When Food Allergy Creates A Fear Of Food

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Anxious food allergic kids, understandably concerned about avoiding allergens, can become so restrictive in their food choices that weight loss and other problems arise.

If the food restriction is severe enough, it can develop into an eating disorder. While this does not occur often enough for parents to lie awake and worry about, it is something allergy families should be aware of.

Signs of a Problem

One eating issue that can develop during childhood is ARFID, or Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. This diagnosis covers a variety of eating problems including limiting intake for fear of the body’s response to food (e.g., choking, vomiting, anaphylaxis).

Because kids with ARFID do not get enough calories and nutrients through their diet, they either lose weight, or fail to gain weight and grow as they should. Individuals with this disorder also tend to have school and social difficulties such as avoiding social gatherings when food is served, having poor concentration, or a lack of energy.

To be diagnosed with ARFID, a child must exhibit one or more of the following:

  • Significant weight loss, or a failure to achieve normal growth/weight gain.
  • A significant nutritional deficiency.
  • A reliance on feeding assistance, or nutritional supplements.
  • Marked interference with everyday functioning.

An ARFID diagnosis is not given when symptoms are owed to a lack of available food, a cultural practice, or can be better explained by another medical condition.

Parents who suspect their child may be struggling with food anxiety and avoidance should contact their doctor or a mental health professional for an assessment. Fortunately, children with ARFID respond well to Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), an evidence-based treatment frequently used to relieve anxiety in children.

Odd Behavior vs Disorder

While worry comes with the territory of parenting, it’s helpful to remember that not all odd food behaviors indicate a disorder.

Many kids, including food allergic ones, can develop unusual patterns of eating such as refusing to eat veggies, or saying “no” to all meat except hot dogs. These patterns generally resolve on their own without professional intervention. Only a very small subset of children develops persistent and worsening food issues that interfere with their health and ability to function at home or in school.

The important thing, should you suspect your child is negatively impacted by food or allergen anxiety, is to consult a professional. Anxiety is a highly treatable condition, and eating disorders are easiest to address when caught early.

Sources: Eating Disorder; Food Allergy Canada Photo credit: David Goehring

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