Sensory Issues Associated with ARFID

The incidence of Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) in Australia is growing with one in every 300 people now living with the condition (1). Despite this, many Australians remain unaware of the condition, even those who are living with it themselves or the family members around them.
In this blog, we aim to increase awareness of the sensory issues that are associated with ARFID.  

What is ARFID?

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) is marked by an internalised fear of particular foods, textures, smells and/or tastes. It is typically viewed as resulting from a series of sensory issues that may contribute to a sensory overload. This differs from other eating disorders that are primarily driven by underlying weight and/or body image concerns. The focus of this blog is to examine the various types of sensory challenges experienced by individuals living with ARFID, as well as the psychological and physical consequences associated with these sensory challenges.   

Common sensory issues associated with ARFID

Individuals with sensory sensitivity may engage in sensory seeking and sensory avoiding behaviours. This may lead them to become fixated on a small number of safe and familiar foods. As a result, the introduction of unfamiliar foods may be met with strong resistance.  

Below are examples of how certain sensory issues may present:  

Texture Aversion

One of the most common sensory issues in ARFID is an aversion to certain food textures. Individuals with ARFID may find certain textures unbearable, for example, slimy, mushy, or crunchy. This may lead to a limited selection of acceptable foods. The mere thought of encountering these textures can cause intense anxiety, making it challenging to introduce new foods. 

Smell Sensitivities

 The olfactory or sensation of smell component of food is crucial in shaping our overall taste experience. For individuals with ARFID, a heightened sensitivity to smells can be overwhelming. This is because strong or unfamiliar odours can trigger aversions, causing distress and avoidance of specific foods. As a result, this sensory sensitivity can further narrow the range of acceptable food choices. 

Taste Preferences

ARFID can also manifest through hypersensitivity to certain tastes. Some individuals may be extremely sensitive to bitter, spicy, or sour flavours, finding them intolerable. Consequently, they may limit their food choices to items with mild or familiar tastes, leading to a nutritionally deficient diet. 

Temperature Challenges

The temperature of food can be another significant factor contributing to sensory issues in ARFID. Some individuals may have a preference for either hot or cold foods, while others may struggle with foods at room temperature. These temperature-related sensitivities add another layer of complexity to the already challenging task of meal planning. 

Fear of Choking or Gagging

Sensory sensitivities related to the fear of choking or gagging on certain textures can contribute to food avoidance. This fear may be related to prior negative experiences, or heightened sensitivities in the oral-motor area. 

Colour Sensitivity

Some individuals with ARFID may have developed an aversion towards specific food colours. This can result in a limited range of acceptable foods based on a limited number of colour preferences.

Impact on daily life

The sensory challenges related to ARFID symptoms can significantly disrupt various aspects of daily life. For example, social situations involving food, such as family gatherings or dining out with friends, can become sources of stress and isolation. The fear of encountering unfamiliar or disliked textures, smells, or tastes may lead individuals to avoid these situations altogether, limiting their social interactions and experiences.

Furthermore, the nutritional implications of ARFID cannot be understated. The restricted food intake resulting from sensory sensitivities can lead to deficiencies in essential nutrients, affecting physical health and overall well-being. It is crucial to address these sensory challenges to ensure a more balanced and nutritious diet for individuals with ARFID. 


Treatment approaches

Understanding the sensory issues associated with ARFID is a crucial step in developing effective treatment strategies. Multidisciplinary approaches that involve psychologists, dietitians, and occupational therapists can help individuals gradually expand their food repertoire and overcome sensory barriers. 

  • Exposure Therapy: In a gradual manner, within a controlled and supportive setting, individuals are introduced to a series of stimuli they fear. In the context of ARFID, this may involve exposure to new textures, smells, or tastes, allowing individuals to become more comfortable with a broader range of foods over time. 
  • Occupational Therapy: An occupational therapist employs many strategies to address the sensory sensitivities reported by their clients. For example, using sensory integration techniques, individuals can learn to regulate their responses to different stimuli, reducing anxiety. and enhancing their ability to tolerate a wider variety of foods.  

ARFID’s sensory issues create a unique set of challenges for individuals navigating their relationship with food. Therefore, awareness and management of each sensitivity is important to enable greater quality of life. Appropriate support and intervention may act as an aid in expanding an individual’s accepted food groups, which is vital in cultivating eating attitudes and behaviours that contribute to greater psychological and physical well-being. The complexity associated with each unique case of ARFID typically requires a multidisciplinary team, ranging from a dietician to psychologist, to address the various maintaining factors.  

If you think that you or someone you know may have ARFID, it is important to seek help immediately. Your local General Practitioner or allied health professional is a good starting point. 

To find clinicians with eating disorder knowledge, go to ANZAED’s Connect.ED.

About Eating Disorders Families Australia

Eating Disorders Families Australia (EDFA) is the only national organisation solely for carers and families of those with an eating disorder. EDFA provides supportEDucation, advocacy, and counselling services. EDFA has a private Facebook forum, providing a safe place for eating disorder carers and family members to share experiences, seek advice and assistance, and find hope. 

EDFA is the ONLY organisation that provides monthly support group for carers of those with a diagnosis of ARFID.

For more information about any of our services, please don’t hesitate to contact us