Understanding the Physical Effects of ARFID

Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder are the three most common types of disordered eating behaviors. They no longer make up the entirety of eating disorder diagnoses, though, as researchers gain a deeper understanding of these conditions. There are a few more eating disorders than these main three.

Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) is one of these lesser-known eating disorder diagnoses. People with ARFID restrict food intake to specific types of foods or limit the amount of food they eat. Unlike anorexia, though, many individuals with the condition aren’t necessarily concerned with their body image or weight.

One study found that 14% of adolescents at an eating disorder treatment facility met the criteria for ARFID. Still, other research suggests that ARFID may be just as common as other eating disorders. Despite its prevalence, the newness of the condition may mean people don’t know what to look for. Understanding the physical effects of ARFID can help you learn to recognize when someone may need help.

What is ARFID?

Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder is a newer eating disorder diagnosis than other conditions like anorexia or bulimia. Previously known as selective eating disorder, ARFID was made an official diagnosis in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

ARFID filled a gap in the previous categorization of disordered eating behaviors. It is similar to anorexia in that individuals avoid certain types of foods or restrict their diets to a limited range of foods they deem acceptable. At the same time, they do not meet the criteria for anorexia because their restriction doesn’t result from dissatisfaction with their weight or body image.

Instead, individuals with ARFID avoid foods due to sensory sensitivities, fears of negative consequences, or an overall disinterest in food or eating. Almost half of the children diagnosed with the condition report avoiding particular foods because they fear vomiting or choking. Additionally, one-fifth report food avoidance because of sensory issues.

Before the introduction of ARFID, these individuals were usually diagnosed with an eating disorder not otherwise specified (ED-NOS). Clinicians noticed these behaviors most often in children, adolescents, and young adults. Their food avoidance wasn’t caused by weight loss yet they didn’t eat enough to meet their daily nutritional needs. Introducing the ARFID diagnosis categorized these young individuals into a more accurate classification of their condition.

Physical Effects of ARFID

ARFID often starts as a case of picky eating. Plenty of young children are picky eaters and are very particular about the foods they eat. Children and adolescents with ARFID not only refuse to eat or restrict their diet to certain foods; they experience physical effects as a result of their limited diet.

Despite the lack of concern for their body image, a drive for thinness, or preoccupation with weight, these young people do not eat enough to meet their nutritional needs. They lack the thought patterns and motivations typical of anorexia but their behaviors still keep them from reaching their daily nutritional requirements.

Physical effects of ARFID include:

  • Food avoidance
  • Decreased appetite
  • Abdominal pain
  • Emetophobia (fear of vomiting)
  • Significant weight loss
  • Failure to gain weight
  • Inability to stay adequately nourished
  • Compromised growth
  • Nutritional deficiency (i.e. iron deficiency anemia)
  • Interference with psychosocial functioning

How is ARFID Treated?

The primary distinction between picky eaters and ARFID is the serious nutritional deficiency that occurs. Children and adolescents often rely on nutritional supplements to meet their daily energy needs since they cannot consume enough food. This means treatment for ARFID typically starts with a pediatrician rather than a psychiatrist.

The physical effects of ARFID are the primary focus during treatment. Treatment goals center around providing adequate nutrition while challenging and breaking down food avoidance. Helping adolescents learn to recognize their harmful thought patterns so they can feed themselves properly is the basis of all treatment of ARFID.

ARFID is mainly a food-focused eating disorder rather than a mental health or psychiatric problem. At the same time, some adolescents may also have co-occurring mental health disorders. Treatment for ARFID should always consider the possibility of other mental health disorders when working with these individuals.

Eating Disorder Treatment at Magnolia Creek

Magnolia Creek is a residential and partial hospitalization program for women ages 12 and older who struggle with an eating disorder or other feeding disorder. Our comprehensive treatment plans provide the structure and support needed to meet the medical, nutritional, psychological, spiritual, and relational needs of the women we work with.

Located just outside of Birmingham, AL, Magnolia Creek provides care in a calm, serene location where you can connect with nature while you focus on your recovery. Our facility is dually licensed as both an eating disorder and mental health treatment center. We center our approach around evidence-based methods to provide the best care possible.

If you’re interested in learning more about the programs available at Magnolia Creek, reach out to us today. Our admissions specialists will connect you with the program that best fits your needs. We’d love to hear from you, learn more about your struggles, and understand how we can help. Magnolia Creek is here to keep you from having to battle your disorder alone ever again!


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