Overcoming ARFID - Ways to Cope

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At the Kahm Center, we’re a dedicated outpatient treatment facility for individuals battling various eating disorders, including Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID). ARFID goes beyond picky eating; it's a complex and challenging disorder that can significantly impact an individual's health and well-being. Along with issues related to eating and weight, individuals with ARFID often experience health problems such as gastroparesis, postprandial distress syndrome, chronic abdominal pain, irritable bowel syndrome with constipation, and chronic constipation. Understanding and overcoming this condition can seem daunting, but it is possible. In this guide, we'll explore practical and compassionate ways to cope with ARFID, aiming to help you on your journey towards recovery.

Understanding ARFID

Before delving into coping strategies, it's essential to understand what ARFID is. Unlike other eating disorders, ARFID isn't typically associated with body image concerns. Instead, it's characterized by a persistent avoidance of certain foods or food groups, often due to sensory discomfort, lack of interest in eating, or fear of adverse consequences like choking or vomiting. This avoidance can lead to significant nutritional deficiencies and affect social interactions and overall quality of life.

If you’re concerned you or a loved one could have ARFID, take our ARFID quiz to explore more about the behaviors associated with this eating disorder.

Key Symptoms of ARFID

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) presents a range of symptoms that can significantly impact an individual's eating habits and overall health. According to a 2016 study, symptoms of ARFID have been found to cause distress and difficulties in daily life, similar to what is experienced by individuals with anorexia and bulimia. Understanding these symptoms is crucial for early detection and effective treatment.

Detailed Symptoms of ARFID

  • Avoidance of Specific Food Attributes: Individuals with ARFID often exhibit a strong aversion to certain textures, colors, or smells of foods. This aversion can be so intense that it leads to the exclusion of entire food groups, severely limiting dietary variety.
  • Fear of Eating Beyond a Comfort Zone: Many with ARFID experience intense anxiety when presented with foods outside their very narrow range of acceptable items. This fear often extends to eating in new or unfamiliar settings, further complicating social and family dynamics around meals.
  • Nutritional Deficiencies: The restrictive nature of ARFID can lead to significant nutritional imbalances. Common deficiencies may include a lack of essential vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients critical for healthy development and bodily function.
  • Weight Fluctuations: ARFID can manifest in weight loss or, particularly in children, a failure to achieve expected weight gain or growth milestones. These weight changes are often a direct result of inadequate caloric intake.
  • Dependence on Supplements or Enteral Feeding: In severe cases, individuals with ARFID may become reliant on nutritional supplements or enteral feeding to meet their basic nutritional needs, as their diet does not provide sufficient nourishment.
  • Social and Emotional Impact: Beyond physical health, ARFID can significantly affect social interactions and emotional well-being. The stress of eating in public or family settings can lead to social isolation and increased anxiety around meal times.
  • Co-occurring Mental Health Conditions: Often, ARFID coexists with other mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and autism spectrum disorders, complicating the clinical picture and treatment approach.
  • Impact on Daily Functioning: The challenges associated with ARFID can extend to various aspects of daily life, impacting academic performance, work productivity, and overall quality of life.

It's important to note that ARFID symptoms can vary widely from person to person. While some individuals may exhibit a fear of choking or vomiting, others may simply have a lack of interest in eating food. This variability in symptoms can make ARFID a particularly complex disorder to identify and treat. Recognizing these symptoms as part of a broader disorder is critical in seeking appropriate treatment and support.

Furthermore, it's essential to understand the significant emotional and psychological impact of ARFID. The distress and impairment caused by ARFID can be as severe as those experienced in other eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. Additionally, there is a high comorbidity with anxiety disorders among people with ARFID, with about 35-72% having diagnosed anxiety disorders. This high prevalence of anxiety disorders underscores the need for a comprehensive treatment approach that addresses both the eating disorder and any co-occurring mental health conditions.

Understanding these complexities is crucial in providing effective care and support for individuals with ARFID, highlighting the need for a multifaceted treatment strategy that addresses both the physical and psychological aspects of the disorder.

Strategies to Cope with ARFID

Seeking Specialized Care

The journey to overcome ARFID begins with reaching out for professional support. At the Kahm Center, we recognize that each case of ARFID is unique, necessitating personalized care plans. Our multidisciplinary team, consisting of expert therapists, dietitians, and medical staff, collaborates to develop treatment strategies that resonate with your individual needs.

Therapeutic Modalities

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): An effective approach in altering the thought processes and behaviors linked to ARFID.
  • Exposure Therapy: This method gently introduces feared foods, helping reduce anxiety and broaden dietary choices over time.
  • Family-Based Therapy (FBT): Particularly beneficial for younger patients, this approach involves family members in the treatment, fostering a supportive home environment.

