If you’ve ever been a parent of a toddler or young child, then you probably have experience dealing with picky eaters. It’s common for kids to refuse healthy foods or food that tastes unappealing to them. As frustrating as this can be, there’s nothing concerning about your six-year-old refusing to eat their vegetables. That being said, picky eating has its limits. Sometimes, your child isn’t a picky eater at all. Your child may actually have an eating disorder known as avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID).
Compared to many other eating disorders (such as anorexia), ARFID wasn’t recognized until recently. The disorder was first defined in 2013. Therefore our understanding of it is still growing.
What is Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder?
When a child or adult has ARFID, they will have severe restrictions on the foods that they’re willing to eat. This can look a bit different from person to person. Typically, an individual may refuse to eat foods with a certain texture, color, or smell.
In some cases of ARFID, the person may only eat foods of a very specific consistency. These might be bland things such as plain noodles, hot cereal such as Malt O Meal but not oatmeal, white bread but not wheat, french fries but not potatoes in any other form. In many instances, it can be about the texture of the food and not the taste. As adults, people with this disorder may eat the same thing for all meals and only eat once a day. As an example, they may eat only chicken nuggets and fries. They feel hungry but the idea of eating at all makes them feel nauseated, so they limit their meals to once a day. Most will have a short menu of safe foods they will eat. These safe foods usually consist of “comfort” foods. When an ARFID sufferer has their safe foods, it is nearly impossible to get them to try something new. This can make it extremely difficult for them to eat an adequate amount of calories or nutrients, seeing as they will be unable to eat most foods given to them.
When a teen or adult has ARFID, they may need to rely on supplements to receive all the essential nutrients that they require.
If you’re growing worried about your child’s picky eating habits, it’s a good idea to keep the symptoms of ARFID in mind. This way, it’s easier for you to catch the red flags early on and get your child help.
In children, the most common symptoms of ARFID are:
- Food restriction (based on fears of particular smells, textures, or appearances)
- Lack of interest in food
- Severely limited food intake (can also lead to fasting behaviors)
On their own, none of these symptoms necessarily point to ARFID. However, if you start to notice all of these tendencies in your child, consider scheduling an appointment with their pediatrician.
What Are the Risks?
As with other eating disorders, ARFID can have serious consequences on an individual’s health and emotional wellbeing.
When young children develop this disorder, they could develop growth problems due to the lack of calories or nutrients that they are eating. Some common deficiencies that a child can develop are insufficient iron, zinc, folate, vitamin C, and/or vitamin B-12.
Additionally, ARFID can result in:
- Difficulties concentrating
- Stomach cramps or other problems with digestion
- Fainting or dizziness
- Issues with sleep
- Absent or irregular menstrual cycles
- Hair loss
- Dry skin
- Rapid heartbeat
- Low blood pressure
- Intolerance to cold
- Depression and anxiety
Although ARFID isn’t a direct byproduct of body image or weight control issues, those with this disorder can still become underweight. But it is not bulimia or anorexia.
Some studies have shown that people with ARFID have had a traumatic childhood experience. They may have had a choking incident as a toddler. Some had feeding issues as an infant. Some may have had traumatic experiences during birthing and more. There is still a lot to learn about what causes this disorder.
Can ARFID Be Treated?
If you suspect that your child is dealing with this disorder, know that it can be treated. There are a few ways that this eating disorder can be managed, including appetite-boosting medications, antianxiety medications, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), in-patient care, and outpatient care programs.
Children with ARFID should receive medical care as soon as possible. Children get tired of hearing all of the reasons they should eat and they shut down. If your child or teenager is displaying symptoms of ARFID, make sure to visit your family healthcare provider. They will be able to rule out any other possibilities before reaching a diagnosis. Fortunately, solutions for this disorder are available.