Everybody knows a picky eater. Kids are especially notorious for being very selective in the foods they will eat. However, picky eating to an extreme may become a mental health disorder that leads to both physical and psychological health problems.

While we all dislike certain foods because of their taste or texture, some people refuse to eat a large percentage of food types or even entire food groups. This phenomenon is a condition known as avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). Since it has only been officially recognized as its own eating disorder in the past decade, many people are unaware of this condition. Currently-known facts and statistics of ARFID can clear up some common misconceptions about the condition and reveal risk factors and treatment options.

Prevalence of ARFID

Since it is such a newly-recognized disorder, not much research has been done on ARFID. Because of this, the prevalence of ARFID is hard to determine. While ARFID predominantly affects children, it can also occur in adults and teenagers.

A certain amount of food pickiness is expected in children, especially toddlers. Being selective in food preferences is considered a normal part of development. However, in cases of ARFID, this reluctance to eat a large number of food types can cause developmental problems. Children may feel intense anxiety about eating certain foods or have stunted growth because of nutritional deficiencies.

One recent study from Switzerland estimated the prevalence of ARFID among children aged 8–13 at about 3.2%. ARFID is one of the most common eating disorders treated in children. Between 5–14% of children in inpatient programs and as many as 22.5% of children in outpatient programs for eating disorders have now been diagnosed with ARFID. One study showed it affects boys more often than girls.

Very little is currently known about the rate of ARFID in adults in the general population. Recent research shows it affects about 9.2% of adult patients with eating disorders. Far more women have ARFID than men.

ARFID and Co-Occurring Disorders

Patients with ARFID frequently have other mental health disorders. Conditions currently known to co-occur with ARFID include:

  • Anxiety: People with ARFID sometimes feel anxious at the idea of eating certain types of food or about the possibility of going somewhere that they can’t find food that they like. As many as 72% of patients with ARFID also have an anxiety disorder.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): The extent that patients with ARFID obsess over their food being exactly a certain way sometimes crosses into an OCD diagnosis.
  • Pseudodysphagia: Some people with ARFID also grapple with pseudodysphagia, or the fear of choking. These individuals may avoid certain foods because they are afraid it will make them choke.
  • Autism spectrum disorder: People, especially children, with autism often develop an aversion to certain smells, tastes or textures, which can lead them to avoid specific types of foods altogether.
  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): Stimulant medications for ADHD can cause reduced appetite and in some cases can cause symptoms of ARFID to worsen.

ARFID is a distinct condition from anorexia nervosa. Patients with anorexia limit their food intake because they have a distorted body image or fear of gaining weight, while individuals with AFRID restrict their food intake because of food aversions.

Health Consequences of ARFID

ARFID can often lead to a nutrition deficit and related health risks, particularly in cases where a patient cuts entire food groups from their diet. The consequences of ARFID can be devastating in children if untreated, causing developmental problems such as stunted growth, malformed bones or delays in neurological development.

Statistics on ARFID Treatment

Because this is a newly recognized condition, there currently is not a standard treatment established for ARFID. In cases with severe malnutrition, the first line of therapy is to provide dietary supplements and restore physical health. In milder cases, talk therapy with a trained counselor is the usual treatment method. After receiving care, most patients recover well. Treatment is similar for adults and children.

If you or someone you love is affected by ARFID and a substance use disorder, The Recovery Village can help. Contact us today for more information.

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