In the spirit of sharing information during National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I’d like to give parents a heads up on a nationwide trend that I’ve also been encountering in our Eating Disorders Clinic.
It’s called orthorexia, and it is an unhealthy obsession with maintaining a perfect diet, rather than a healthy weight and lifestyle.
Some parents might find this counterintuitive, so allow me to explain.
Children and teens who show signs of this eating disorder have obsessive concerns about eating foods that are clean, unprocessed, organic, pesticide and preservative free, low in fat, sugar or salt – to the point that it impacts their everyday activities. For instance, if your daughter turns down an opportunity to go out to eat with her friends because she is worried that she will not be able to follow her strict dietary guidelines, this is a good time to ask some questions.
I would like to clarify that for most children and teens (and even adults), opting to eat in a healthier manner, adopting some of the changes I just described, is in general a good choice. It’s only when these restrictions are taken to extreme that this could be a cause for concern.
What’s troubling about orthorexia is that the side effects can mimic the more well-known eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia. The symptoms are serious, chronic, and go beyond a lifestyle choice. Maintaining an obsession with healthy food may cause a serious reduction in calories because “acceptable” food might not be available and if dietary restrictions are too severe, malnutrition can result. Malnutrition and weight loss for children and teens is highly concerning because this is a period of time when they should be growing. When too few calories are consumed, this cannot occur properly. Losing weight can lead to a slower metabolism, stunted growth, delayed puberty, hair loss, dry skin, absent menstrual cycles, and changes in body temperature.
So how can parents be on the lookout for orthorexia? Children who have more of a rigid or perfectionist type of personality may be more likely to gravitate toward this type of behavior. Eating disorders do have a genetic component, so if a parent has had one in the past, his or her child is more likely to develop one as well.
Here are some behavior changes to watch for that could be signs of orthorexia:
- Increased avoidance of particular foods, claiming food allergies as the cause, without a medical diagnosis
- The amount of “acceptable” choices decreases so much that he may be willing to eat less than 10 foods
- Obsessive concern with food choices and their relationship with health conditions such as asthma, digestive problems, low mood, anxiety or allergies, without medical advice
- Feels guilty when he/she is unable to follow self-imposed dietary restrictions
- Avoids food made by others
- Isolation from others who do not share his/her same view on foods
- Spending excessive time in grocery stores or online reviewing food labels and ingredients
With more than a third of the U.S. population being overweight, making healthy dietary modifications is a good choice for the majority of children and teens. However, if your child or teen tends to have rigid or perfectionist tendencies and is starting to obsessively modify his or her diet, I recommend speaking with him/her about balance and moderation. Explain that there are healthy “everyday” foods , and there are “sometimes” foods, which we should eat on occasion. And it’s okay to eat these “sometimes” foods periodically because there is room for all foods to fit into a healthy diet.
If you have concerns about your child’s eating habits, please speak with your child’s doctor about it. He or she may need to be seen by a Registered Dietitian for basic nutrition education or, it may be recommended your child be seen by an Eating Disorder Program where the medical, psychological and nutritional aspects of disordered eating can be addressed.