Can Eating Disorder Treatment Centers Treat Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder? Avoidant-Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) or “selective eating disorder” is a fairly newly defined eating disorder characterized by a resolute refusal to eat certain foods. Someone with ARFID may refuse to eat something because of its smell, texture or color or because they have a phobia about choking or becoming ill if they eat it.
Children, teens and adults can be diagnosed with ARFID even if they are not obsessed with their appearance or weight and do not engage in purging behaviors. Eating disorder treatment centers can help teens and adults with ARFID by providing evidence-based, individualized eating disorder recovery programs.
Selective Eating Disorder Treatment
Systemic desensitization (SED) programs expose ARFID patients to foods they routinely avoid for short periods until the patient can tolerate the food without having panic attacks. An example of SED could involve a patient who refuses to eat nothing but scrambled eggs. During an exposure session, a few, tiny pieces of cheese or tomato may be chopped up and combined with the scrambled egg. The goal of this type of selective eating disorder treatment is to slowly introduce new foods by using foods the patient feels comfortable eating. Therapists work with ARFID patients to continuously expand their list of tolerable or acceptable foods until the patient is eating food from all food groups.
Residential eating disorder treatment centers provide the kind of stress-free, safe environment in which patients can calm themselves more easily than at home. Therapists suggest this environment is conducive to patients making “friends” with foods they previously avoided. In addition, selective eating disorder treatment patients are given daily opportunities to handle and explore a wide variety of food. Patients also learn techniques that exercise and stimulate their tongues to help reduce gag reflexes. One way therapists introduce food to ARFID patients is to have them “feel” and “taste” the food using the side of their tongue instead of the tip of the tongue. This is because the sides of the tongue are less sensitive to taste.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Eating Disorder Recovery Patients
With clear similarities to obsessive-compulsive disorder and phobias, ARFID can be successfully treated with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Therapists use CBT to challenge irrational thought processes patients have about foods they will not eat with similar techniques with which people diagnosed with a phobia are treated. Systematic desensitization is often combined with CBT at eating disorder treatment centers to enhance the effectiveness of CBT for selective eating disorders. During therapy sessions, patients are asked to sniff food initially, touch the food and perhaps touch their tongue to foods they have rigorously avoided. By not emotionally and physically overwhelming ARFID patients, therapists work gradually to change the way patients perceive food.
Family Therapy in Selective Eating Disorder Treatment Programs
For children and teens with avoidant-restrictive food intake disorder, family-based therapy used in conjunction with CBT can not only help patients overcome their “fear” of food but also discover if family conflicts are being projected onto a teen or child. The goal of family therapy for ARFID, in addition to treating a patient’s selective eating disorder, is to remove any sense of guilt or blame anybody feels for a child’s eating problems by strengthening bonds among family members to support the patient during their eating disorder recovery.
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