ARFID signs and symptoms
- Significant weight loss
- Lack of weight gain or stunted growth in children and adolescents
- Constipation, abdominal pain, and other gastrointestinal issues
- Food limitations based on taste, texture, color, temperature, or brand
- Severely limiting the amount and types of food eaten
- Lack of appetite or interest in food
- Fear of vomiting, choking, allergic reactions, or contamination
- Fear of trying new or unfamiliar foods
- Sleep problems
- Difficulty concentrating
- Impaired immune function
- Reliance on nutritional supplements like Boost, Ensure, or Carnation Instant Breakfast
ARFID treatment generally requires a slightly different approach than treatment for other eating disorders. As with treatment for other eating disorders, if a patient needs to gain weight, the initial focus of treatment is weight restoration. This is because when the body is malnourished, the brain is, too, and a malnourished brain doesn’t think clearly or take in new information well. For ARFID patients that don’t need to gain weight, treatments are focused on normalizing eating habits, reducing anxiety, and gradually increasing food variety to meet nutritional needs.
During treatment, patients and their supports also meet regularly with their treatment team to learn tools and skills that help them cope with the challenges of recovering from ARFID. To accomplish this, our clinicians may use different treatment modalities, including family-based treatment for ARFID (FBT-ARFID), cognitive behavioral therapy for ARFID (CBT-AR), and exposure and response prevention (ERP).
While ARFID is identified more frequently in children (with the average age of onset hovering around 12 years old, and diagnoses in children as young as 6 years old), it does affect adults. Though research is limited, one study suggests that ARFID may account for 9.2% of adult eating disorders.
Research on ARFID is still relatively new compared to other eating disorders—we're still learning a lot about it! As with all eating disorders, there is likely no single identifiable cause of ARFID. While some ARFID cases can be triggered by a specific event that causes a fear of solid food—like choking, vomiting, or sickness—we still don’t know why some people who experience these events develop ARFID and others don’t.
Very early research suggests, though, that neurobiological and psychological factors are likely involved in the development of ARFID. You can learn more about the causes of eating disorders on our blog.
Studies suggest that there is a connection between ARFID and autism. One meta-analysis found that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) were five times as likely to have feeding problems than children without ASD. Current research shows that autism occurs at higher rates in those with ARFID than in the general population: while the overall autism rate is 1.5%, estimates of co-occurring ARFID and ASD range from 12.5%-33.3%. You can learn more about autism and neurodivergence in eating disorders on our blog.
ARFID statistics and facts to know
- Roughly 3.2% of children may have ARFID. Among children being treated for eating disorders, the rate is between 14-22.5%.
- ARFID can start at any age, but the average age of diagnosis is younger than most other eating disorders. The average age when ARFID starts is 12 years old and can occur in children as young as 6.
- ARFID is just as common in boys and men as in girls and women.
- While people with ARFID can experience body dissatisfaction, a desire to lose weight or change one’s appearance is not a driving factor of the eating disorder.
- Long-term problems from ARFID are serious, should be treated with the same sense of urgency as other eating disorders, and should not be dismissed as “picky eating.”
- ARFID has serious consequences including heart problems, weak bones, hormonal disruptions, stunted growth, development of other mental health problems, and more.
- Nearly half of children with ARFID fear vomiting or choking, and one-fifth say they avoid certain foods because of sensory issues, like disliking the texture or smell of a food. Research shows that co-occurring mental health conditions are common in ARFID, with the most common being anxiety disorders, followed by mood disorders and neurodivergent conditions such as autism and ADHD.