Selective eating disorder, which is also known as avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), affects thousands of people in the U.S. People with this disorder are extremely picky in their food choices, as they fear certain types of food. ARFID often occurs in children, but adults can also be affected. Adults with ARFID tend to have a minimal range of foods that they will eat, sometimes less than 20.
ARFID is different from anorexia and bulimia, and the individual’s selectiveness stems from concerns that do not generally involve weight loss or weight control. Common fears experienced by people with ARFID are that food temperature will not be appropriate, choking may occur, and that they will become sick, especially when consuming new foods.
There are three primary types of ARFID, which include the following:
Lack of interest, in which the person has a genuine lack of interest in eating food, and they may tend to get full quickly.
Sensory avoidance, in which the person has issues with the taste, texture, temperature, and smell of many foods.
Fear of aversive consequences, in which the person fears illness, choking, nausea, or that an allergic reaction will result from eating.
Symptoms of Selective Eating Disorder
The following signs and symptoms may be associated with a person who has ARFID:
- He/she has a very short list/menu of acceptable foods from which to choose.
- He/she may only eat food with similar characteristics, such as being crunchy or in liquid form.
- He/she has strong preferences in food preparation methods.
- He/she avoids broad categories of food, such as vegetables, fruits, or sources of protein.
- He/she frequently eliminates certain foods permanently.
- He/she may be underweight and malnourished.
- He/she may have nutritional deficiencies, such as those involving iron, and vitamins A and C.
- He/she becomes upset or stressed when around unfamiliar or undesirable foods.
- He/she only eats a small selection of “safe” foods, such as those enjoyed in childhood (e.g., grilled cheese sandwiches, chocolate milk).
These fears and food limitations will often adversely affect social interactions and behaviors. Like people with anorexia or bulimia, people with ARFID may not wish to attend certain events in order to avoid exposure to various foods. They may also be ashamed of their condition and try to conceal it from others.
Risks and complications associated with ARFID may include:
- Co-occurring anxiety and panic disorders
- Failure to gain weight or weight loss
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Developmental delays in children
Causes of Selective Eating Disorder
Like most mental health conditions, ARFID doesn’t have one precise cause. Instead, it is believed to be a product of several factors, including those that are biological, social, emotional, and environmental in nature. Moreover, a person who is already genetically predisposed to an eating disorder may be triggered by something in their environment, such as exposure to a traumatic event.
And, because other mental illnesses, such as anxiety and depression, may involve disrupted patterns of eating, these may also be present. In fact, eating disorders and mood disorders are both frequently underpinned by similar emotional issues.
Selective Eating Disorder and Addiction
Eating disorders and addiction to drugs or alcohol frequently go hand-in-hand. People with mental health conditions such as ARFID may be more likely to abuse substances as a means to self-medicate. Unfortunately, this method eventually fails, and the person not only continues to suffer from mental illness, they now have a co-occurring substance use disorder, as well.
Furthermore, addiction causes further emotional dysregulation and tends to make many of the symptoms of mental disorders worse. Emotional issues and escalating substance abuse can propel a person in a vicious cycle that is seemingly endless unless they receive an effective medical intervention.
Finally, eating disorders are thought to be a kind of behavioral addiction in and of themselves. Behavioral addiction and substance abuse affect similar parts of the brain, such as those responsible for feelings of satisfaction, pleasure, and reward. For this reason, people who experience a behavioral addiction may be more likely to engage in other addictive and compulsive behaviors, such as substance abuse.
Treatment for ARFID and Addiction
Fortunately, recovery from both eating disorders and addiction to drugs or alcohol is possible! Both of these conditions do, however, require highly specialized, long-term treatment facilitated by medical and mental health professionals. An approach that addresses all aspects of a person’s emotional and physical well-being is most effective, as failure to address a mental health disorder in conjunction with substance abuse will likely lead to a relapse involving either condition.
If you are a loved one who is struggling with substance abuse and an eating disorder, please reach out to us. Recovery in Tune specializes in the treatment of co-occurring conditions such as these. We offer personalized, comprehensive programs, in both outpatient and partial hospitalization formats, designed to provide clients with the tools and support they need to recover fully from both mental illness and addiction.
You don’t have to suffer alone any longer—contact us today to discuss treatment options! Discover how we help people get on the road to recovery and foster the fulfilling lives they deserve!