Extremely rare eating disorder misunderstood, says Edmonton boy

Zachary Bell’s problems with food started with picky eating, but soon escalated into something much more serious.

Zachary Bell is not a 'picky eater,' he suffers from Restrictive Food Intake Disorder

Kathy Bell and her Zachary Bell, who suffers from Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, shared their story on CBC Radio's Edmonton AM. (Tim Adams )

Zachary Bell's problems with food started with picky eating, but soon escalated into something much more serious.

The 12-year old has struggled for years to eat. Unable to consume any fruits or vegetables, dairy or meat products, he subsists on a meager diet comprised mainly of bread and crackers.

"He's not trying to be naughty and get something different," Zachary's mother, Kathy Bell, said during a Thursday interview on Edmonton AM. "He physically cannot pick it up and stick it in his mouth, he just can't do it."

Last year, Zachary was diagnosed with Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), which centres around a phobia of certain tastes, colours or textures.

People with ARFID have an inability to eat certain foods, and in some cases, reactions to "unsafe" foods can be extreme.

"They've compared it to a phobia, like a snake phobia, or a fear of flying," said Bell.

"Picky eating is a normal part of childhood development, and there are just a few foods they don't want. With ARFID, it's entire food groups, and these kids are often limited to just 20 foods."

Zachary wanted to share his story during national Eating Disorder Awareness Week so other people suffering with the disorder won't be misunderstood.

"I don't want people to think it's picky eating and get forced to eat food," he said. "I just want people to know that's it's not picky eating, it's ARFID."

The extremely rare condition, which often develops in early childhood, is only beginning to gain recognition in the medical community. According to Bell, her concerns were often downplayed by doctors who believed her son would "grow out of it."

"They said he wouldn't starve himself," said Bell. "He did.

"They told us to shove food down his mouth. So we did. They told us to hide food in his meals, and we did. And we lost all trust from him."

When Zachary's body weight dropped dangerously low last year, and doctors threatened to put him on a feeding tube, his mother knew it was more than just a phase.

"Doctors will say that it's just picky eating they'll grow out of it," she said, "but unfortunately, you will not grow out of it."

Zachary has since been placed on daily supplements and sees a psychologist regularly for the social anxiety so often associated with ARFID.

Bell said it's important that parents watch closely for symptoms of eating disorders, be vigilant and follow their instincts when it comes to health of their children.

"If it's just picky eating, then it will pretty much stop at age three or four. But if this goes on for months, or years, then it's time to speak to a professional."