What is ARFID?

What is ARFID? | Dr. Ali Ghahary

As a physician, eating healthy is something that I encourage all of my patients to do. Food plays a vital role in our overall wellbeing and can impact our health in a number of different ways, from how we feel internally to how we look externally. Among the most common health conditions that can occur as a result of poor eating habits include obesity and diabetes. These are two conditions that are often linked to consumption of junk food (i.e. foods that are high in calories, sugar and fat) and making generally poor meal choices on a consistent basis. However, there is one particular eating disorder that can make healthy eating habits a very difficult task for some, and it’s known as ARFID.

Just a few weeks ago, a teenager from the UK made headlines after going both legally blind and deaf – which had been linked to their diet (consisting mostly of processed foods, i.e. French fries, potato chips and deli meats.) Complaining of extreme and chronic fatigue, blood tests ultimately showed that the teen was suffering from several significant deficiencies, including vitamin B12, vitamin D, copper and selenium – and while some chalked it up to the boy simply being a fussy eater, there was actually more to it than that, as in 2013 they had been diagnosed with ARFID – also known as Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (formerly known as Selective Eating Disorder.) While ARFID is still considered to be a newer diagnosis, it is very much a real one. This particular disorder is most commonly seen in kids aged 13 or younger and is characterized as having a lack of interest in or sensory aversions to food. In some cases, those with ARFID may also fear the thought of eating, thus making it a condition that can eventually become medically compromising. While it can usually be easy for almost anyone to eat healthy, conditions such as ARFID (and other eating disorders) make it all the more difficult.

There is not one specific root cause that has been linked to ARFID. However, researchers have determined a variety of contributing factors that could be associated with this particular disorder, including biological, psychosocial, and even environmental. For example, ARFID could be triggered by a traumatic event. It has also been seen to co-occur with other mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. In fact, as many as 72% of those diagnosed with ARFID were also found to have a comorbid anxiety disorder. In addition, ARFID has also been linked to developmental disabilities, as well as autism (affecting approximately 13%.)

Because ARFID most commonly affects children and teenagers, there are certain symptoms and warning signs that parents can watch for that may be indicators of a problem. For example, your child may have a short list of foods they find acceptable or will want to eat foods that have similar characteristics (such as being crunchy in texture.) They may also have a preference for the way in which the foods they eat are prepared, while avoiding things like fruits and vegetables – and sometimes even eliminating certain foods from their diet all together. From there, complications can also occur as a result of being diagnosed with ARFID. A child may become malnourished, begin losing weight (and ultimately have trouble gaining weight), develop gastrointestinal problems, become emotional, and have negative social behaviours.

Once a child has been diagnosed with ARFID comes the treatment, with CBT (also known as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) being the top choice. CBT uses systemic desensitization as well as teaches relaxation skills in effort to help individuals not only overcome their fears (in this case, it would address the potential fears one might have surrounding food), in addition to helping them manage any co-occurring conditions.

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