A teenager lost his vision after eating an extremely limited diet for years. The story is being sensationalised in headlines about junk food making you go blind, and the boy is sure to be a punchline to parents’ cautionary tales for years to come. But this is really a story about a very specific eating disorder.
According to the case report in the Annals of Internal Medicine, the boy came to his family doctor at age 14 with fatigue and low vitamin B12 levels. Doctors were told he was a “fussy eater,” and they prescribed vitamin B12 shots and dietary advice.
Over the next three years, he developed hearing loss, and then vision loss, stumping the doctors — who eventually figured out that he was suffering the consequences of several nutritional deficiencies. It turned out he had not been getting enough vitamin B12, copper, selenium and vitamin D.
How can someone be that picky an eater?
Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder is an eating disorder that’s particularly common in people with autism, including autistic children. (It can also occur on its own, or in the context of another disorder.)
The report doesn’t specifically say that he was autistic, but notes that the boy avoided “certain textures” and that he typically ate fries, Pringles, white bread, ham slices and sausage.
So this is not really a story about “junk food.” Include a few burgers and milkshakes, and you would probably get a different nutritional outcome. The point of publishing this report was not to shame people who eat fries and white bread, but to give doctors a heads up: “Nutritional optic neuropathy should be considered in any patient with unexplained vision symptoms and poor diet, regardless of BMI.”
For more on how ARFID differs from being a “picky eater” and how it differs from other eating disorders, read this description from an autistic person of what it’s actually like:
ARFID makes me unwillingly restrict the types of food I can eat, based on the food’s appearance, smell, taste, texture, brand, presentation, or a past negative experience with that particular food. You could say I’m ‘a picky eater’. You could also think of it as a food phobia. It has nothing to do with body image and everything to do with anxiety and sensory sensitivity.
People with ARFID can sometimes lose weight due to not eating enough food, but they can also manage to get enough calories and have a normal body type. It seems that the boy who lost his vision was in that situation: His family and doctors knew that he didn’t eat a wide variety of foods, but they didn’t realise that his diet was restrictive enough to cause medical problems until after the damage was done.