November 20th, 2023
Travelling can be stressful at the best of times, but for those living with ARFID, there is more to worry about than just remembering your passport. ARFID isn’t just about being a picky eater; it is a complex condition that can make the already daunting aspects of travel seem insurmountable. From unfamiliar foods to worries about how they were prepared, ARFID can quickly turn a bucket list trip into a holiday from hell. However, with the right preparation and mindset, there is no reason why those with ARFID cannot enjoy the enriching experiences that come with seeing the world.
This blog aims to demystify ARFID and the challenges it presents when travelling. We will offer valuable insights and actionable tips to help individuals and families navigate the globe without letting food restrictions damper their adventure.
Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), previously known as Selective Eating Disorder, is characterised by a disinterest in or distaste of foods with particular characteristics. Individuals with ARFID may avoid certain foods based on their texture, colour, smell or past negative experiences, often leading to a diet that lacks variety and essential nutrients.
As well as the physical impacts, ARFID can also take a serious toll on mental health and daily life. Those with the disorder may experience intense stress around meal times, weight loss and even malnutrition. Social situations involving food can become sources of extreme anxiety with concerns not only about what food is available but also about potential embarrassment or misunderstanding from others unfamiliar with the condition.
Some people with ARFID may stop socialising altogether to try and avoid any embarrassment and can even develop a social phobia. This can lead to isolation, which often exacerbates eating disorders, including ARFID, and stops them from getting the help they need.
Challenges of travelling with ARFID
Travelling presents unique challenges for individuals with ARFID, impacting both the logistical aspects of a trip and the traveller’s personal well-being.
The primary difficulty lies in encountering unfamiliar foods and eating at foreign restaurants where menus may not cater to their restricted diet. This can cause enormous distress, which can be compounded by the need to explain dietary needs to staff in other countries who may not be familiar with ARFID or able to speak the same language.
Social eating situations pose another hurdle. Group meals are a common part of travel and often play a key part in cultural experiences. For someone with ARFID, the pressure to participate can be overwhelming, creating a fear of judgement or drawing unwanted attention to their condition. This is particularly true if you stay at a hostel with a shared kitchen or communal-style accommodation.
Logistical issues also arise, such as long flights or road trips in countries where accessible and acceptable food options may be sparse or non-existent. The unpredictability of travel may also disrupt the routines that individuals with ARFID rely on, as delays, food that doesn’t fit the menu description and varying food standard levels threaten even the best-laid plans.
The importance of pre-trip planning
Pre-trip planning is an indispensable step for travellers with ARFID to ensure a smooth and enjoyable journey. It serves as a crucial strategy to manage the condition and mitigate anxiety around food while away from home. Strategies for thorough pre-trip planning include:
Before travelling, individuals with ARFID should research their destination thoroughly. This involves looking into countries’ local cuisines and identifying possible food items that align with dietary preferences and restrictions. With this information, an itinerary with planned food stops can be created with restaurants and shops that offer suitable options.
Reaching out to hotels or resorts in advance to discuss dietary needs can be very helpful. Many places are willing to accommodate special requests or provide kitchen access so travellers can prepare their own meals.
Learning key phrases
For international travel, learning how to communicate dietary needs in the local language can prevent misunderstandings and ensure needs are met when dining out.
Consulting with a professional
A dietitian or therapist familiar with ARFID can provide guidance on managing the disorder while travelling. They can offer tailored advice and coping strategies for new eating experiences.
Various apps and online resources can help locate restaurants with specific food options or translate menu items. These tools can be invaluable for someone with ARFID when navigating foreign foodscapes.
Practical tips for travelling with ARFID
Navigating travel with ARFID requires practicality and preparation. Here are some essential tips to consider before embarking on your journey:
Communicate with travel providers
It’s essential to let travel providers know about your dietary requirements well in advance. Before you fly or check-in, contact your airline and hotels to discuss your needs. A dietary card detailing your restrictions can also aid in getting your message across effectively to service staff.
