety during mealtimes.
7. They dress in additional layers of clothes.
As avoidance and restriction of certain foods can lead them to weight loss, they might try to compensate for their skinny appearance by wearing more clothes.
Similarly, they feel cold more intensely as their bodies have difficulties maintaining average temperature due to all the deficiencies, so they may experience muscle cramps and put on extra clothes during winter compared to others.
8. No or delayed growth
As children grow, they get bigger, but in cases of ARFID, your child might not be gaining weight or getting bigger at all.
As they only restrict themselves to certain foods, they can have no or delayed growth compared to other children of their age.
9. Malnutrition, weight loss, and physical problems
Only restricting themselves to certain foods can mean they are missing out on other vital nutrients essential for them to grow properly.
This restricted eating can lead to a host of problems. These include lethargy, a weakened immune system, dry skin, brittle nails, hair thinning or hair loss, stomach cramps, nausea, insomnia, anemia, low blood count, fainting, and very low tolerance to cold.
10. They require additional dietary supplements.
Lack of nutrition can cause a lot of issues that may need interventions other than food to treat. For example, they may lack energy, have a slower heart rate, look pale or unhealthy, feel sick or have constant stomach pains.
Some of these issues can threaten their well-being, so doctors regularly prescribe dietary supplements and feeding tubes to compensate for these gaps in their diet. Unfortunately, even though these supplements can help the malnutrition problem, it doesn’t stop the fears underlying the avoidance of food groups, which means the problem continues.
If you see your child undergoing one or all of these symptoms, it could mean they are suffering from ARFID, and it is important to get them professional intervention as soon as possible to help them recover properly.
Fortunately, behavioral therapies can help children cure ARFID early in childhood, so it doesn't severely affect them for the rest of their lives. But even if your child is older or already an adult, it is not too late to get help and fully recover!
Getting your loved ones timely professional support can be crucial to help them develop healthy eating patterns, resolve their fears around eating, grow healthily, be safe, and evade a multitude of physical and psychological problems down the road.
If this list of symptoms describes you or your child, feel free to contact us for a FREE 15 minute consult and we’ll let you know if you’re on the right track.