Managing an eating disorder can be incredibly difficult and isolating, but Writer Flora Gosling emphasises: you are not alone.
CW: Eating disorders.
How do you feel when you look at cat food? Sure, it’s food, you can see that. You can recognise parts of it; chunks of meat, a bit of jelly, something dry and crunchy that’s a bit like cereal. But you definitely don’t want to eat it. There’s something fundamental you have taught yourself that tells you that even though it is food, it’s not for you. Now imagine that same feeling, but looking at a pizza. Or a salad. Even something as simple as a strawberry. Imagine that same feeling for every food that you know and eat. Welcome to the life of someone with Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID).
ARFID is an eating disorder where the sufferer believes the vast majority of food is subconsciously inedible or poisonous. Unlike some other eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia, body image and weight do not play any role in how ARFID restricts your diet. Eating, sometimes even touching or smelling something unfamiliar can lead to gagging, vomiting, and anxiety attacks. It can stem from all sorts of psychological reasons; food-related trauma, sensory issues, a desire to instil control similar to OCD. It usually occurs in children and often carries on to adulthood, leading to a distrust of almost all food except for a select few “safe” foods. These safe foods are usually bland, texturally unadventurous, and most importantly consistent. The less unfamiliar food we consume, the less we have to fear, we tell ourselves. It’s a condition I’ve had for as long as I can remember.
“The less unfamiliar food we consume, the less we have to fear, we tell ourselves.”
It’s a painful thing to know about yourself, that something as fundamental as eating has so much power over you. Therapy is possible, but qualified therapists are scarce and usually expensive, not to mention the process is emotionally exhausting. You find ways to function, to keep eating and not lose appetite. I’ve become reliant on my limited safe foods to provide stability, and so long as I keep up my cycle between the four or five foods I eat for meals, I’m mentally stable. But I’m always fearful. I could accidentally eat something unsafe and spiral out of control. My ARFID could decide that one of my foods is no longer safe. A brand I rely on could change their recipe. A certain food could become difficult to find locally. Even now, I’m aware that one of my safe foods has recently disappeared from the shelves. It sounds petty, it means nothing to anyone else, but my disorder makes it more important than you can imagine.
Reading this, you may think you’ve never heard of ARFID, or that it must be so rare you can’t possibly know anyone who has it or had previously. Unfortunately, both of these statements are probably untrue. There is media coverage of it, but rarely do they mention the word “ARFID”, or even recognise that what they are showing is disordered eating. Have you heard of the man who only eats sausage and chips? Or the woman who only ate KFC? Or articles with titles like “EXTREME picky eater has never eaten a vegetable”? Clickbait, and even respectable news outlets, love to sensationalise people with disorders because they know they will produce engagement through angry comments about how they weren’t raised right, how they should be locked in a room with an unsafe food (as if that would help), and how by all rights, they should be dead because of their bad health.
“Clickbait, and even respectable news outlets, love to sensationalise people with disorders because they know they will produce engagement through angry comments…”
Misinformation like this makes it more difficult to seek help, particularly when the condition is shockingly common, with estimations that it affects one in 10 people. The best thing you can do if you think someone you know might have ARFID is to tell them about it. You never know how long they may have been waiting for an explanation to their struggles. The best thing you can do if you know someone who has ARFID is to accommodate them. Do they like the restaurant you’ve booked? Is there something they can eat at the barbeque? Do they even feel comfortable eating in your company? The best thing to do if you think you have ARFID is to seek diagnosis. Being able to label your relationship with food will allow you to communicate your needs and find support. And if you, reader, know you have ARFID, then you know there is nothing I can say in this article that will make it any easier. Someday, therapy, support and understanding will be more available to us. Right now that’s the most I, or anyone else, can hope for.