ARFID: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment

by Ella

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) is a complex eating disorder characterized by significant limitations in food intake, often resulting in nutritional deficiencies, weight loss, and impaired functioning. Unlike other eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, ARFID does not involve body image concerns or intentional weight loss. Instead, it primarily revolves around an extreme avoidance or restriction of certain foods due to sensory sensitivities, fear of aversive consequences, or lack of interest in eating. This article provides a comprehensive overview of ARFID, including its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options.


Understanding ARFID


ARFID is a relatively new diagnosis introduced in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) in 2013. It replaced the previously used term “feeding disorder of infancy or early childhood” and expanded the criteria to encompass individuals of all ages.



Key features of ARFID include:


Avoidance or restriction of food intake that leads to significant weight loss, nutritional deficiencies, or impaired psychosocial functioning


Lack of interest in eating or food-related activities

Fear or avoidance of certain food textures, tastes, smells, or appearances

Limited variety in food choices, often sticking to a narrow range of “safe” or familiar foods

No body image disturbance or concern about body weight or shape, distinguishing it from other eating disorders


ARFID may present in various forms, including:

Sensory Sensitivity: Aversion to certain sensory aspects of food, such as texture, taste, smell, or temperature.

Fear of Aversive Consequences: Anxiety or fear related to potential negative consequences of eating, such as choking, vomiting, or allergic reactions.

Lack of Interest: Disinterest in eating or food-related activities, leading to inadequate food intake and nutritional deficiencies.

Causes of ARFID

Biological Factors

Genetics: There may be a genetic predisposition to ARFID, as it often occurs in individuals with a family history of eating disorders or sensory processing issues.

Neurological Differences: Some research suggests that individuals with ARFID may have altered brain functioning or sensory processing, leading to heightened sensitivity to certain food stimuli.

Psychological Factors

Anxiety or Trauma: Anxiety disorders or traumatic experiences, such as choking incidents or negative food-related experiences, can contribute to fear-based avoidance of food.

Control Issues: ARFID may be a way for individuals to exert control over their environment or cope with stress or emotional distress.

Environmental Factors

Early Feeding Experiences: Negative experiences during infancy or early childhood, such as feeding difficulties, parental pressure to eat, or overly restrictive feeding practices, can contribute to the development of ARFID.
Cultural Influences: Cultural norms surrounding food, mealtime expectations, and social pressure to eat certain foods may influence food preferences and aversions.

Symptoms of ARFID

Dietary Restriction

Severe restriction of food intake, often limited to a few select foods or food groups.

Avoidance of entire food categories (e.g., fruits, vegetables, meats) due to sensory aversions or fear of negative consequences.

Nutritional Deficiencies

Weight loss or failure to gain weight (especially in children and adolescents).

Malnutrition or nutritional deficiencies, including deficiencies in vitamins, minerals, and essential nutrients.

Physical Symptoms

Gastrointestinal issues such as constipation, abdominal pain, or bloating.

Fatigue, weakness, or low energy levels due to inadequate calorie intake.

Delayed growth or development in children and adolescents.

Psychological Symptoms

Anxiety or distress related to eating, mealtime, or food-related situations.

Avoidance of social gatherings or events involving food.

Impairment in social, academic, or occupational functioning due to ARFID symptoms.

Diagnosis of ARFID

Clinical Evaluation

Diagnosing ARFID involves a comprehensive assessment by a qualified healthcare provider, typically a physician, psychiatrist, psychologist, or registered dietitian. The evaluation may include:

Detailed medical history, including eating habits, growth and development, and any past or current medical or psychiatric conditions.

Physical examination to assess nutritional status, growth parameters, and any physical symptoms or complications.

Psychological evaluation to assess for anxiety, trauma, or other mental health factors contributing to ARFID.

Diagnostic Criteria

According to the DSM-5, the diagnostic criteria for ARFID include:

Persistent avoidance or restriction of food intake leading to significant weight loss, nutritional deficiency, dependence on enteral feeding or oral nutritional supplements, or psychosocial impairment.

The absence of body image disturbance or undue concern about body weight or shape.

The avoidance or restriction of food intake is not explained by lack of available food or cultural or religious practices.

The behavior does not occur exclusively during the course of anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa and is not attributable to another medical condition or mental disorder.

Differential Diagnosis

ARFID must be differentiated from other medical and psychiatric conditions that may present with similar symptoms, including:

Gastrointestinal disorders (e.g., gastroesophageal reflux disease, eosinophilic esophagitis)

Autism spectrum disorder or sensory processing disorder

Selective eating or picky eating in children

Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or other feeding and eating disorders

Treatment Options for ARFID

Multidisciplinary Approach

The treatment of ARFID often requires a multidisciplinary approach involving various healthcare professionals, including:

Physician or Pediatrician: To monitor medical status, assess growth and development, and address any physical complications.

Psychiatrist or Psychologist: To provide psychological evaluation, psychotherapy, and behavioral interventions.

