The Misunderstood Difference Between ARFID and Anorexia

autism recovery

In general, there is incredible confusion when it comes to distinguishing ARFID from anorexia, as both “disorders” (purposely in air quotes, will elaborate on this punctuation later) involve nutrient restriction.

Unfortunately, when the distinction is made, it’s highly simplified. A quick Google search (or if you’re feeling extra, you could even type the question into ChatGPT) of the “difference between ARFID and anorexia” will tell you that ARFID (Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder) is categorized by restriction due to sensory issues, fear of adverse consequences, or a lack of interest in eating, while anorexia is associated with restriction due to the fear of gaining weight and becoming fat.

From a purely objective perspective, this distinction seems logical enough. However, as someone who was diagnosed with anorexia myself and DOES NOT resonate with the criteria for ARFID, I can assure you that anorexia does not ALWAYS involve fear of weight gain. In fact, I’ve never struggled with body image issues and despised the fact that I couldn’t get myself to take the actions necessary to gain weight.

When I discovered I’m neurodivergent, the course of my eating disorder suddenly made sense. I didn’t have anorexia due to the stereotypical belief that I was “afraid of becoming fat,” but because it acted as a mask for undiagnosed autism and ADHD. Controlling my food and exercise gave me a sense of safety and trust at a time when I couldn’t access that safety and trust elsewhere.

Perhaps not surprisingly, ARFID is also a manifestation of distrust and safety. Whether this lack of assurance is caused by trauma, specific sensory preferences, and/or a general distrust of non-safe foods, engaging in what society has labeled as “avoidant and restrictive behaviors” is a way to avoid perceived danger.

Because anorexia and ARFID are both much more likely to occur in neurodivergent people, it may be helpful to view the “disorders” as a spectrum of adaptive eating behaviors rather than a pathological form of food avoidance. Just as neurodiversity is viewed as a spectrum, viewing eating disorders as a spectrum could go a long way in reducing the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding them.

Whereas the black-and-white model of eating disorders attempts to constrict individuals to boxes they will never fully fit in, viewing eating disorders as a spectrum of behaviors with different underlying intentions opens the door to conversations about an individual’s unique sense of safety and trust. Not only would this approach support the core of recovery – discovering that safety in healthier ways – but it also would eliminate the need to “cure” eating behaviors that are not necessarily disordered.

Many neurodivergent eating behaviors are just that: neurodivergent. While, according to the medical model of disability, such behaviors are seen as “problematic” or “restrictive,” inviting curiosity to their underlying reasons simultaneously invites compassion towards the individual and their food choices. After all, a behavior is only “disordered” if it actually creates a lack of order in one’s life!

If you or a loved one wants to find freedom from food restriction, schedule a consultation call for 1-1 coaching here!

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