By Stephanie Elliot

This is part five of a five-part series exploring eating disorders.

Part 1: What is an eating disorder?

Part 2: What is anorexia nervosa?

Part 3: What is bulimia?

Part 4: What is binge eating?

Part 5: What is ARFID?

Have you ever heard of ARFID? My guess is that you probably haven’t. ARFID is a fairly new categorized eating disorder and not many people are familiar with it. It stands for Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, and it – just like anorexia and bulimia – is a very real, very serious eating disorder.

My daughter had ARFID. For fifteen years, we didn’t know she had an eating disorder. This is because ARFID does not present the same way as some other eating disorders. People with ARFID generally do not have self-esteem or body image issues. People with ARFID do not restrict food because they want to change their bodies. ARFID, simply explained, is the genuine fear that eating can cause death. It is “picky eating” taken to the ultimate extreme. ARFID is an eating disorder where the person who has it will only eat a very small variety of foods, called “safe” foods. For my daughter, these foods were waffles (without butter or syrup), plain bagels, Goldfish crackers, peanut butter, apples, raw carrots, French fries, and pizza with the cheese and sauce removed. These were her “safe” foods and the only foods she ate for most of her life.

We thought something was wrong with her and we were right. After taking her to an eating disorder center, we learned that she did have ARFID. She couldn’t try new foods because she would choke. She wouldn’t go to friends’ homes because she feared she would be offered an unsafe food that would cause distress. Because of this fear she had about eating, she withdrew from a lot of things. She would refuse to attend parties, she didn’t eat family dinners, she didn’t want to go out because she was afraid that someone might make her eat something that she couldn’t eat.

Having ARFID caused tremendous anxiety in my daughter. It led to panic attacks, self-harm, severe depression, and even hospital visits. With the help of a therapist, we learned that ARFID, like all eating disorders, stems from a traumatic event. For those with ARFID, that traumatic event might have been a problem with feeding as babies or a childhood choking incident. ARFID usually presents in younger people, sometimes as early as babies if there was a serious event that caused distress in their eating patterns.

The good news is that more and more doctors and therapists are learning about ARFID and are finding ways to treat patients. My daughter is now well, and able to eat new things without being scared. She looks forward to good food, which is something that she wasn’t able to do before therapy.

If you think you might have ARFID (or know someone who might have it), you can get help. Start by telling someone you trust about your problem. NEDA, National Eating Disorder Association also has information on their site about ARFID or you can visitour family’s website about ARFID. The NEDA helpline (800-931-2237) is available Monday-Thursday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. ET, and Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET.