In the last few months, you may have heard people talking about the “DSM-5” which was just published in May 2013 – this is the latest edition of the manual that mental health clinicians use for diagnosing psychiatric disorders. Formally, the DSM-V is The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. The newest addition includes several changes to the way eating disorders are categorized and diagnosed. This post will delve into one of those changes, specifically a new diagnosis called Avoidant / Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (also known as ARFID).
When a person is diagnosed with any type of mental health disorder by a treatment professional, it essentially means they meet a certain number of diagnostic criteria set forth by the DSM-V, in much the same way that someone would meet criteria and be diagnosed with a medical ailment such as heart disease or diabetes. The goal of diagnosing specific disorders is not to label or stigmatize a person but to capture their specific struggles and unique characteristics. This allows treatment providers to develop the best possible treatment plan and apply evidence-based interventions.
The DSM-V provides the following diagnostic criteria for ARFID:
A. An eating or feeding disturbance (e.g., apparent lack of interest in eating or food; avoidance based on the sensory characteristics of food; concern about aversive consequences of eating) as manifested by persistent failure to meet appropriate nutritional and/or energy needs associated with one (or more) of the following:
1. Significant weight loss (or failure to achieve expected weight gain or faltering growth in children).
2. Significant nutritional deficiency.
3. Dependence on enteral feeding or oral nutritional supplements.
4. Marked interference with psychosocial functioning.
B. The disturbance is not better explained by lack of available food or by an associated culturally sanctioned practice.
C. The eating disturbance does not occur exclusively during the course of anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, and there is no evidence of a disturbance in the way in which one’s body weight or shape is experienced.
D. The eating disturbance is not attributable to a concurrent medical condition or not better explained by another mental disorder. When the eating disturbance occurs in the context of another condition or disorder, the severity of the eating disturbance exceeds that routinely associated with the condition or disorder and warrants additional clinical attention.
So what does all this mean in plain English?
Individuals who meet the criteria for ARFID have developed some type of problem with eating (or for very young children, a problem with feeding). As a result of the eating problem, the person isn’t able to eat enough to get adequate calories or nutrition through their diet. There are many types of eating problems that might arise – difficulty digesting certain foods, avoiding certain colors or textures of food, eating only very small portions, having no appetite, or being afraid to eat after a frightening episode of choking or vomiting.
Because the person with ARFID isn’t able to get enough nutrition through their diet, they may end up losing weight. Or, younger kids with ARFID might not lose weight, but rather may not gain weight or grow as expected. Other people might need supplements (like Ensure or Pediasure or even tube feeding) to get adequate nutrition and calories. And most of all, individuals with ARFID may have problems at school or work because of their eating problems – such as avoiding work lunches, not getting schoolwork done because of the time it takes to eat, or even avoiding seeing friends or family at social events where food is present. A good example would be a young boy who almost choked on a hot dog one time, but now refuses to eat any type of solid food and can’t eat school lunches or even enjoy a taste of his own birthday cake. Another example might be a young girl who seems to have no interest in food, complains that “I’m just not hungry” and, as a result, eventually ends up losing weight.
What ARFID is not…
It is important to be sure that the person’s problem with eating is not due to a lack of food or “food insecurity”. In other words, children living in poverty who don’t get enough to eat (and as a result are not growing as expected) would not be given the diagnosis of ARFID. An individual living in a famine (who loses weight because they are starving) would not be given the diagnosis of ARFID. It is also important to remember that the eating issues in ARFID are not related to a normal cultural or religious practice. For example, a person who is fasting during a religious holiday (such as Lent or Ramadan) would not be given the diagnosis of ARFID.
We know that individuals with anorexia or bulimia struggle with distortions in how they see their bodies and that they have significant concerns about their weight. But this type of thinking does not occur in ARFID – kids with ARFID typically don’t fear weight gain and don’t have a distorted body image. Also, in ARFID, the problems that people have with eating are not related to underlying medical problems. For example, a child going through cancer treatment might lose her appetite and avoid food because of chemotherapy – but this child would not be given a diagnosis of ARFID. Another example might be a teenager who is obsessed with a fear that he is going to ingest germs and get sick, and therefore refuses to eat any uncooked foods – this teenager would probably be given a diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder rather than ARFID.
Filling in the gaps
Although ARFID is being presented as a new diagnosis, it might be more useful to simply consider it as a way of describing symptoms more specifically. A lot of patients with eating disorders don’t “fit” perfectly into a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa – and so, prior to the release of the DSM-V, clinicians would often give those folks the diagnosis of Eating Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS). Unfortunately, if you say that someone has EDNOS, it doesn’t really give us much information about the person’s symptoms, other than that they have some kind of eating disorder.
In the past, before the DSM-V, kids with ARFID might have been diagnosed with EDNOS. They also could have been given another diagnosis called “Feeding Disorder of Infancy or Early Childhood” (although most clinicians didn’t use that diagnosis especially since one of its requirements was that the age of onset has to be before age six). But what about those kids or adults who have restrictive eating not related to fear of weight gain, who may or may not be a normal weight, and whose lives are severely impacted by their symptoms? This is where ARFID can fill in the gaps and help us to better understand those individuals.
As ARFID is officially still a new diagnostic category, there is little data available on its development, disease course, or prognosis. We do know that symptoms typically present in infancy or childhood, but they may also present or persist into adulthood. It is possible that some individuals with ARFID may go on to develop another eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, but again, no research is available yet to give a clear picture of what happens down the road for these individuals. We also are still learning about effective treatments for individuals with ARFID. Although research is just beginning, we believe that behavioral interventions, such as forms of exposure therapy, may be useful. And of course, as in other eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia, treatment of underlying conditions such as anxiety or depression is crucial.
Many kids develop different or strange patterns of eating at some point in their life – refusing to eat vegetables for a few months, or wanting to eat only chicken nuggets for dinner – but for most individuals, those patterns eventually resolve on their own without intervention. For the small subset of individuals who have persistent or worsening problems with food intake, however, the introduction of ARFID means we are now able to better diagnose and describe their symptoms, which should ultimately result in better clinical outcomes.
The most important takeaway point in all of this? Eating disorders come in all shapes, sizes, and symptoms, and if you have questions or concerns, just ask.
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American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association, 2013.
Kenney L, Walsh B. Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) – Defining ARFID. Eating Disorders Review, Gurze Books, 2013; Vol 24, Issue 3.
Written by Heather Goff, M.D., Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist