Let me ask a question: when you hear the term, ‘eating disorder’, what images come into your head? Do you think of images of a teenage girl politely denying food one too many times? Do you think of images of actors such as Christian Bale in the movie The Machinist? Do you think of aspiring models bending over a toilet, forcing themselves to vomit after a night of binge-eating?
The popular image of eating disorders in society is centred around an unhealthy desire to lose as much weight as possible. This is common with people suffering from both Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa. However the eating disorder I am going to discuss today has very little to do with losing weight. I have an eating disorder known as Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder or ARFID. Somebody living with ARFID, has a psychological inability to eat certain foods. ‘Safe’ foods for people living with ARFID may be limited to certain food types and specific brands. There are numerous factors that can lead to this avoidance of food, however ARFID is very common with Autistic people. This is mostly due to certain sensory issues and inflexible routines and rigidity that is commonly found in Autistic people making it harder to treat ARFID. ARFID is still a relatively new diagnoses, making harder for Autistic people to have access to the help they need.
For as long as I can remember, I haven’t liked vegetables (shocking, isn’t it). There was a while as a child where I did like potatoes, yet they soon fell out of favor with me too. The only fruit I eat are oranges, even then I am picky about how they taste and I don’t eat them regularly. I have always been called a ‘fussy’ or ‘picky’ eater and for as long as I can remember that fact has embarrassed me. To tell you the truth, it isn’t as easy as sticking a piece of carrot in my mouth, chewing and deciding that I like it. When I occasionally get the bravery to try something new, I almost immediately start involuntarily gagging and trying to get it out of my mouth, I can’t help it. The thought of having to try new foods terrifies me. There is often an argument made by parents on Facebook, that if you leave a child with food and tell them there is nothing else to eat, they will try the try the food eventually. The old phrase, “In my day, we ate what were given, or we had nothing at all.” However, this never worked on me. If there was nothing I liked to eat I found it very easy to eat nothing at all. This was taken to the extreme last year when I visited Sweden on a school Erasmus project. During that trip, I ate mostly sweets, cinnamon rolls and oranges that my teacher kindly bought me. The result was me losing 2 kilograms. Of course I put that weight back on almost as soon as I returned home. It wasn’t healthy, but it demonstrates the extremes my ARFID goes to.
Something which I am working on with my counsellor at the moment, is developing the confidence to ask for food I like without having to always explain myself. If I had such confidence in Sweden, it might not have been so difficult for me. However, it is hard. For my most of life I have faced judgement of some sort or another about my eating habits. I have had lectures from teachers about the negative long-term effects, I have had disapproving eyes from friend’s parents and I have had attempts to force me to try foods at various points in time. It is all really painful. When I was little I didn’t know why I struggled with food, I had no control over it, yet I felt constantly judged. Sometimes I can see it, disaproving eyes, while people express false sympathy. Judging me for my eating habits does not make me immediately change them, it simply makes me not want to eat or discuss food around you.
The funny thing about all of this is that I love Home Ec and cooking and baking. I know a lot about food and I can almost give anybody a detailed account of why something like a bag of crisps is bad for you. I love watching cooking channels on YouTube and I am fascinated by different cuisines. My favourite food is easily Parmesan cheese and I can give a whole lecture on what dishes it tastes great in, its delicious umami flavours and why Parmegiano Reggiano is so expensive. You would think that with all this knowledge about food it would make it very easy for me to try new things, yet seemingly nothing can undo the years of anxiety I have built up around food.
Unlike my Autism, which can be equally wonderful and extremely negative at the same time, I am going to have to try and seek treatment for my ARFID eventually. I am fully aware of the fact that this is something that will effect my long-term health in the future and is not a positive thing in my life. Currently, I am not focusing on it as my life is stressful enough, yet once I start university, I plan to look into treatment. In terms of ARFID, this can be intense and involves Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I look forward to a future where food isn’t an issue for me.
I want to finish my post by telling you reader that you should never judge a ‘fussy’ eater. You have no idea what has got them to this stage. If we don’t take disorders like ARFID seriously, it becomes even harder for sufferers to find adequate help. By judging someone, at best you do nothing to effect them at all; at worst, you can cause the person to suffer even more.
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