Growing Up With Selective Eating Disorder
Lots of parents struggle to persuade their child to eat a range of healthy foods. It’s very common for preschoolers to refuse vegetables in favor of bland and boring items such as bread, chicken nuggets and fries. All too often, mealtimes become a battleground with bribes, pleading and even threats. Usually, however, children eventually grow out of their food aversions and start to naturally select a diet which is more varied and healthier. What happens when they don’t though?
If you grew up with a selective eating disorder, your parents may have thought that you were just a picky eater. However, it’s a medical condition which can lead to a host of long-term problems. Just because this eating disorder is less well-known that bulimia and anorexia, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t any more dangerous or problematic. Here, we take a closer look at this poorly understood condition and learn how to spot the signs of its development.
How Is Selective Eating Disorder Different From Picky Eating?
Everyone knows someone who is a picky eater, but if you’re an adult who is still fussy about your own food, you might be wondering whether that’s normal.
There are big differences between fussy eating and selective eating disorder. While 95% of eating disorders have been shown to develop between 12 and 25 years, younger children can be affected by eating disorders too. If those eating disorders aren’t addressed at an early stage, then those children grow up into adults who still suffer from an eating disorder. If you grew up suffering from selective eating disorder and never received the help that you needed, you may now be an adult who is struggling to cope when it comes to eating normally.
Fussy eating, or disordered eating, is a term which is used to refer to several irregular eating behaviors which aren’t classed as a particular eating disorder. Picky eating is classified as mild or moderate disordered eating behavior which will resolve eventually, with or without professional help. On the other hand, eating disorders are mental illnesses which are characterized by an abnormal way of eating. They cause health problems and are characterized by an unhealthy obsession with food, body image, shape or weight.
Fussy eaters reject food because they’ve found something wrong with it. For example, they may refuse to eat an apple because it’s bruised or refuse to eat thigh meat because they’ll only eat chicken breast. However, selective eating is different. Many people with this disorder want to eat a range of foods but find that they physically cannot. Many sufferers are unable to put certain foods in their mouth, while some suffer so severely that they cannot even have those foods in the room with them. No amount of incentives or bribes can resolve the situation.
If you’re an adult who recognizes this pattern of eating behavior in your own life and who has never grown out of extreme pick eating associated with childhood, you should seek help for selective eating disorder.
What Is Selective Eating Disorder?
Selective eating disorder (or SED) can vary in its severity. Generally, the result is that the sufferer is able to eat, but they only consume a severely limited diet. Usually, that diet will be very bland and basic. Common foods that are eaten by SED sufferers include white bread, plain pasta, potatoes, and breaded chicken. These foods are sometimes called a “toddler diet” since it reflects the kind of foods which are often served up to young children. Yet those who have selective eating disorder end up having the same diet without any other variety into adulthood.
People who have selective eating disorder usually know that they have a problem and want to be able to consume a wider range of items, but they find that they’re unable to. This is because their brain has come to believe that if they eat certain foods they will suffer from some kind of harm.
Selective eating disorder is officially known as ARFID or Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. Thousands of people suffer from this problem, although children are primarily affected. When someone has ARFID they have a fear of food. This is very different from the fear of food that sufferers of bulimia and anorexia have. Rather than stemming from any kind of need for control or terror of weight gain, ARFID sufferers are afraid of the food itself.
Types Of Selective Eating Disorder
There are three main types of SED.
- Lack of interest in food. People with this form of SED genuinely have no interest in food or eating. They feel full very quickly and get no pleasure from the experience.
- Sensory avoidance. People who have sensory avoidance issues dislike the smell, temperature, texture or taste of food.
- Phobia of negative consequences. People with this form of SED are afraid that they will suffer from an allergic reaction, nausea and vomiting, illnesses or choking if they eat certain foods.
What Causes SED?
There isn’t a single known cause for selective eating disorder. Rather, clinicians and researchers have discovered that there are several contributing factors, including psychosocial, environmental and biological influences. Some people will already be predisposed to suffering from SED because of their genetic or biological makeup – for example, if a parent is already a sufferer, they have a greater chance of developing the same problem themselves.
Their condition may then be triggered by a psychosocial or environment situation like a traumatic event. SED sufferers may also have a co-occurring disorder such as a developmental disability, autism or an anxiety disorder. It has also been found that children suffering from chronic illnesses such as diabetes are more likely to develop a selective eating disorder which can then stay with them as an adult.
What Should I Look For As A Sign Of Selective Eating Disorder?
If you’re worried that you may be suffering from selective eating disorder, you’ll need to know the symptoms and signs to look out for. Unfortunately, this is where the challenges of identifying this condition can arise. SED often goes undiagnosed since it is regularly mistaken for extreme picky eating.
