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Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder differs from anorexia nervosa in delay discounting.

BACKGROUND: Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) and anorexia nervosa (AN) are the two primary restrictive eating disorders; however, they are driven by differing motives for inadequate dietary intake. Despite overlap in restrictive eating behaviors and subsequent malnutrition, it remains unknown if ARFID and AN also share commonalities in their cognitive profiles, with cognitive alterations being a key identifier of AN. Discounting the present value of future outcomes with increasing delay to their expected receipt represents a core cognitive process guiding human decision-making. A hallmark cognitive characteristic of individuals with AN (vs. healthy controls [HC]) is reduced discounting of future outcomes, resulting in reduced impulsivity and higher likelihood of favoring delayed gratification. Whether individuals with ARFID display a similar reduction in delay discounting as those with AN (vs. an opposing bias towards increased delay discounting or no bias) is important in informing transdiagnostic versus disorder-specific cognitive characteristics and optimizing future intervention strategies.

METHOD: To address this research question, 104 participants (ARFID: n = 57, AN: n = 28, HC: n = 19) completed a computerized Delay Discounting Task. Groups were compared by their delay discounting parameter (ln)k.

RESULTS: Individuals with ARFID displayed a larger delay discounting parameter than those with AN, indicating steeper delay discounting (M ± SD = -6.10 ± 2.00 vs. -7.26 ± 1.73, p = 0.026 [age-adjusted], Hedges' g = 0.59), with no difference from HC (p = 0.514, Hedges' g = -0.35).

CONCLUSION: Our findings provide a first indication of distinct cognitive profiles among the two primary restrictive eating disorders. The present results, together with future research spanning additional cognitive domains and including larger and more diverse samples of individuals with ARFID (vs. AN), will contribute to identifying maintenance mechanisms that are unique to each disorder as well as contribute to the optimization and tailoring of treatment strategies across the spectrum of restrictive eating disorders.

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