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ARFID and me

Tuesday, 12th July 2022

It’s a tale as old as time: the battle between desperate parent and picky child. We’ve seen it in our homes, in our recipe books, and even in a Dolmio ad. If your child is a fussy eater, it can feel like an impossible task to feed them - and the tears and tantrums aren’t just coming from the high chair. That’s what it’s like to be an adult with ARFID.

And if you’re wondering if I’m the screaming child, or the parent tearing their hair out, the answer is both.

What is ARFID?

Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, like other eating disorders, is an anxiety disorder. What sets ARFID apart is that it’s not about weight or body image. It’s an umbrella term that covers varying reasons behind the disorder, such as sensory-based avoidance, low interest in eating, or a fear of choking, or being poisoned. As Dr Kim DiRé writes, ‘The fear of food and/or the consequences translates in ARFID individuals as “if I eat that, I will die.”’

People with ARFID do want to eat well - we just can’t. We have no choice; our brains are processing certain foods as poison. You might have heard the phrase ‘If a child is hungry enough, they’ll eat anything.’ Well, not if that child has ARFID.

What's it like?

Since ARFID manifests differently for different people, I can only speak for my own experience. If I had to summarise it in three words, I’d say “Plain and beige.”

ARFID is often about sensory processing, so food texture is very important. Stuff that’s slimy or squishy is a big no, for me at least. Certain flavours work with certain textures but not others - for example, soup with bread is lovely, but soup on its own? Bleurgh! I tend to like my food on the well-done side due to a fear of eating something undercooked, and reheated food is commonly avoided.

Only in my early twenties was I able to start eating vegetables. I don’t like them boiled or steamed, because the texture is too squidgy and the vegetable hasn’t browned enough for me to trust that it’s been cooked. I fry and grill my vegetables, and season them well. Once I started doing that, I went from eating 1 of my 5 a day to more like 6 or 7. Sweetcorn, tenderstem broccoli, and kale have become some of my favourite foods - I love the crunch!

How does it feel?

The honest answer is: a bit embarrassing. It’s not nice to feel like I’m still that same fussy kid from my childhood. It can make going to a restaurant a challenge, and there are unwelcome comments about my health, or the way my parents raised me.

Because the disorder is fuelled by anxiety, periods of stress can make ARFID worse. During the first lockdown I remember worrying I wasn’t getting enough veggies in me; I spent an hour roasting some deliciously seasoned vegetables, but I had to stop after a couple of bites. I could feel my throat closing up as I chewed, my body urging me not to swallow the meal it had enjoyed without complaint three weeks earlier. I resorted back to bland vegetables and white carbs, the safe foods from my childhood.

More recently I caught COVID, and my friends kindly delivered groceries to my door. I made a risotto on my first night of ’Rona, knowing I’d be able to reheat it in the coming days if I felt too sick to cook from scratch. It was delicious, and I wanted seconds, but I told myself to save the rest for tomorrow. Fast forward to lunchtime and I could tell I didn’t want it any more. I reheated it anyway and tried to force it down me, but had to give up halfway through as it was making me nauseous. What a waste of good ingredients and hard-spent cooking time. No one finds ARFID more frustrating than those who have it.

What helps?

Since ARFID is an anxiety disorder, I’ve found that the things that manage anxiety are the things that help with eating. Being in a good, relaxed mood can make trying new foods easier - as can being in an adventurous mood, like when I’m eating out with friends, or when I’m travelling.

Feeling like I’m in control of what I eat has helped a lot, so I try to do all my own shopping and cooking. The past few Christmas dinners I’ve made a separate meal for myself; while my family enjoyed turkey and gravy I’ve had homemade sushi. Being in situations where I’m unable to cook for myself can make ARFID worse, like when I’m working abroad, and I find myself retreating back to my plain, safe foods. I don’t always trust someone else to cook vegetables the way I want them.

But the reverse is also true. I have two friends who are excellent chefs and have won my trust in their cooking by creating a pressure-free environment to try new stuff. I’ll eat anything they put in front of me, and will usually beg them for the recipe after.

My top tips

Talking is crucial. I was 24 when I found out what ARFID was through this infographic by Alison Howard, and it was like all the puzzle pieces falling into place. As eye opening as it was, I was frustrated that this information hadn’t been available to me earlier. I wondered how much easier things could have been if I’d understood this sooner; how validating that it was more than just fussy eating, or being an adult with a juvenile palette.

Sometimes I just have to be gentle with myself. I can’t force myself to want to eat something. I try to be adventurous on the good days, and kind to myself on the harder ones. Yes, it can get a bit boring and repetitive at times, but I’ll try to eat well within my safe foods, and be satisfied with that.

Managing anxiety = managing ARFID, so I do what calms me down. Meditation apps, exercise, hobbies, seeing friends - anything relaxing is going to make eating less of a struggle. When I feel comfortable doing so, I’ll try to find the humour. My friends make jokes about my bland taste and I’ll even send them pictures of my best beige meals.

If you need more support

If you’re struggling with ARFID, do reach out to a health professional. It’s true that this is less of a well-known disorder, but talking to a GP or looking into counselling can be life changing. If you’re based in the UK you can self-refer to free talking therapy through IAPT.

There are also charities doing amazing work, such as ARFID Awareness UK and Beat which I recommend checking out. You can find resources and community online - for example, Young Adults with ARFID run weekly zoom calls.

While it’s true that ARFID can be a struggle at times, it’s also something you don’t have to deal with alone. Reach out for support, keep the conversation going, and remember that just because you eat plain food doesn’t mean you have to live a plain life.

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