How Diet Culture Can Harm Your Recovery from ARFID

by Carolyn Comas, LCSW, CEDS-S

ARFID Diet CulturePeople diagnosed with Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) struggle with consuming adequate nutritional intake due to either 1) fear of aversive consequences (i.e choking), 2) low interest in food altogether, or 3) sensory sensitivity to food textures, smells, or appearance. Usually, people with ARFID do not report refraining from eating due to fears of weight gain or efforts to lose weight. In fact, many people with ARFID welcome weight gain and want to expand their food variety.   

The Impact of Diet Culture

The current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) excludes those whose eating is restrictive due to shape and weight concerns from receiving a diagnosis of ARFID. However, this does not mean that people with ARFID are immune to the societal messages around food and bodies. Sadly, we all live in a world that is very much driven by diet culture. Most of us, with or without eating disorders, can be impacted by diet culture. We are constantly bombarded by many sources, ranging from the media to doctors’ messages about the danger of fatness and categorizing foods as healthy or unhealthy. 

Dieting is one of the leading causes of eating disorders. According to a study by the National Eating Disorder Association, 35 percent of people who diet progress into pathological dieters. Of this 35 percent, up to 25 percent will develop a full-blown eating disorder. People with ARFID could develop another eating disorder, such as bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa at some point in their life.

People with ARFID already face the challenge of limited food choices and heightened anxiety around eating. They can be very vulnerable to messages that their preferred foods  “aren’t healthy” or “junk food.”  This can lead to even more anxiety and shame around their food choices. People with ARFID thus have to battle their disorder as well as the concerns that diet culture imposes around food and body size.

Dieting encourages us to ignore our bodies’ needs. Diet culture emphasizes that our worth is based on the size of our bodies. In Christy Harrison’s book, Anti-Diet, she calls it “the life thief.” And that’s what it does- it steals the joy out of fun events or the everyday activity because it convinces us we need to carefully balance everything we put in our body. And if we go off the diet or “cheat” we are made to feel bad and unworthy causing a vicious cycle of yo-yo dieting. 

People with ARFID with whom we have worked report confusion around some of these messages, which clearly come from diet culture, and affected their ability to eat their preferred foods:

  • “Water is the only hydrating beverage and I should only be consuming water.”
  • “I was only offered wheat bread which I didn’t like so I didn’t eat bread.”
  • “I must eat vegetables in order to be healthy.”
  • “Fried foods are bad so I should limit my chicken nuggets and french fries.”

Standing up to Diet Culture

If you have a loved one struggling with ARFID it is recommended to check your own relationship with food and body image. Explore your own internalized fat phobia. Great books include The Body is Not an Apology by Sonja Renee Taylor and What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat by Aubrey Gordon. If you are worried about the types of food you or your child is eating because it is “unhealthy” check in on what you are really worried about. Is it truly about the nutritional value of the food or is there a belief that these particular foods can lead to being in a larger body? If the fear is being in a larger body then you have work to do. Learn about Health at Every Size® and recognize that the size of our bodies does not correlate to how healthy or unhealthy we are.

Remember, it is better to be fed than to be dead. If all you or your child can eat is chicken nuggets or french fries or potato chips or white bread (or all 4), then that’s what needs to show up at each meal and snack. You or they should have permission to eat preferred foods at every meal and snack without shame. With therapy, the goal is to incorporate more food groups and decrease fear and anxiety around novel foods. Realistically people who struggle with ARFID might never have the most expansive palette and that’s okay. If protein has to come from a package or be fried then that’s where the protein has to come from. Insisting that one food is better than another can make a person with ARFID feel ashamed, embarrassed, or more anxious about their food choices and further limit their eating. We never want to limit the food choices of people with ARFID beyond those limitations that the disorder causes. Choosing to feed yourself foods our culture considers “less healthy” rather than not eating is the best and dare I say–-healthiest choice there is.

When it comes to expanding variety and trying new foods we always have to start with what feels safe for the person with ARFID. While the goal might be to eat blueberries the first step might be eating blueberry muffins or chocolate-covered blueberries. The goals of treatment are to make meals less intimidating and have the patient feel like they can master trying new things. We don’t want to increase shame by disparaging their food choices.

We need to create peace, joy, and relaxation around meals. Labeling food “good” or “bad” or “healthy” or “unhealthy” can increase anxiety and discomfort.  Patients may second guess their food choices or end up becoming even more limited in what they eat. A fat-phobic mindset can be intimidating. Taking a Health at Every Size ® approach will be as important as it is in the treatment of anorexia and bulimia. It is the safest approach to navigating the world of diet culture. 

Let’s push back on diet culture and spread the message that all bodies are good bodies regardless of their size. We need to make the world safe for people in fat bodies and for those in thin bodies who are fearful of becoming fat. Ultimately, diet culture is not only harmful to people with other eating disorders but is also harmful to those with ARFID.

Groups at EDTLA

We have groups for adults with ARFID as well as parents of teens with ARFID. For more information, check our Groups page.

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