7 Symptoms of ARFID That Parents Need to Watch Out For

Written by: Kirstin Schafer, Psy.D., Angela Derrick, Ph.D. & Susan McClanahan, Ph.D.

7 Symptoms of ARFID That Parents Need to Watch Out For

7 Symptoms of ARFID That Parents Need to Watch Out For

When it comes to our children, we want to do everything in our power to ensure that they’re healthy and happy. But sometimes our child can develop an eating disorder without us even realizing it. ARFID, or “Avoidant/Restrictive-Food Intake Disorder,” is a little-known eating disorder that can cause kids to fear food and avoid eating altogether.

If you’re worried that your child may have ARFID, here are seven symptoms you need to watch out for:

1. Your child has difficulty swallowing or eating solid foods.

2. Your child has lost a significant amount of weight in a short period.

3. Your child has a low appetite and poor eating habits.

4. Your child has extreme anxiety when eating in public.

5. Your child is willing to go long periods without eating.

6. Your child becomes distressed when they realize they’re in the presence of certain foods or beverages.

7. Keeping food items out of your child’s sight makes them feel more comfortable.

If you’re worried that your child may have ARFID, see the specialists at SpringSource Psychological Center for an official diagnosis.

Remember: eating disorders are severe and can even be fatal if undiagnosed.

This article is about a disorder called ARFID. It’s a kind of eating disorder in which children show fear of the experience of eating and/or of specific foods. Some signs that your child might have this disorder are: having trouble swallowing or eating solid foods, weight loss, low appetite, or anxiety around food. ARFID can be dangerous because kids might not eat enough and could get sick due to nutritional deprivation. But there is help available for kids with this disorder and for their parents.

Relevant Statistics about ARFID

  • ARFID is more than just “picky eating;” children do not grow out of it and often become malnourished because of the limited variety of foods they will eat. 2
  • The true prevalence of ARFID is still being studied, but preliminary estimates suggest it may affect as many as 5 percent of children.2
  • Boys may have a higher risk for ARFID than girls 2
  • Rates of ARFID are between 5% and 14% in pediatric inpatient ED programs and up to 22.5% in a pediatric eating disorder day treatment program 4

2 Norris, M. L., Spettigue, W., & Katzman, D. K. (2016). Update on eating disorders: current perspectives on avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder in children and youth. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 12, 213-218.

4. Norris, M. L., Spettigue, W., & Katzman, D. K. (2016). Update on eating disorders: current perspectives on avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder in children and youth. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 12, 213-218.

ARFID is an eating disorder

Eating disorders are clinical diagnoses defined by persistent eating habits and often related body image changes. An eating disorder may develop due to physiological, biological, environmental, or neurobiological factors. Two major eating disorders include anorexia nervosa (AN) and bulimia nervosa (BN). Individuals with anorexia engage in self-starvation or purging behaviors to maintain a weight that is too low for their specific body.  People with bulimia may be motivated to discontinue but feel stuck in the cycle of restricting and then bingeing and purging. 

Most eating disorders are associated with other mental health issues, including body image dissatisfaction, social anxiety, depression, and other co-occurring conditions.  For example, someone who has BN may also be diagnosed with ADD or OCD.

ARFID is an eating disorder

ARFID stands for Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, a diagnosis used since 2013 through the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders ( DSM V ) to describe feeding and eating behaviors that don’t fit the criteria for AN, BN or other eating disorders. In this case, ARFID is diagnosed due to a persistent lack of interest or fear around food. Difficulty with eating is typically associated with anxiety about rejecting food or losing control around certain foods, leading to repeated social isolation, behavioral changes, and psychological distress.

ARFID is a relatively new diagnosis within the world of eating disorder treatment, but it is an important one because it helps doctors distinguish between abnormal eating habits in children and those who simply have picky eating preferences or limited access to healthy foods. In most non-ARFID cases, conditions will resolve independently without intervention, and it’s important not to label kids as having an eating disorder when they only have a limited diet with no related consequences. 

Treatment for AN, BN, or ARFID can be similar depending on the severity of symptoms and what co-occurring conditions are present. In general, treatment options include:

  • Talk therapy (individual, group, family).
  • Nutritional counseling.
  • Medical care as needed for weight restoration or stabilization from purging habits.
  • Psychiatric medications to treat comorbid disorders like anxiety or depression.
  • Exposure therapy is a form of cognitive-behavioral retraining that helps clients identify and replace their disordered thoughts with healthier ones. The therapist guides them through various exercises in which the client is exposed to feared situations or foods, and the client learns ways to manage their distress without avoiding.

However, everyone has different needs based on their diagnoses and preferences, so individuals will be prescribed a personalized treatment plan at most eating disorder recovery centers.

If you’re worried that your child may have ARFID, please call the specialists at SpringSource Psychological Center in Chicago for an official diagnosis. Eating disorder specialists such as the clinicians at SpringSource Psychological Center can help get your child back on the right track.  Fortunately, ARFID is treatable and there is good reason to expect that your child will develop the skills needed to relate to food normally again.