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#WeAreNotBeingFussy: Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2024

The focus of this year's international Eating Disorders Awareness Week is ARFID. Nel Roden explores how organisations are raising awareness for this unfamiliar eating disorder during EDAW 2024.

By Nel Roden, Co-Deputy Features Editor

Trigger Warning: Discussion of eating disorders and disordered eating

The 26th of February marks the beginning of this year’s international Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Each year, the UK’s leading eating disorders awareness charity, Beat, spotlights underrepresented groups affected by, or uncommonly discussed areas of, eating disorders. This year, the charity’s campaign is directed towards raising awareness for avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID).

ARFID, according to Beat, ‘Is a condition characterised by the person avoiding certain foods or types of food, having restricted intake in terms of overall amount eaten, or both.’ People struggling with ARFID are commonly branded as ‘picky eaters’, a term that is not only insensitive but also fails to recognise the challenges that someone dealing with this disorder may face.

Though ARFID can take many forms, Beat identifies three common reasons why someone may develop this eating disorder. The first is sensory-based avoidance; a person might be sensitive to certain tastes, textures, smells, appearances, or temperatures of certain foods, which can lead to restrictive intake or avoidance. The second is concern about the consequences of eating; having had an unpleasant or distressing experience eating certain foods (e.g. choking or vomiting), a person might develop anxiety around food or eating. The third reason is a low interest in eating, where a person might have issues recognising the feeling of hunger, see eating as uninteresting, or have a poor appetite leading to undereating.

While Beat offers a preliminary outline of what ARFID might look like, they note that ‘It is very important to recognise that any one person can have one or more of these reasons behind their avoidance or restriction of food and eating at any one time. In other words, these examples are not mutually exclusive’.

They go on to explain that ‘ARFID is sometimes described as an “umbrella” term’ – it encompasses a range of complex and nuanced behaviours towards food and eating, but is always quantified as a ‘Restriction of food intake in terms of overall amount, range of foods eaten, or both.’

As part of their EDAW 2024 campaign, Beat are platforming the voices of people affected by ARFID to highlight common misconceptions about the disorder. One participant wrote: ‘We are not doing it for attention. We don't choose this. The anxiety we feel when confronted with food is all-consuming’.

Another participant noted that ‘They would like people who are interested in ARFID or work in healthcare to know that it's an eating disorder that can be just as serious as any of the others. That it requires different treatment to eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, but it's still just as deserving of treatment. And it's not as simple as just forcing yourself to eat.’

Both responses draw attention to the misconception that ARFID is an uncomplicated or less severe type of eating disorder, when, in actuality, it necessitates the same level of care and consideration by healthcare professionals — as well as friends and family — as the more widely recognised eating disorders.

Though it is estimated that around 1.25 million people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder, little is known about how common ARFID is. The Royal College of Psychiatrists notes that this may be because, in the past, ARFID was not categorised under one term, thereby making it a difficult disorder to quantify. Additionally, the majority of research into ARFID has focused primarily on children, meaning information on how the disorder manifests in teenagers and adults is lacking.

Fortunately, research into eating disorders is now being prioritised more than ever by mental health organisations and medical professionals. In a study conducted for the Journal of Eating Disorders, it was found that while universities have historically given little attention to supporting those with eating disorders, there is now ‘Substantive progress being made [so that] students [...] receive the support they need to thrive at university.’ In light of these findings, it is hopeful that further research into how ARFID affects young people and adults will be given similar attention and priority.

Here at Bristol, the university’s eating disorders awareness society, Beat This Together, are conducting a post series on their Instagram each day of EDAW to raise awareness and offer vital resources about eating disorders, as well as information on where to find support. The society also offers year-round opportunities for students at The University of Bristol to get involved with fundraising and charity events to raise awareness about eating disorders.

Offering support for those struggling with eating disorders in the wider Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire community is the Eating Disorders Health Integration Team (HIT). Run by a team of people who have lived experience with eating disorders, HIT aims to improve the lives of individuals who are impacted by, or are vulnerable to, the onset of eating disorders. With services that extend to both students and the wider South West community, HIT prioritises the advancement of new research, communicating with clinicians to improve the quality of care for people with eating disorders.

Although ARFID remains a widely overlooked type of eating disorder, the collective efforts of charities, organisations, and individuals who are affected by the disorder are contributing to its acknowledgement as a legitimate and significant challenge that many face.

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If you, or anyone you know, is struggling with an eating disorder, you can find support through the University’s Student Health Service, where the opportunity to discuss issues in a confidential, non-judgemental space is available.

For local support, Bristol-based organisations such as the Bristol Eating Disorder Support Group, STEPs, and SWEDA offer a range of support options for those struggling, as well as for friends and family. For those struggling with ARFID, Hummingbird is a confidential and inclusive online support group run by Beat, with additional group meetings being held as part of Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2024.

Featured Image: Beat / #WeAreNotBeingFussy

Throughout this year’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week, BEAT will be sharing information and resources about ARFID. To find out more, visit BEAT’s website. Find out more about Beat’s EDAW 2024 campaign and how you can spread awareness here.