Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder can cause substantial weight loss, slower-than-expected growth in children, difficulty participating in normal social activities, and sometimes life-threatening nutritional deficiencies.
Doctors base the diagnosis on the nature of the restricted food intake and its effects after they have ruled out other causes of eating very little.
Cognitive behavioral therapy can help people learn to eat normally and help them feel less anxious about what they eat.
The exact cause of avoidant/restrictive food intake is unknown, but there may be genetic, psychologic, and social factors involved (for example, trauma Overview of Trauma- and Stress-Related Disorders Trauma- and stress-related disorders result from exposure to a traumatic or stressful event. Specific disorders include acute stress disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder. These disorders... read more , anxiety Overview of Anxiety Disorders Anxiety is a feeling of nervousness, worry, or unease that is a normal human experience. It is also present in a wide range of psychiatric disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder,... read more , autism Autism Spectrum Disorders Autism spectrum disorders are conditions in which people have difficulty developing normal social relationships, use language abnormally or not at all, and show restricted or repetitive behaviors... read more , and developmental disorders Definition of Developmental Disorders Developmental disorders are better called neurodevelopmental disorders. Neurodevelopmental disorders are neurologically based conditions that can interfere with the acquisition, retention, or... read more ).
Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder typically begins during childhood and may initially resemble the picky eating that is common during this phase of life. For example, children may refuse to eat certain foods or foods of a certain color, consistency, or odor. However, picky eating typically involves only a few foods, and children who are picky eaters, unlike those with this disorder, have a normal appetite, eat enough food overall, and grow and develop normally.
People with avoidant/restrictive food intake may not eat because they lose interest in eating or because they think eating has harmful consequences.
People with avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder eat very little and/or avoid eating certain foods. They may eat so little that they lose a substantial amount of weight. Children with the disorder may not grow as expected.
Nutritional deficiencies are common and may become life threatening.
Because of their problems with eating, people with this disorder may have difficulty participating in normal social activities, such as eating with other people and maintaining relationships with others.
A doctor's evaluation
Tests to check for physical disorders
Evaluation for other mental disorders
Doctors suspect avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder in people who avoid food or eat very little and have one or more of the following:
Significant weight loss or, in children, not growing as expected
A severe nutritional deficiency
The need for tube feeding or for nutritional supplements taken by mouth
Great difficulty participating in normal social activities and interacting with others
No evidence of a distorted body image
When people eat so little that they lose weight and develop nutritional deficiencies, doctors typically do tests for physical disorders that can cause such problems. Such physical disorders include food allergies, digestive tract disorders that impair food absorption (malabsorption Overview of Malabsorption Malabsorption syndrome refers to a number of disorders in which nutrients from food are not absorbed properly in the small intestine. Certain disorders, infections, and surgical procedures can... read more ), and cancer Weight loss and fatigue At first, cancer, as a tiny mass of cells, causes no symptoms whatsoever (see also Overview of Cancer). As a cancer grows, its physical presence can affect nearby tissues (see also Warning Signs... read more .
Doctors also consider other mental disorders that sometimes lead to weight loss, such as other eating disorders (particularly anorexia nervosa Anorexia Nervosa Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by a relentless pursuit of thinness, a distorted body image, an extreme fear of obesity, and restriction of food consumption, leading to... read more or bulimia nervosa Bulimia Nervosa Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by the repeated rapid consumption of large amounts of food (binge eating), followed by attempts to compensate for the excess food consumed... read more ), depression Depression A short discussion of prolonged grief disorder. Depression is a feeling of sadness and/or a decreased interest or pleasure in activities that becomes a disorder when it is intense enough to... read more , and schizophrenia Schizophrenia Schizophrenia is a mental disorder characterized by loss of contact with reality (psychosis), hallucinations (usually, hearing voices), firmly held false beliefs (delusions), abnormal thinking... read more . Doctors do not diagnose avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder if people restrict their food intake because food is unavailable or is part of a cultural tradition (such as religious fasting).
Usually, doctors also do not diagnose avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder if they identify another disorder or a medical treatment (such as radiation therapy or chemotherapy) as the cause.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy Psychotherapy Extraordinary advances have been made in the treatment of mental illness. As a result, many mental health disorders can now be treated nearly as successfully as physical disorders. Most treatment... read more may be used to help people with avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder learn to eat normally. It can help them feel less anxious about what they eat.
The following is an English-language resource that may be useful. Please note that THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of this resource.
National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA): Large nonprofit organization that provides access to online screening tools, a helpline, forums, and a variety of support groups (some virtual)