Your stomach is growling as you walk into the crowded dining hall. People are laughing with friends as they walk to the various food stations, but your body has frozen completely. You’ve automatically blocked your nose for the fear of unfamiliar smells and your heart is racing as your eyes scan the various lunch options. Even though the line for the "home-cooked meals" wraps around the perimeter of the dining hall, you involuntarily gag when you see chicken bathing in an unfamiliar sauce, contaminated by roasted vegetables.
You quickly shuffle to another station, but the stir-fry you thought you were interested in is nothing like it was at home. The rice is mixed in with vegetables and spices and you notice that even if you ordered yours plain, the spoons used to scoop your stir-fry has already touched the foods you are scared of anyway.
You automatically skip the salad bar—you just can’t do salads! Excluding the dessert bar, the only section of the dining hall left is the pizza station. You promised yourself before you moved in that you wouldn’t eat pizza for every meal, but if today is representative of every day in this dining hall, pizza might be your only option.
You sheepishly place two slices on your plate, fill up a glass of water, and hope no one will notice your meal of choice. Everyone at college seems to eat healthily—salads with cucumbers, tomatoes and vinaigrette have been heaped onto their plates and everyone happily chows down. However, you can barely watch them eat without your chest tightening, your breath catching and your eyes watering.
“Did you see the home-cooked section today?” One of the girls at your table asks, “It looked gross. I’m not a huge fan of vegetables.”
That girl might be what we consider a picky eater and from the outside, it looks like you are, too. If anyone would happen to ask why you got pizza and you told them you didn’t like the day’s selections, that would seem to be the logical assumption. But what many people don’t understand is that you’re not just a “picky eater.”
You have ARFID.
Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, also known as ARFID, is an eating disorder that is fairly common among young people, yet widely unknown to most of the general population. Even though the words “eating disorder” usually denote anorexia or bulimia and thus are related to weight and body image, ARFID is very different from these eating disorders that we typically think about. However, like people with anorexia and bulimia, people with ARFID have an unhealthy relationship with food. Although it's newness makes generalizing facts about it difficult, ARFID is usually marked by aversion to certain foods based on texture, smell, taste or bad past experiences.
These qualities seem to describe picky eating. That’s why diagnosing ARFID is extremely difficult. Based on my own experience with ARFID, I believe that what separates picky eating from ARFID is an innate anxiety surrounding food. It’s the difference between “I don’t like apples” and “I can’t eat apples because I’m scared of biting into them and having the juice squirt into my mouth." What seems like trivial reasons for not eating foods are anxieties powerful enough to paralyze a person with ARFID and to limit a person’s diet to generally unhealthy food choices.
ARFID also impairs a person's social life. Take a sleepover, for example. If someone is a picky eater, it is not likely that she would fear going to a sleepover because she wouldn’t know what food was being served. To a person with ARFID, a sleepover at another person’s house would be terrifying. The following questions begin to race through their mind:
"What kind of food will they have? What if they serve chips and dip again? I hate dip, but I don’t want to offend anyone by not eating it. If there’s nothing for me to eat, am I just going to eat nothing again and pretend I’m full all night? Okay. Here’s what I’ll do, I’ll have mom make me pasta before I go so if there’s food I don’t like I’ll just say I’ve already eaten. If mom won’t make me pasta, it’ll be fine. I’ve pretended not to be hungry before."
Living with ARFID means pretending—a lot. Events that would normally be fun become terrifying when the food served is unknown or disliked. It means pretending you’re not hungry even when your stomach is growling. It means coming up with excuses for why you won’t eat certain things or trying to dance around how many foods you can’t eat.
When you live in your parents’ house, ARFID can be manageable. You know that there’s always food you can eat at home. College, however, is a whole different arena. Going off to college can be a scary experience for some, but what frightened me the most was not knowing what I was going to eat. The dining hall has been a challenge every day. There’s no way to know what was put into the food, how it was prepared or if the silverware has touched things you don’t eat. There’s also no way to control what food your friends will eat, so you’re forced to watch your friends eat foods that terrify you, yet you pretend that everything is okay.
Even though there are great counseling options since ARFID is so new, there are not many concrete ways to completely work through it. However, it is important to promote awareness for ARFID because it is widely unknown. Even simple actions such as commenting less on picky eating or trying to notice the signs of ARFID could be big steps in raising conscientiousness and understanding.
For more resources, check out NEDA's article.
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