Is it Anorexia or Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)?
As parents, it is not uncommon to see your children push away their plates or needing to convince them to finish their veggies during mealtimes.
But sometimes this avoidance and restriction of food can become more persistent and concerning!
What if your child is experiencing distressing thoughts and emotions around food more commonly than others? What if it reaches a point that it starts to affect their physical, psychological, and social functioning negatively?
If you observe such tendencies in your child, it could signal the presence of a severe underlying mental health condition: an eating disorder.
A quick Google search about your child avoiding their foods, having a loss of appetite, or experiencing food anxiety might lead you to conclude that they have anorexia nervosa.
But in some cases, you may see that your child does show some symptoms of anorexia nervosa but does not correctly fit the profile to be considered anorexic.
For example, they may be a fussy eater, have unhealthy weight loss, and have other issues with food, but they do not show any concerns about their body weight, self-esteem, or how they look.
This presence of some symptoms and lack of others can lead to confusion and misdiagnosis.
If your child is a picky eater and avoidance and restriction of food seems to be a more prevalent problem than body image issues, then it could indicate Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) and not anorexia nervosa.
Especially during COVID, the availability of foods and increasing stress might affect your child’s eating habits. It can lead to the development of eating disorders or worsen existing issues.
The causes and symptoms of ARFID may differ, but the consequences may be equally damaging as other eating disorders!
So, how can you know what your child is going through is Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)?
Overall, ARFID is identified by severely restricting or limiting foods based on the foods themselves and not how they might affect a person's body image.
The presentation of ARFID might look as follows:
The primary reason to avoid or restrict foods is because of their sensory sensitivity, such as the texture, color, smell, or how they are cooked or presented.
They have a fear of choking on foods they do not like or vomiting.
They have a general lack of interest in eating without any medical or self-esteem issues. They get full without eating much food, have no interest in trying new food items or and usually have a low appetite.
They have anxiety relating to social events that might require trying new foods.
They have a selected set of foods that they eat, that often gets narrower as they get older. They only demand those foods daily and refuse to eat anything else.
They experience malnutrition, weight loss, delayed growth, and other physical problems that come with not getting proper food and nutrition.
How does this extremely fussy eating differ from anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders?
People with ARFID have no extreme fear of weight gain.
They do not show any signs of extreme distress related to body shape, weight, or size.
They are only concerned with how food distresses or disgusts them and how certain foods might make them vomit in the short term and not how it affects their appearance in the long run.
Because of the significant differences in reasons for avoiding food, the treatment for ARFID differs significantly from anorexia nervosa or other eating disorders and requires specialized interventions to help.
This might also be the reason your child's condition might not improve when you try to get help from a GP or a regular therapist, as they often use methods for treating more well-known eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia, where body image is a primary concern. As causes of avoiding food are different with ARFID, these treatments DO NOT work for ARFID.
Fortunately, with specialized interventions and professional guidance, ARFID can be quickly and successfully treated.
Getting professional treatment can help your child evade tons of psychological, physical, and social problems down the road that come with Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder.
It is important to understand that if left untreated, these issues may follow your children into adulthood as well and might lead to lifelong complications.
In particular, applied behavior analysis can be a miraculous intervention for helping children and adults overcome ARFID.
Here is how individuals with ARFID benefit from behavior therapy:
It helps with cognitive restructuring, where clients learn to identify, get educated, and correct the thinking process that leads to unhealthy and irrational behaviors that interfere with their normal functioning.
Behavioral intervention further teaches them coping techniques to help them manage negative emotions and overwhelming feelings that are the primary cause for avoiding or restricting certain foods.
They get nutrition counseling where they understand their dietary needs and how their food choices impact them from a dietitian that understands how to treat ARFID.
Applied behavior analysis also involves and educates parents and helps them foster a more suitable environment for children to improve their eating habits.
Proper nutritional support and supplements can also be prescribed to help clients get back on track faster.
A complete relapse and recovery plan is constructed, so clients do not give up on their progress and continue to act in healthy ways for the long term.
They get homework assignments that ensure they show active participation and further reinforces their positive progress.
To help treat children and adults with ARFID and develop lifelong skills, we have board-certified behavior analysts on staff.
Keeping the needs of individuals with ARFID and the need to socially distance in mind, our team of experts works through video counseling to help you improve your symptoms and get professional help from the safety of your home.
If you think you may have ARFID or if you observe problematic eating behaviors in your child and are worried that it might negatively affect their physical, psychological, or social growth, contact us to get personalized help