When popular culture and the media talk about eating disorders, they commonly reference anorexia or bulimia. The image we have of someone who suffers from an eating disorder in America is generally based on these two illnesses. They are certainly devastating and widespread- according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. Almost one percent of American women develop anorexia and 1.5% of American women develop bulimia over a lifetime. Statistically, that accounts for millions of women, and the fact that awareness of these two disorders is increasing is a great step for women who struggle with them. However, of the 20 million women who suffer from eating disorders, many struggles with a far less understood illness called ARFID, or avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder. For family members, loved ones, and medical professionals, understanding and recognizing the symptoms of less well-known eating disorders such as ARFID is vital to ensuring that women who suffer from it get the help that they need.
What is ARFID?
Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, also known as ARFID, is an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia, in that it is a mental illness that impacts the sufferer’s eating habits, body image, mood and affect, physical condition, and overall health and well-being. ARFID is a serious, potentially deadly illness that causes immense suffering for the men and women afflicted with it, but to the untrained eye, it may appear to simply be picky or strange eating habits. This is because, like all eating disorders, ARFID is an illness of secrecy, and sufferers may take extreme measures to conceal it or to frame it as a personal eating habit rather than an illness. The major criteria for ARFID is a lack of interest in food or the avoidance of food based on texture, taste, color, type of food, fears about negative reactions to certain foods (such as choking), or a system of “rules” about what types of food are acceptable. People with ARFID may also avoid or restrict their food intake due to a poor appetite or disinterest in food. Unlike individuals who suffer from anorexia, ARFID sufferers do not restrict their food intake based on distorted body image or a desire to lose weight or control caloric intake. Instead, the restriction is based on fears associated with eating certain foods, or significant aversion to food or the process of eating. ARFID presents differently in different individuals, but some common aspects of the disorder include:
- Rigid rules about food, such as a refusal to consume a certain food group, like dairy.
- Not eating certain colors of foods or avoiding foods with certain textures.
- Fears about eating food, such as a fear of choking or experiencing an allergic reaction due to consumption of a certain food item.
- Extremely picky eating, such as consuming only certain vegetables or certain meals.
- Lack of appetite.
- Avoiding social events that involve food, such as dinners at restaurants or holiday meals.
- Inability to eat in certain circumstances, such as at work or at a friend’s house.
- Progressively pickier eating over time.
- Adverse reactions to food, such as gastrointestinal issues, that do not have a physical cause but are psychosomatic (a reaction to emotional or mental state or beliefs) in nature.
- Over-reliance on supplements to meet nutritional needs.
Many young children have picky eating habits that sometimes follow them into adulthood, but ARFID is more than just picky eating. In fact, it is a disordered eating pattern that pervades every aspect of the afflicted individual’s life and causes significant mental and physical harm. It can be diagnosed in children, adolescents, or adults, and affects both men and women. No matter the circumstances of the individual sufferer, an ARFID diagnosis requires intervention and treatment to prevent significant health consequences, just like any other eating disorder.
Consequences of ARFID
Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder is a serious mental illness that can cause lifelong health problems. Eating disorders have the highest fatality rate of any mental illness, and addressing them is essential. If left untreated, ARFID can cause:
- Stunted growth or failure to meet physical growth milestones in children and adolescents
- Inadequate nutrition or malnourishment
- Fatigue and muscle weakness
- Anemia or other deficiencies
- Weight loss or being extremely underweight
- Hair loss
- Poor concentration or cognitive processing issues
- Decrease in bone density that can lead to osteoporosis
- Cardiac disease
- Kidney or liver failure
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Social problems
- Mood swings
ARFID can be just as dangerous as more commonly known illnesses such as anorexia or bulimia and can cause immense suffering for afflicted individuals and their families. While diagnosis is difficult and must be done by a qualified clinician, understanding the warning signs and the potential consequences of the disease is essential for concerned loved ones. In order to be treated, ARFID must first be recognized.
We Can Help
At Willow Place, we specialize in treating women who suffer from eating disorders. Our team of professionals creates individual, comprehensive plans for patients in order to confront and treat their illness and to help clients live a healthy life free of eating disorders. If you or a loved one are concerned and need help, call today at 1-888-651-4212.