Registered Dietitian: To assess nutritional status, provide nutrition counseling, and develop individualized meal plans.

Occupational Therapist: To address sensory issues, develop feeding strategies, and improve mealtime routines.

Nutritional Rehabilitation

Nutritional rehabilitation is a central component of ARFID treatment and may involve:

Gradual exposure to new foods or food textures through systematic desensitization or exposure therapy.

Structured meal plans incorporating a variety of foods to ensure adequate calorie and nutrient intake.

Oral nutritional supplements or enteral feeding (e.g., tube feeding) for individuals unable to meet their nutritional needs orally.

Psychotherapy and Behavioral Interventions

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or other forms of psychotherapy may help individuals address anxiety, fear, or avoidance behaviors related to eating.

Behavioral interventions, such as exposure therapy or food chaining, can help gradually expand food acceptance and tolerance.


In some cases, medication may be prescribed to target specific symptoms associated with ARFID, such as anxiety or gastrointestinal issues. However, medication alone is not typically considered a first-line treatment for ARFID and is often used in conjunction with other therapeutic interventions.

Family Involvement

Family involvement is crucial in the treatment of ARFID, particularly in children and adolescents. Parents or caregivers may receive education and support to implement mealtime strategies, promote positive feeding experiences, and address any family dynamics or communication patterns that may contribute to ARFID symptoms.

Support Groups and Peer Support

Participation in support groups or peer support networks can provide individuals with ARFID and their families with validation, encouragement, and practical tips for managing the disorder. Connecting with others who have similar experiences can reduce feelings of isolation and offer a sense of community.

Ongoing Monitoring and Follow-Up

Regular monitoring and follow-up appointments are essential to track progress, adjust treatment plans as needed, and address any emerging concerns or challenges. Healthcare providers may collaborate closely to ensure coordinated and comprehensive care for individuals with ARFID.

Prognosis and Recovery


The prognosis for ARFID varies depending on factors such as the severity of symptoms, the presence of comorbid conditions, and the individual’s response to treatment. With early intervention and comprehensive treatment, many individuals with ARFID can experience significant improvements in their eating habits, nutritional status, and overall quality of life.

Long-Term Outlook

While some individuals may achieve full remission from ARFID symptoms, others may experience ongoing challenges or require continued support to maintain progress. Long-term management may involve strategies for coping with stressors, preventing relapse, and promoting a healthy relationship with food and eating.

Resilience and Recovery

Recovery from ARFID is a journey that requires patience, perseverance, and support from healthcare providers, family members, and peers. Building resilience, developing coping skills, and celebrating small victories along the way can empower individuals to overcome challenges and embrace a more flexible and enjoyable approach to eating.

See Also: Eating Disorders: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment


ARFID is a complex eating disorder characterized by significant limitations in food intake, often stemming from sensory sensitivities, fear of aversive consequences, or lack of interest in eating. Unlike other eating disorders, ARFID does not involve body image concerns or intentional weight loss. Early recognition and intervention are crucial for improving outcomes and preventing complications associated with malnutrition and inadequate food intake.

Treatment of ARFID typically involves a multidisciplinary approach, including nutritional rehabilitation, psychotherapy, behavioral interventions, and family involvement. With comprehensive treatment and ongoing support, individuals with ARFID can achieve significant improvements in their eating habits, nutritional status, and overall well-being.

By raising awareness, promoting early intervention, and fostering a supportive and inclusive environment, we can help individuals with ARFID overcome challenges, build resilience, and embark on a path toward recovery and a healthier relationship with food.


1. Is ARFID more common in children or adults?

ARFID can occur in individuals of all ages, from infancy through adulthood. However, it is often first recognized in childhood or adolescence when growth and developmental issues become apparent.

2. Can ARFID be prevented?

While ARFID cannot always be prevented, early identification of feeding difficulties or sensory issues in infancy or childhood and appropriate interventions may help reduce the risk of developing ARFID later in life.

3. Is ARFID the same as picky eating?

While picky eating is common in children and often resolves over time, ARFID involves severe limitations in food intake that lead to significant nutritional deficiencies, weight loss, and impaired functioning. ARFID is a diagnosable eating disorder that requires professional evaluation and treatment.

4. How long does treatment for ARFID typically last?

The duration of treatment for ARFID varies depending on factors such as the severity of symptoms, the individual’s response to treatment, and the presence of comorbid conditions. Treatment may last several months to several years, with ongoing monitoring and support as needed.

5. Can adults develop ARFID later in life?

Yes, while ARFID often emerges in childhood or adolescence, it can also develop later in life, particularly in response to trauma, illness, or other life stressors. It’s essential to seek professional help if you experience significant changes in your eating habits or nutritional status.

6. Is ARFID a lifelong condition?

For some individuals, ARFID may be a chronic or recurring condition requiring ongoing management and support. However, with early intervention and comprehensive treatment, many individuals can achieve significant improvements in their eating habits and overall well-being.


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