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What is the eating disorder ARFID?

Displeased girl refusing to eat cherry tomato while her mother is feeding her.
Most children go through a 'picky eating' phase - but when does it become Arfid? (Getty Images)

Society is often quick to dismiss people who are seen as ‘picky’ or ‘fussy’ eaters - but a little-known eating disorder could be the reason behind a person’s particular preferences when it comes to food.

Beat, the UK’s eating disorders charity, is raising awareness around a condition called avoidant or restrictive food intake disorder, or ARFID, during Eating Disorders Week, which begins on Monday 26 February until Sunday 3 March.

The charity said it has seen a sevenfold increase in calls to its helpline from people seeking help with ARFID over the past five years.

In 2018, Beat’s helpline received 295 calls for ARFID, equivalent to just 2% of all the calls it received at the time. But last year, the figure rose to 2,054 calls, or 10% of total calls for 2023.

Speaking to the Guardian, Andrew Radford, chief executive of Beat, said: "It’s extremely worrying that there has been such a dramatic increase in those seeking support for ARFID, particularly as specialist care isn’t always readily available.”

"Unlike other eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, ARFID isn’t driven by feelings around [someone’s] weight or shape. Instead, it might be due to having sensory issues around the texture or taste of certain foods, fear about eating due to distressing experiences with food, for example choking, or lack of interest in eating."

Little girl refusing to eat
Avoiding specific foods or types of food is a key sign of Arfid. (Getty Images)

It is not known exactly how many people in the UK struggle with ARFID. According to Beat, an estimated 1.25 million people have an eating disorder, with a 2017 study suggesting that 5% are cases of ARFID.

Here’s everything you need to know about the eating disorder:

What is ARFID?

ARFID is a type of eating disorder mainly characterised by the avoidance of certain foods or types of foods.

A person who has ARFID may also restrict the amount of food they eat. According to Beat, ARFID is usually based on one or a combination of:

  • Sensory-based avoidance

  • Concern about the consequences of eating

  • Low interest in eating

How do you identify ARFID?

Most children go through a ‘picky eating’ phase, but will eventually add more foods of different tastes and textures to their diets.

But if a person doesn’t, it could point to ARFID. The eating disorder mainly affects children, but can also develop in teenagers and adults, a 2023 review of how the condition is managed said.

The review, authored by researchers in Italy, added: "ARFID can have serious physical and mental health consequences, including stunted growth, nutritional deficiencies, anxiety, and other psychiatric comorbidities."

It described the condition as being "relatively under-recognised and undertreated" despite its "increasing importance".

Beat says there are two key signs to look out for in a person who may have ARFID, including:

  • The person can’t eat a wide enough range of foods to meet their nutritional needs. They may not be able to gain or maintain their weight, or do not enter puberty at the normal time, and may need to be prescribed nutritional supplements.

  • There is a significant impact on their lifestyle. They may not be able to dine out or participate in social events like parties or holidays.

How is ARFID treated?

According to ARFID Awareness UK, there have not been enough studies to determine a psychological treatment that is suitable for all forms of ARFID.

However, older children and adults with ARFID can benefit from cognitive and behavioural interventions used to treat anorexia. Any form of treatment for the disorder should take place under the supervision of a specialist team that can come up with a programme that meets the individual’s unique needs.

Treatment will likely start with setting goals for each individual. These may include goals like correcting nutritional deficiencies, eating a larger range of foods, becoming comfortable eating in front of others, and becoming less fearful of choking or vomiting.

Therapies like desensitisation therapy, exposure therapy, hypnotherapy, and eye movement and desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy may also be incorporated into the treatment programme.

For support with an eating disorder, visit the charity Beat.

Watch: Schoolboy who only ate chocolate bars and Nutella is cured by hypnosis

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