When does picky eating become something more serious? Here we take a closer look at avoidant restrictive food intake disorder

After experiencing my own eating disorder in my teens, they’ve always been a topic of interest. From my work here where I often write or talk about them, to volunteer work with Beat, The UK’s eating disorder charity.

In recent months I’ve noticed a particular eating disorder being discussed more and more – avoidant restrictive food intake disorder, or ARFID. And I must admit, when I first heard it mentioned I had to do a quick Google as it wasn’t something I’d heard of before.

Awareness of this condition is slowly increasing, something that feels desperately necessary as those with ARFID often feel misunderstood.

What is ARFID?

The term ARFID was previously known as ‘feeding disorder’, ‘selective eating disorder’ or even just ‘picky eater’. Now it’s better understood, the title of avoidant restrictive food intake disorder is apt, as the condition centres around the person restricting or avoiding food in some way.

Unlike other restrictive eating disorders (like anorexia), ARFID rarely has a body image component. This means someone with the condition is unlikely to be restricting their food to change their weight and may not be worried about how they look.

The reasons someone may restrict or avoid food in these cases are varied. Some reasons include:

  • having sensory issues and struggling with certain textures, appearance or smells
  • having a negative experience with food in the past, such as choking or vomiting
  • having a generalised anxiety around food and eating
  • having worries about the consequences of eating

In some cases, those with ARFID can’t put their finger on the reason. It can start at a very early age, but can also come up later in life. It can also present alongside other conditions that cause sensory issues like autism and ADHD.

Happiful writer Bonnie Evie Gifford explains that it wasn’t until she was diagnosed as on the spectrum that she came across the term ARFID.

“I started to realise that a lot of my experiences around sensory issues and food anxiety weren’t just me being awkward or stubborn. Once I knew that there was a name for what I was experiencing, it meant I could start to look into how others coped with it, helping me to find new ways I could try and decrease my food-related anxiety and work through some sensory-related issues.”

In the video below, counsellor Maggie Learoyd explains more about ARFID.

What can help?

As Bonnie mentioned, knowing there is a name for what you’re going through can be helpful in terms of finding the right support. Like other eating disorders, those with ARFID often benefit from working with a professional and being open about what’s going on.

“Talking through things, both in online safe autistic spaces, with my partner, and with a qualified nutritionist, each helped me to identify different challenges I wasn’t even necessarily aware I’d been struggling with.” Bonnie explains.

Learning more about the condition and sharing this knowledge with loved ones is a great first step. When it comes to working with a professional, there are several options.

Like Bonnie, you may want to work with a nutritionist who has experience in this area. Nutrition professionals can help to identify any potential deficiencies you have, helping you get the nutrients you need and slowly expanding your intake.

Learn more about how a nutritionist can help with ARFID.

For many, working with a counsellor is also helpful. Counsellors can help you explore your anxieties around eating, uncover the root of this anxiety and start to unpick unhelpful thought patterns.

Learn more about how a counsellor can help with ARFID.

If you’re having difficulty changing your eating habits, hypnotherapy could be another tool to explore. Working with the subconscious, hypnotherapy uses suggestion techniques to help break thinking and behaviour patterns that aren’t serving you.

Learn more about how a hypnotherapist can help with eating problems.

If you have ARFID, know that you’re not alone. Support is available and is here whenever you’re ready.