ARFID in adults: What it is & how you can treat it
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Eating disorders and mental health are often linked because the root of harmful eating habits can be anxiety and other mental illnesses. As we get older, our eating habits change. We can expand our palettes, refine our taste in quality food, and sometimes develop allergies and intolerances to certain ingredients. Eating disorders can often stem from a young age and have lasting effects throughout our lives. But not every eating disorder is diagnosable when you’re a kid.

Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder, often referred to as ARFID, is an eating disorder that can affect all ages. But ARFID can have different effects on an adult, which means the treatment differs a bit as well.

What is ARFID and how does it affect adults?

Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder is a selective eating disorder that refers to people limiting their food intake to a point where it causes a negative impact on their health. This results in a lack of nutrition that they need to maintain the proper functions for a healthy body. Proper nutrition is required to give your body energy, repair tissue and have a strong immune system to fight germs.

ARFID may be confused with anorexia nervosa, as they both limit the types and quantity of food that’s consumed. But unlike anorexia, ARFID does not stem from a distorted body image or fear of weight gain. 

This restrictive eating disorder can result in children not gaining weight and/or height during their development. For adults, ARFID can cause significant weight loss.

Symptoms of ARFID in adults

While some may brush off some ARFID behavior as “picky eating,” the symptoms are more severe and can have a long-term negative impact on their health. 

Common symptoms of ARFID include:

  • Dramatic weight loss
  • Lack of appetite
  • Only eating food with certain textures
  • Fear of choking or vomiting
  • Stomach cramps
  • Dizziness
  • Always feeling cold
  • Anemia

People have a greater likelihood of developing ARFID if they also:

  • Have autism spectrum disorder
  • Have anxiety or another mental illness
  • Don’t outgrow picky eating habits
  • Had a traumatic eating experience, such as vomiting or choking
  • Have extreme sensitivity to food texture or taste

4 treatment options for ARFID in adults

ARFID therapy options can help adults overcome their food fears and adopt healthier eating habits. 

There are quite a few treatment options that a therapist might recommend for adults living with ARFID, including:

  • Nutritional assistance — Enlisting the help of a certified clinical nutritionist will help you make a diet plan that works with your current eating habits, and help you to improve them over time. Taking nutritional supplements will help you fill in the gaps in your current diet and boost the vitamins and minerals in your body. 
  • Exposure therapy — Since the fear of choking or vomiting is a common cause of ARFID, it makes sense that one of the treatment options is all about facing that fear. Exposure therapy will help work you through your food fears, little by little, slowly decreasing the anxiety that can stem from them. It utilizes coping mechanisms and addresses negative thoughts in order to desensitize you to possible negative outcomes.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapyCBT helps you to focus on how actions, thoughts and feelings affect each other. It can help you identify the negative thoughts that you have about eating that results in restricting your food consumption. By recognizing these negative thoughts, you can learn how to cope with them and change your eating patterns as a result. 
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy — DBT is made up of four components: mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation and interpersonal effectiveness. Achieving mastery in these areas allows you to move away from using food to manage your emotions. 

Lightfully Behavioral Health can help ARFID in adults

Eating disorders at any age can co-occur with other mental illnesses that need to be treated. It’s never too late to seek support for ARFID to have a healthier future.

We offer four programs at our mental health treatment centers to assist you with your mental health journey while living with ARFID: residential treatment, Virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (vIOP), Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP), and Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP), also called our Day Treatment Program. 

Change is possible. When you’re ready to take the first step, reach out to our Admissions Concierge Team. We’ll take the next steps together, toward the fullest, brightest version of you.

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