Most people are now aware of better-known eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, and many people would know what kind of behaviors to look out that would indicate they were suffering from one of these conditions. Conversely, most people have never heard of SED. If they are unaware that a condition even exists, how can they be aware of the potential symptoms?
When someone grows up with SED, their parents tend to become used to their way of eating. While they may have concerns about their son or daughter’s well-being, they may believe that this sort of eating behavior is common in children and that they will eventually grow out of it. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. By the time that child becomes an adult and has to take responsibility for their own diet they have become aware that their way of eating isn’t normal but have no idea what to do about it.
Here are some of the signs to be aware of that are associated with this lesser-known eating disorder.
- A very limited range of foods that are deemed acceptable
- Eating foods which have similar characteristics, for example the same color or texture
- A preference for a specific food preparation method
- Avoiding sources of protein, fruit and vegetables
- Eliminating foods without ever trying them again
- Poor growth and weight gain
- Nutrient deficiencies (especially vitamins A and C and iron)
- Skipping whole food groups e.g. proteins
- Becoming emotional or distressed around foods which are unfamiliar
- Limitations on food have a negative impact on normal social behavior
- A fear of vomiting or choking
- Extremely slow eating at meal times
- Poor appetite for no clear reason (e.g. due to illness)
If you recognize these signs in yourself, it’s important to seek medical help, even if you aren’t entirely certain that you are suffering from an eating disorder. Getting intervention as soon as possible is important to ensure the best chance of a rapid recovery.
What Are The Risks Of Selective Eating Disorder?
When someone suffers from selective eating disorder, they can end up suffering from a host of medical problems which can be long-lasting and severe. They include:
- Excessive weight loss
- Anxiety disorders
- Gastrointestinal problems
Those who have had the problem since childhood may have also been at greater risk of suffering from developmental delay and social problems. Due to the issues surrounding food which characterize SED, sufferers often struggle to cope in social situations, especially those which involve eating. This can make eating out, attending parties and special occasions extremely challenging. In the long-run, this can cause increased isolation, with family problems and a reduced social group. This, in turn, can cause further emotional or mental health problems such as social anxiety and depression which can have far-reaching implications for the sufferer’s life.
Although selective eating disorder is a poorly understood and less well known eating disorder, the good news is that there is professional help available so that sufferers can recover. Getting medical support is very important for sufferers of this condition, since simply telling someone to “snap out of it” just won’t work. When someone has a true aversion to certain foods, no amount of persuasion or threatening will work in encouraging them to eat. Therefore, approaching a doctor, counselor or specialist therapist is the best solution.
There are several components involved in treating any kind of eating disorder. It’s important for the sufferer to regain weight so that their nutritional and physical health can be restored, but it’s also vital to address the emotional and mental health issues that lie behind the problem. Behavioral interventions are usually necessary to expose the sufferer to the foods which they avoid so they can eventually regain a healthier relationship with food and eating.
If you have read this list of symptoms and believe that you recognize them in yourself, you shouldn’t hold back on taking action to help yourself today from a facility like The Meadowglade.
Still, it’s important to remember that, in the past, eating disorders were less well understood than they are today, and parents were rarely given the information that they needed to address their child’s issues surrounding food. It’s highly likely that your parents were worried about your eating problems and may have taken you to a doctor only to be told that there was nothing wrong and that your behavior was completely normal in children. The chances are that your parents were told that you would eventually grow out of being so picky and would eventually begin to eat a normal diet once you got older. For many people, this would have been true. However, for you it unfortunately did not resolve itself. That doesn’t mean that you can’t address the situation now.
Seeking help for any kind of eating disorder is never going to be easy, especially one which has been allowed to take root over so many years. When you’ve only known one way of eating your whole life, the idea of making such dramatic changes to your diet can be frightening. However, with the right medical support you can slowly begin to increase your exposure to the foods that you avoid and hopefully begin to introduce more of them into your daily eating regime.
Doctors today are much more understanding of a whole range of eating disorders. While selective eating disorder isn’t one of the best-known eating disorders out there, it nevertheless can be treated with the support of dedicated professionals. The sooner you seek out the help that you need, the more quickly you will be able to get some normality into your life and enjoy better mental and physical health. It won’t be an easy road, but you’ll eventually be able to leave the disordered eating patterns of your childhood behind and move onto a new and healthier future.
Are you struggling with an eating disorder or worried that your childhood brush with selective eating disorder has impacted your relationship with food as an adult? You have options for treatment. The Meadowglade’s experienced staff knows how to work with you to find the best possible treatment avenues. Recovery is possible and The Meadowglade can help!