Are you or someone you know consistently shunning certain foods, repeatedly plucking off undesirable items from meals or avoiding a type of food altogether? If so, you may have what’s now been recognized in the latest edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID).
Those with ARFID are said to engage in selective eating habits so severe that they routinely fail to meet necessary energy and nutritional needs. They do it not to achieve a certain body weight or appearance, or due to body image issues, but rather because they prefer eating only specific items over others. This puts their health in jeopardy as it can lead to weight loss, stunted growth, bowel disorders, serious nutritional deficiencies, reliance on a gastronomy tube or oral nutritional supplements, depression and anxiety. As such, experts consider it an eating disorder worthy of attention.
What’s Normal, What’s Not
Of course, many people automatically think of anorexia or bulimia upon hearing the words, “eating disorder.” Therefore, researchers discussing ARFID stress the importance of making health professionals and society aware of this newly listed condition since it too, can have devastating mental and physical health consequences.
Experts are also careful to point out that the occasional picky eater need not worry about developing an eating disorder. For example, Dr. Rollyn Ornstein, interim division chief of Adolescent Medicine and Eating Disorders at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital, notes that selective eating is often seen among very young children. She explains that this is normal, especially among toddlers and preschoolers. However, picky eating could morph into ARFID if they continue to skip out on certain foods as they grow older. The longer the habits continue, the more likely it is to become an issue.
“You know your child best. So if you think there is a problem, you shouldn’t feel bad about seeking help from an expert,” she says. “It shouldn’t be ignored for too long because if they have texture or sensory issues, it becomes harder to deal with as they get older.”
Beyond Taste and Texture: Prior Bad Experiences with Food Also a Possible Reason for Picky Eating
Ornstein also explains that the reason for avoiding certain foods isn’t always related to unfavorable tastes or textures. In many instances, a person with ARFID does not eat specific items because of an unsettling prior experience–choking, for example–involving that very food. So ingrained is the notion that the food will cause another episode that a person opts to remove it from their diet almost entirely, thus beginning the start of an ongoing lifestyle. Left untreated, it can not only lead to the above-mentioned health problems, but also cause difficulties socializing.
Eating disorder experts are happy to hear that this kind of food avoidance now has a diagnosable name. Many believe that behavioral intervention will benefit those with ARFID and any underlying conditions that can intensify the disorder. Overall, it’s imperative that those with the disorder get the help they need to avoid malnutrition and the many other health issues that may potentially develop.
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