ARFID, the ‘silent eating disorder,’ gaining attention

(NewsNation) — It’s one thing for your child to be a picky eater, but it’s another thing to refuse to eat foods based on smells, texture, colors or strangeness. And it can lead to serious physical problems.

The condition, which has come to light fairly recently, is called avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). Some healthcare professionals may also call it “selective eating disorder.” Unlike other eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia, it is not a mental issue associated with a negative self-image.

Nurse Stephanie Harris R.N.(L) takes off patient Dante Rana's heart monitor at the ACUTE Center for Eating Disorders Denver Health Medical Center. Dante is recovering from avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder(ARFID). (Photo by Michael Reaves/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

ARFID was just added to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 2013. Health care professionals use the handbook in diagnosing mental disorders.

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Children with ARFID fall into three general categories:

Very selective eaters who have strong negative reactions to foods with certain smells, textures or colors. They may also have “neophobia,” fear of unfamiliar foods. An overall lack of interest in eating, a tiny appetite or little sense of reward from eating. Fear of what might happen when they eat, such as pain, choking or vomiting.

The main problem stemming from ARFID is poor nutrition, which can lead to a lot of different problems such as poor growth, delayed puberty and the eventual need to take nutrition supplements or even use a feeding tube.

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More complications can include low blood pressure, a slow pulse, dehydration, weakened bones and muscles and stopped menstrual periods.

Experts are generally stumped about the cause. Some believe it’s a combination of a child’s temperament, genes and perhaps a triggering event such as choking.

Treatment takes several forms, including input from a doctor, a dietitian and a therapist who specializes in eating disorders. The goal is to get a child to eat enough to gain weight, increase the variety of foods they eat and learn ways to eat without the fear of pain or choking.

Doctors tell parents it’s important for them to be role models when it comes to food. That means expanding adults’ food variety. Other strong advice: schedule regular meals and snacks, including regular family meals.

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They also should encourage kids to try new foods but don’t force them. Reward positive eating behavior. Find ways to deal with anxiety and stress such as using yoga, music and meditation. And above all, stay calm and don’t criticize a child for their eating struggles.

While the condition is most common in childhood, adults can also develop ARFID. And, for now, doctors say there is no known way to prevent it. But experts do say ARFID won’t go away without treatment, and it’s not a one-day resolution.

Information from The Cleveland Clinic and Nemours Kids Health contributed to this story.

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