Maybe you have a friend or coworker who is struggles to eat enough for reasons other than body image–or who eats differently. This struggle to eat or eating difference may be something more than a quirk, but something known as ARFID. It may be frustrating to try to have meals with them, especially if you don’t understand what they are experiencing. This is not surprising—most people do not understand ARFID. With a little education, you can be an important support for your friend with ARFID.
Learn About Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)
What is ARFID?
ARFID is an eating disorder in which people have trouble eating a sufficient volume or variety of food and, as a consequence, experience negative effects on their health or daily functioning. They may have low weight or nutritional deficiencies. Or they may struggle to eat in social, school or work settings.
Unlike people with other eating disorders, concerns about shape and weight are not the primary reasons for people with ARFID failing to eat enough. They may have intense sensitivity to different tastes and textures and novel foods, may experience low interest in or early fullness when eating, or may fear negative consequences such as choking or vomiting occurring while or after eating.
People do not choose to have ARFID, just as people do not choose to have other eating disorders. Nor are people with ARFID choosing to be difficult when they are unwilling or unable to eat in certain circumstances. Most likely they are very uncomfortable and wish to avoid attracting attention or making you uncomfortable. They also likely do not want to inconvenience you. Adults with ARFID struggle in lots of ways, not just with eating.
How to Support a Friend With ARFID
Try to have empathy. A person with ARFID experiences a request to eat a non-preferred food like you would experience a request to eat something that you don’t even recognize as food. Imagine someone demanding that you eat paint. It’s not just a matter of being picky—the idea may raise strong disgust reactions and/or intense fear. In the case of someone with ARFID, shame about their disorder is also likely to play a part. Poking fun or drawing attention to their eating will likely only make them more self-conscious.
Try to be matter-of-fact. Let them know you care, even if you can’t relate. Ask your friend how specifically you can support them—both generally and during any meals that you might share. Below we provide some examples of ways to provide support during shared meals.
Eating With Your Friend With ARFID
Ask your friend if they would like the option of sampling things you are eating, or whether they prefer to stick to their safe foods. Alternatively, maybe they would prefer to eat beforehand and share a non-eating activity with you.
When trying to pick places at which to share a meal, collaborating can help. A wide range of options may overwhelm some people with ARFID. Instead, you could suggest three different restaurants acceptable to you and let them choose one after looking at the menus. Or you might have them suggest a few places at which they are comfortable eating and let you decide.
Don’t make judgments or get annoyed if they order off the “kid’s menu,” choose only appetizers or desserts, drink only a nutritional shake, modify their order, eat very little, or bring along safe food. It’s most important that they eat what they need. Help them prioritize meeting their needs.
Do not exert pressure on them to try foods with which they are not comfortable. A gentle offer is sufficient. Don’t comment on how much or how little they’ve eaten. Do not act insulted or take it personally if they don’t eat foods you’ve procured or prepared for them. They are not trying to be ungrateful. In fact, they probably feel guilty that you’ve gone out of your way for them.
Further, do not show over-interest in their ARFID and pepper them with questions about whether they eat this or that. Do not make fun of food combinations that seem strange or unappetizing. They are not an object of amusement, but a human being with a mental health problem.
Practice patience. Treat your friend’s food limitations as legitimate—just as if they had a severe food allergy.
Help Your Friend Get Help for ARFID
Encourage them to seek help if they are interested in doing so. Let them know that there are effective treatments for ARFID. CBT-AR is one effective therapy for adults with ARFID.
Get Help for ARFID in California
If you or a friend are struggling with ARFID, our experienced eating disorder therapists can help. We provide individual therapy for ARFID as well as a FREE weekly support group over Zoom for people with ARFID. Contact us to get started or to learn more.