Nutritional Guidance

Central to ARFID treatment is nutritional guidance. Our dietitians are dedicated to assisting you in gently expanding your food repertoire, ensuring a balanced and varied diet. This gradual approach respects your comfort level and pace.

Key Principles of Nutritional Guidance

  • Incremental Changes: Introduce new foods in small steps to make the process less overwhelming.
  • Structured Meal Patterns: Establishing regular meal times can instill a sense of stability and predictability in your eating habits.
  • Conscious Eating: Focusing on the sensory experiences of eating, such as taste and texture, can enhance your relationship with food.

Establishing Support Networks

Dealing with ARFID can often feel isolating, making the establishment of a strong support network an integral part of the recovery process. Engaging with empathetic friends, family members, or support groups not only offers much-needed encouragement but also helps in understanding the complexities of the disorder.

Building a Supportive Environment

  • Informing Your Support Circle: It's vital to educate your close ones about ARFID. By sharing information about the disorder, its challenges, and its impact on daily life, you can help them understand your needs better. This understanding can lead to more empathetic interactions and a more accommodating environment, especially during meal times.
  • Participation in Support Groups: Support groups provide a unique space to connect with others who share similar experiences. These groups can be a source of comfort, offering a platform to share strategies, successes, and setbacks. The solidarity found in these groups can be a powerful tool in coping with the emotional and psychological aspects of ARFID.
  • Involving Family in Therapy: Family involvement in therapy can be instrumental in recovery. By participating in therapy sessions, family members can gain insights into the complexities of ARFID. This participation not only fosters a deeper understanding but also equips family members with practical ways to provide support, creating a more nurturing home environment.
  • Empowering Through Self-Help: Combining self-help techniques with professional treatment can greatly enhance the effectiveness of your recovery journey. Self-help strategies provide a sense of control and active participation in your own recovery.

Effective Self-Help Strategies

  • Reflective Journaling: Keeping a journal can be a therapeutic tool. Writing down your feelings, thoughts, and experiences related to food can help in processing emotions and tracking progress. This self-reflection can offer valuable insights into patterns and triggers, aiding in the development of coping strategies.
  • Anxiety-Reducing Techniques: Incorporating practices such as yoga, meditation, or deep breathing exercises can significantly aid in managing the anxiety associated with ARFID. These techniques promote relaxation, reduce stress, and can improve your overall mental well-being, making them beneficial not just for ARFID, but for overall health.
  • Goal-Setting: Setting realistic, achievable goals can provide a sense of accomplishment and progression. These goals can be small, such as trying a new food or successfully eating a meal in a social setting. Celebrating these achievements, regardless of their size, can boost confidence and motivation on the path to recovery.
  • Holistic Wellness Focus: Overcoming ARFID is more than just managing dietary habits; it involves nurturing your overall well-being - physical, emotional, and mental. Engaging in activities that promote holistic health can have a significant positive impact on your journey to recovery.

Activities for Holistic Wellness

  • Engaging in Physical Activities: Physical activities, especially those you enjoy, can improve not only your physical health but also your mental state. Whether it's a gentle walk, a yoga class, or a dance session, these activities can boost endorphins, improve mood, and contribute to a healthier lifestyle.
  • Creative Expression: Creative activities like art, music, or writing offer an outlet for expressing emotions and thoughts that might be difficult to articulate verbally. Engaging in creative pursuits can be therapeutic, helping to process feelings and providing a sense of accomplishment and joy.
  • Mindfulness Practices: Mindfulness and meditation practices encourage living in the present moment and help in managing stress and anxiety. These practices can be particularly beneficial in dealing with the anxieties related to food and eating that are central to ARFID.

ARFID Treatment - Kahm Center

Overcoming ARFID is a journey that requires patience, understanding, and perseverance. It's crucial to differentiate ARFID from simple picky eating, as they are not the same. To explore this further, you can read about ARFID vs. picky eating, which provides a detailed comparison and helps understand ARFID's unique challenges.

At the Kahm Center, we are committed to providing comprehensive care and support every step of the way. Remember, recovery from ARFID is a personal journey, and what works for one person may not work for another. Be kind to yourself, celebrate your progress, and know that with the right support and strategies, you can overcome the challenges of ARFID.       

Clinically Reviewed By

nick kahm reviewer

Nick Kahm, PhD


Nick Kahm, a former philosophy faculty member at St. Michael's College in Colchester, VT, transitioned from academia to running the Kahm Clinic with his mother. He started the clinic to train dietitians in using Metabolic Testing and Body Composition Analysis for helping people with eating disorders. Now, he is enthusiastic about expanding eating disorder treatment through the Kahm Center for Eating Disorders in Vermont.

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