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10 Things Someone With Avoidant Food Intake Disorder Wants You to Know

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Avoidant/restrictive food intake (eating) disorder (ARFID) used to be known as selective eating disorder until was added to the DSM-V in 2013. Because this is a new eating disorder that isn’t as commonly recognized, I wanted to list some things from my personal experience that I think people should understand about those who struggle with ARFID.

1. ARFID, like many other eating disorders, can have varying root causes for each individual. So what does this mean? It means we’re not choosing to be fussy, but our disorder has probably made us fear the texture, color, taste, smell or size of foods. Most times, we want to be able to eat everything and anything, but it’s not our fault that we are struggling.

2. ARFID has nothing to do with what are parents fed us. Telling the parents of the person struggling, “if you had just fed them vegetables and meat for dinner, they wouldn’t be ‘fussy,’” when in fact, an eating disorder can have varying or multiple causes. Most parents have bought just about the whole supermarket in an attempt to expand their child’s diet. The reason why parents do feed us our “safe” foods is because by the time they’ve worked all day, cleaned the house and helped us with homework, it’s so much easier not to fight ARFID and just stick with the “safe” foods, making dinnertime less stressful or dramatic.

3. Many people who struggle with ARFID have “safe” foods. I like to say that this is what ARFID “accepts into our bodies.” Any unfamiliar food, ARFID won’t “accept” due to either the texture, taste, smell, color and/or size of the food. Every persons “safe” food group differs. Yes, we may have some foods in common with others “safe” foods, but that doesn’t make us “fussy” or “picky” if we have similar safe foods. We still have the same eating disorder even if we do or don’t have common “safe” foods.

4. ARFID impacts our social life. Eating out in public places doesn’t always feel safe. Don’t get offended if your friend, family member or partner never wants to eat in public, especially if they go to a new restaurant and there aren’t any of their safe foods to eat. What makes the environment feel unsafe can often be the judgment for certain food choices by others, especially if they’re a grown adult. The group of people the someone is eating with is also important. They may not understand or accept the eating disorder, which can cause unnecessary attention to the person struggling. Comments like, “you’re just fussy” or “why can’t you just eat it like the rest of us?” puts the person struggling in a vulnerable position. If you want your friend/family member/partner to be able to eat out with you in public places, make sure everyone else who is coming is accepting, or won’t judge the person’s food choices. Also make sure a good variety of safe foods are available.

5. Anyone can have ARFID. We may look like we’re not struggling, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have an eating disorder. This goes for all eating disorders really. You don’t have to be thin to have anorexia, just like you don’t have to be big to have binge eating disorder. Anyone can develop an eating disorder at any age and any time in their life. 

6. To support someone with ARFID, don’t make a big deal if they don’t tolerate the food or have an interest in trying something new. Some people may gag at the smell of an unfamiliar food, and in extreme cases, may vomit from the smell of the food. Offering someone struggling to try a new food a pat on the back for giving it a go is simply enough support. You don’t have to understand or accept ARFID, but refraining from making unnecessary comments is a big relief and can make those struggling more comfortable eating with you.

7. It’s not offensive to talk about food around us, but it can become uncomfortable if you’re talking about unfamiliar foods. Try to keep the conversation inclusive by asking what someones safe foods are, or if you already know what their safe foods are, ask what they’re interested in trying.

8. It can be an emotional journey for the whole family if they have an immediate familiar member with ARFID. Personally, my family and I are quite open about my journey with ARFID because we want to make a difference for others that struggle with ARFID. But for some families, they may find it too emotional to talk about, or they have had judgements in the past and they don’t want to get hurt again if they open up to you about living with ARFID. It can be very upsetting for parents to watch their child struggle with AFRID. I think this is true for all eating disorders. It’s not always a comfortable topic to discuss.

9. Traveling away from home can be an issue, especially if the person struggling is traveling outside of their country. If you are traveling with a someone who struggles with AFRID, they may have brought their own safe foods so that it doesn’t look odd if they have nothing on their plate to eat at the table because none of their safe foods were available. Yes, sharing is caring, but the bag of food isn’t for you to snack on whenever you want — it is there because someone with an eating disorder needs that food to survive on.

10. We are trying our very best to get better. I was only diagnosed with AFRID a few months before I turned 18, but I have lived with ARFID for my entire life. It’s not our fault that we have an eating disorder. We didn’t choose this eating disorder — it chose us. It’s not helpful to make the person struggling feel like it’s their fault when it’s not at all. You need to love and support someone with ARFID just as much as you would anyone else. No one should blame someone with an eating disorder for having it. Love and support us the way we are, that will help us recover.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Thinkstock photo via Jiri Wagner

Originally published: September 19, 2017
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