Alarm over ‘extremely worrying’ 7-fold rise in people seeking help for little-known eating disorder

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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  • Charity Beat says there’s a ‘worrying’ rise in avoidant food intake disorder AFRID
  • The charity received  2,000 phone calls in 2023 a rise up from 295 calls in 2018

The majority of toddlers and children will go through a phase of picky eating.

But a charity has warned of a huge rise of an eating disorder with similar symptoms, which makes people avoid certain foods.

Known as avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), this is when fussy eating is to the extent that people cannot meet their nutritional or energy needs.

Eating disorder charity Beat said its helpline received more than 2,000 phone calls about it last year – 10 per cent of its total – and up from 295 five years earlier.

Chief executive Andrew Radford described the spike as ‘extremely worrying’.

Patients with ARFID usually avoid certain foods or limit what they eat, and the eating disorder can occur in children, teenagers and adults

WHAT IS AVOIDANT RESTRICTIVE FOOD INTAKE DISORDER (ARFID)?  

ARFID is the second-most common eating disorder in children under 12 years old.

It is categorized as extreme picky eating.

The common signs are food refusal, anxiety, being underweight, or growing slowly.

A child may have a short list of acceptable foods and skip one or more entire food groups. 

This can lead to weight loss, nutrient deficiencies, growth disturbances, and social anxiety.

The onset of ARFID may be due to a form of food-related trauma, including a negative experience with eating, such as choking, gagging or vomiting.

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He said: ‘It’s extremely worrying that there has been such a dramatic increase in those seeking support for ARFID, particularly as specialist care isn’t always readily available.

‘All too often we hear from people who have been unable to get treatment close to home, or have faced waits of months or even years to get the help they need.

‘ARFID is an eating disorder that rarely gets the attention it deserves, and it’s unacceptable that that seems to apply to funding, too.

‘Now is the time for NHS decision-makers to ensure that anyone who needs support can get it from trained and fully equipped teams across the country.’

Only medically recognised in 2013, it can affect people of any age though typically begins in childhood.

Symptoms include being a very selective eater who may have strong negative reactions to smells, tastes, textures, or colours of foods.

Sufferers may be highly fearful of new foods and worried about negative experiences related to unfamiliar foods.

Experts said it is vital to address it early before it becomes entrenched and more difficult to treat.

An NHS spokesperson said: ‘During the pandemic, referrals for eating disorders for children increased by almost 50 per cent and the NHS is clear that improving care for people with an eating disorder including ARFID is vital, with investment, targeted support and training helping to develop community eating disorder teams in all areas in England.

‘Since 2016, investment in children and young people’s community eating disorder services has risen every year, with an extra £54 million per year since last year and extra funding continues to enhance the capacity of community eating disorder teams, including the needs of those with ARFID, across the country.’

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