child eating an apple

ARFID: What Parents Should Know About this Eating Disorder

Many parents struggle to get their toddlers to eat the right kinds of food and ensure that they get the complete nourishment they need to grow strong and healthy. Pediatricians consider picky eating as a normal part of a child’s development, but they also acknowledge that it can lead to complications like vitamin deficiencies.

Children typically outgrow picky eating as they grow older, but if they don’t, they might be experiencing something Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID).

As a private group practice offering treatment programs for eating disorder patients in Westport, we can show you the difference between picky eating and ARFID (previously called Selective Eating Disorder or SED). Here’s what you, as parents, need to know about this disorder and how it can affect your child.

Picky Eating vs. ARFID: What’s the Difference?

The first thing you need to know is how to determine if your child is simply a picky eater or already afflicted with SED. This is necessary because if your child has the latter, you may need professional help and seek selective eating disorder treatment for your child.

Here are some points where picky eaters and children with SED differ:

  • Fussy eaters eventually grow out of this behavior while SED patients do not.
  • A key difference between the two is that picky eaters are still relatively healthy and can hit and maintain the ideal body weight of their age group despite eating only a few kinds of food. Children with ARFID, on the other hand, experience significant weight loss and are likely below their ideal weight range. They definitely need nutritional supplements and, in worst-case scenarios, they need feeding tubes to meet their daily caloric needs.
  • A child’s attitude towards food can also be a symptom. Picky eaters are selective with their food because they don’t like what certain kinds of food look, smell, or taste like. In contrast, kids diagnosed with ARFID have a very strong aversion to food (hence ARFID is also described by some as “food neophobia”) coupled with an almost exclusive preference for a very narrow selection of food. Some children cannot even stand to have food that they don’t like within their sight or in the same room as them. Additionally, picky children are interested in food. They often feel hungry and enjoy eating their preferences. Kids with ARFID, however, have very little interest in food and eating in general.
  • Children who develop ARFID may have a great fear of vomiting or choking, either because they experienced it previously or saw someone else do it. They become very anxious about vomiting that their immediate physical response is to restrict their eating. Typical picky eaters have no such fears about food or vomiting.

family having breakfast

Diagnosis and Treatment

The symptoms above for picky eating and ARFID may seem like polar opposites and easy to distinguish, but there are many cases when they also overlap. It’s challenging distinguishing between the two without professional help, which is why it’s important to get an official diagnosis from a qualified psychologist.

Treatment for ARFID is usually a combination of medications, nutrition therapy, family-aided therapy, behavioral intervention, and psychotherapy. Home treatment for this selective disorder is possible with guidance from a professional team.

The Center for Cognitive and Behavioral Health can give the guidance and treatment that families and children with ARFID need. We are a private group practice of psychotherapists and clinicians dedicated to providing individualized mental health services in Westport and other nearby cities in Connecticut.

Contact us today to request an appointment.