When it comes to eating disorders, you may have heard of anorexia, bulimia, and maybe even binge eating disorder. However, you may not be familiar with avoidant restrictive food intake disorder. Although this eating disorder is not as commonly known, it’s a serious and complex condition that affects veterans.
Treating this disorder requires experience with ARFID and co-occurring anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, and other mental health problems. But the good news is that recovery is possible. In fact, Heroes’ Mile is equipped with highly specialized care for veterans struggling with ARFID and any other eating disorders.
So, if you’re a veteran struggling with the symptoms of ARFID, don’t wait any longer to get the help you need. Our treatment center has the necessary support and resources for you to make a full recovery.
What Is Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder?
Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), once known as selective eating disorder, is an eating disorder characterized by aversion and restriction of food intake. Although it’s often associated with picky eating in children and adolescents, it’s becoming increasingly more common among adults.
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Doctors are currently unsure what causes ARFID. However, experts believe individuals with the disorder experience high sensitivity to tastes and textures. This may be related to a bad experience with eating in the past that caused choking or vomiting or some other form of trauma.
Different Types of Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder
Unlike with other eating disorders, individuals with ARFID don’t restrict their diet to control their body weight or body image. Instead, the restriction is a result of a genuine lack of interest in eating or the fear of harm from eating. It’s not uncommon for adults to avoid the food they dislike, but avoidant restrictive food intake disorder prevents them from receiving the nutrition necessary for their bodies to function.
Moreover, ARFID is an eating disorder that can be divided into different types. Depending on whether individuals are avoidant, restrictive, or aversive to food, different methods of treatment may be more effective in overcoming challenges associated with their eating behaviors.
A common type of ARFID characterized by an avoidance of certain types of food due to sensory features. These features cause sensitivity or overstimulation. This sensitivity can be related to the smell, taste, temperature, texture, or color of food items. For instance, individuals with avoidant ARFID may avoid eating mushy foods like bananas because of how they feel.
Moreover, adults with sensory sensitivities avoid eating any food they dislike or are unfamiliar with. Instead, they tend to eat the same types of food, known as “safe foods”. It’s important to note that sensory food aversions are common for people who are neurodivergent.
Another type of ARFID characterized by fear-based food refusal. Individuals with aversive ARFID are afraid of choking, feeling nauseous, vomiting, feeling pain, having an allergic reaction, and so forth. These fears are serious enough that individuals avoid eating altogether.
Aversive ARFID is also sometimes referred to as post-traumatic feeding disorder. The refusal to eat as a trauma response can occur after a negative feeding experience that involved choking or vomiting. Moreover, individuals with this type of ARFID are more likely to experience symptoms of an anxiety disorder.
Individuals with restrictive ARFID have little to no interest in food. In fact, individuals with this type of avoidant restrictive food intake disorder can have such a low appetite they forget to eat. However, when they do eat, they tend to be very picky, get distracted while eating or feel full much sooner than others.
Warning Signs of Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder
Individuals with avoidant restrictive food intake disorder are unable to eat certain types of food. However, they will have a limited number of “safe foods” that are determined by food types or even specific brands. In some cases, entire food groups can be excluded from their diet.
Despite only eating certain types of food, many people with ARFID can maintain a healthy body weight. Since there isn’t a specific outward appearance of the disorder, it can be difficult for individuals to identify the warning signs and feel the need to seek professional treatment.
Picky eating alone isn’t necessarily unhealthy. However, the symptoms of ARFID can lead to significant mental and physical health problems. With that said, common symptoms of ARFID include:
- Selective eating with avoidance of particular foods
- Anxiety when presented with “fear” foods
- Gagging or vomiting when exposed to certain foods
- Significant weight loss or failure to gain weight
- Dependence on nutritional supplements or a feeding tube
- Lack of appetite
- Trouble chewing or digesting certain foods
- Consuming small portions of food
- Limited range of preferred or “safe foods” that become narrower over time
- Reports consistent and vague gastrointestinal issues around mealtimes
Individuals can have more than one type of ARFID. In this case, avoidant restrictive food intake disorder can develop features of anorexia nervosa, including fear of weight gain, a negative body image without body image distortion, and a preference for low-calorie foods. This form of avoidant restrictive food intake disorder is also known as ARFID Plus and is considered a co-occurring eating disorder.
How Does Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder Affect Veterans?
Trauma and stress don’t simply go away. Rather, it can manifest in a variety of ways, days or even years after a traumatic event. As a result, behavioral and emotional changes can lead to panic attacks, drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and anxiety disorders such as OCD or PTSD.
Eating disorders are no different– military service-related trauma can lead to coping mechanisms that include binging and purging or restriction. Some situations that can contribute to the development of eating disorders among veterans include:
- Strict fitness standards
- Erratic meal schedules during basic training and deployment
- Limited food options on military bases
- Combat exposure
- Surviving natural disasters or injury
- Sexual assault
Eating disorders and other disordered eating patterns that developed during military service commonly continue after becoming a veteran. Moreover, the stress that comes with transitioning from military to civilian life can worsen pre-existing unhealthy eating habits.
With that said, untreated symptoms of avoidant restrictive food intake disorder can lead to social isolation, impaired immune functioning, and electrolyte imbalances, in addition to other life-threatening conditions.
How to Treat Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder
Although veterans are at a high risk of developing eating disorders, traditional treatment programs oftentimes don’t meet their needs. That’s why Heroes’ Mile offers a trauma-informed eating disorder program for veterans. Through this program, veterans with ARFID and a co-occurring substance use disorder will receive the necessary comprehensive treatment for starting recovery.
For instance, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective ways to treat behavioral symptoms of ARFID. This form of therapy helps veterans understand and redirect disordered thoughts and emotions associated with their eating habits. Moreover, it teaches emotional regulation and healthy coping skills to better cope with stress. These steps are important in overcoming the maladaptive behaviors driving ARFID.
In addition to CBT, veterans recovering from avoidant restrictive food intake disorder can also benefit from these evidence-based treatment modalities:
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy
- Traumatic incident reduction therapy
- Group therapy
- Nutrition education
- Physical fitness
A combination of these treatment modalities will help veterans heal from their service-related trauma one day at a time. Most importantly, these techniques will empower veterans to create healthier habits to maintain lifelong recovery.
Where Veterans Can Seek Help for ARFID
At Heroes’ Mile, veterans can receive treatment free of judgment, surrounded by those who understand what they’re going through. In addition to the support we provide through our programs, veterans can enjoy a private and trigger-free space to heal at their own pace.
If you’re a veteran seeking help for avoidant restrictive food intake disorder, our veteran-exclusive treatment center is equipped with the resources you need to recover. If you have any questions about how we can help, call our admissions specialists at 888-838-6692 or submit a confidential contact form online. With the support of our team, you no longer have to suffer in silence.