This page was medically reviewed by Sam Bulkeley, (BACP) Programme lead therapist at Life Works, in February 2023.
What is ARFID eating disorder?
Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder, known as ARFID, is a type of eating disorder that involves you restricting what kinds of food you eat and/or the amount of food you eat.
Previously known as selective eating disorder, ARFID can severely damage your physical and mental health. People with ARFID typically don’t consume enough calories for their body to function as best as it can. This can lead to dramatic weight loss and nutritional deficiencies, which can have a lasting effect on many aspects of your physical health.
Are ARFID and anorexia linked?
ARFID shares many similarities with anorexia nervosa. Both conditions are characterised by placing limits on your diet. This may involve removing certain categories of food or by restricting the amount of food you eat. However, people suffering from anorexia will also obsessively worry about their size, shape or body image – something which is not always apparent in people with ARFID.
Symptoms of ARFID
If you’re worried that you, or someone you love, may be struggling with ARFID, familiarising yourself with the most common signs and symptoms is a good place to start.
Common physical symptoms include:
- Severe weight loss
- Gastrointestinal issues, such as stomach pain or cramps, especially around meal times
- Irregularities in the menstrual cycle
- Feeling cold a lot of time
- Muscle weakness
- Underactive thyroid
- Low iron levels
- Slow heart rate
- Thinning, dry and brittle hair
- Dry skin
- Dry and brittle nails
- Weakened immune system
- Muscle aches
Some of these psychological signs might also be an indicator that you or your loved one is struggling with ARFID:
- Noticeable resistance to eating certain types of food, which may get worse over time
- Lack of appetite or interest in food
- Restriction of diet to foods with certain textures
- Fear of choking or vomiting
- Wearing multiple layers of clothing with the intention of covering up their body shape and size
What can trigger ARFID?
There is no known single cause of ARFID. Many different factors may contribute to the condition, and two different people may have drastically different experiences leading to developing the condition. The same is true when looking at the causes of eating disorders across the board.
For many, ARFID has its roots in childhood, and this is when someone may have been given their original diagnosis. You might be hypersensitive to certain tastes or textures that prompt you to limit your diet. You might have had a negative experience, like choking or vomiting while eating, which has led to you developing a fear of certain foods. Problems with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), also known as acid reflux, can also be a common trigger that leads to problems with ARFID.
For some, it may be that you were a ‘picky’ eater as a child and that behaviour has gradually got worse as you got older.
ARFID also has connections to other mental health or developmental conditions, which may impact on the development of the eating disorder. People with autism are more likely to develop ARFID as they share some symptoms such as sensory sensitivities and anxiety around food. Find out more about the relationship between ARFID and autism.The same is true of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Children with ADHD might struggle to develop healthy patterns with food which may led to longer-term difficulties with ARFID.
People with ARFID are also more likely to develop co-occurring mental health problems. ARFID can lead to severe levels of anxiety around food, leading to a possible diagnosis of an anxiety disorder. Given the patterns and obsessive behaviours that some people with ARFID develop around food, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a common type of anxiety disorder that people struggle with alongside ARFID.
ARFID treatment options
If your relationship with food, or that of someone you love, is causing physical issues with your weight, growth or development, or mental issues such as excessive anxiety or social isolation, it may be time to consider accessing professional help and support.
The most effective way to treat ARFID can vary widely. Given the range of causes of the eating disorder, what works for one person may not work for someone else. To get the right treatment plan that matches the causes of your ARFID, a useful first step will be to speak to your GP. After assessing your symptoms, they can offer you their medical expertise on which treatments are right for you.
Alternatively, you can reach out to a specialist provider of private eating disorder treatment like Life Works, where our world class team of practitioners will use their years of collective experience to develop a treatment plan built for your long-term recovery.
Effective treatments include:
There are manty types of therapy that are proven to be effective at treating the underlying causes of eating disorders like ARFID. For example, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) aims to identify the damaging thought processes that underpin your eating disorder and works to help you overcome them.
These therapy sessions might take place on a one-to-one or group basis, working with a specialist therapist or psychiatrist who is familiar with treating eating disorders.
Dietetic techniques and meal support
Working with a dietitian or nutritionist, tailor-made dietetic techniques can help you develop a more positive relationship with food and the concept of healthy eating.
This includes things like personalised meal plans, meal and post-meal support and weekly groups focused on food shopping and cooking.
It might also be suitable for you to take some medication to help you focus on your recovery. If you’re also struggling with co-occurring mental health problems for example, medication can help reduce your symptoms and allow you to concentrate fully on overcoming your difficulties with an eating disorder.
Treatment for eating disorders at Life Works
Set within a beautiful Georgian manor house in Woking, Surrey, Life Works is one of the UK’s most renowned treatment centres, providing exceptional, evidence-based treatment for eating disorders. Our expert multidisciplinary team have a wealth of experience in delivering specialist treatment for these complex conditions, helping you to overcome your destructive behaviours, and resume the healthy and fulfilling life that you deserve.
Our approach to treatment ensures all treatment plans are individually tailored according to your unique condition, symptoms and requirements and we ensure that you are placed at the heart of your treatment journey in order to produce sustainable, positive outcomes. Get in touch with Life Works to book a free pre-screening eating disorder assessment and begin your recovery with us today
Book a Free Pre-Screening Eating Disorder Assessment at Life Works in Surrey.
For more information about the eating disorder services that Life Works offer, download our brochure.Get our brochure