Pack safe foods
Packing non-perishable, safe foods, a cooler and any necessary utensils can provide a security blanket for those with ARFID. This ensures that familiar and acceptable food options are always available, regardless of the circumstances. Just make sure you check the airline and customs rules at your destination.
Choose the right accommodation
Selecting the right place to stay can significantly ease travel anxieties. Many destinations have accommodations with kitchen facilities or near supermarkets and international restaurants, so you know that you will have access to the food you need.
Travel with someone who understands
Travel with a companion who understands your ARFID requirements. They can provide emotional support, help communicate your needs and make the overall experience more enjoyable and less stressful.
Exploring popular global cuisines with ARFID
Venturing into the world of international cuisines can be a minefield for someone with ARFID, but understanding what to look out for and finding local alternatives can make the experience rewarding. Here are some popular foods that may present ARFID challenges and potential solutions:
Renowned for its pasta and pizza, Italian food may be challenging if there is a sensitivity to textures or certain sauces. However, many Italian dishes can be customised. For instance, if tomato sauce is problematic, ‘pasta in bianco’ – pasta with olive oil or butter – could be a suitable alternative.
While sushi is a staple in Japan, the raw texture can be off-putting for someone with ARFID. Instead, dishes like ‘yakitori’ (grilled chicken skewers) or ‘tempura’ (lightly battered and fried vegetables or seafood) can be less intimidating and offer a safer texture experience.
Mexican dishes’ complex flavours and spices may be overwhelming for someone with ARFID. However, plain ‘arroz blanco’ (white rice) or ‘tortillas de maíz’ (corn tortillas) are often available, while grilled meats without the spices can also be requested.
The spices and textures in Indian food may pose a serious challenge. Choosing ‘tandoori’ dishes, which are typically less spicy and involve grilled meats, can be a safer introduction to the flavours. ‘Naan’ bread and chapatis are also usually well-tolerated and widely available throughout India.
Thai food often combines sweet, sour, salty and spicy flavours, which can be difficult for an ARFID palate. Simple dishes like ‘khao pad’ (Thai fried rice) without the addition of strong spices can be a more neutral choice.
Navigating new cuisines with ARFID
Exploring new cultures often includes experiencing their culinary delights. This can be challenging with ARFID, but it is possible if you take the right approach. Some strategies to consider include:
Approaching local cuisines cautiously
Begin with researching the destination’s culinary offerings and pinpointing items that resemble your safe foods. When trying new foods, start with small quantities in a comfortable setting to alleviate potential stress before pushing your boundaries if and when possible.
Identifying backup options
Always have a plan B ready, and ensure you stock up on safe foods whenever possible. If you are staying in an international city, you can also locate any international restaurant chains in the area. This will ensure access to familiar and comfortable meal options if needed.
Be aware of cultural sensitivity
Balancing cultural sensitivity with dietary restrictions when dining in social settings is crucial. Address your limitations politely with hosts, show gratitude for their understanding, and, if appropriate, contribute a dish you can eat to share with everyone. This will ensure that nobody is offending and enable you to maintain your dietary boundaries.
Travelling with ARFID does not have to limit the horizons of discovery that the world has to offer. With a deeper understanding of the condition, careful pre-planning and practical strategies, individuals affected by this eating disorder can embark on a trip that accommodates their needs without compromising on the sense of adventure. Travel is a buffet of experiences; even with ARFID, you can fill your plate with memorable moments and scenic views.
If you are struggling with ARFID, UKAT can help you manage the condition and embark on your travel adventures confidently and easily. Our expert team offers personalised support, strategies for coping with food-related anxiety and practical advice for facing new eating experiences. Contact us today and take the first step towards a world of stress-free travel.
(Click here to see works cited)
- Beat Eating Disorders. “ARFID – Beat.” Beat Eating Disorders, 2020, https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/get-information-and-support/about-eating-disorders/types/arfid/. Accessed 7 November 2023.
- National Eating Disorders Association. “Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID).” National Eating Disorders Association, 2022, https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/arfid. Accessed 7 November 2023.