When “healthy eating” turns into an eating disorder: a 7-step guide for parents

It’s impossible to live in our society today without seeing messages about “healthy diets.” While the “no fat” diet has (finally) gone out of fashion due to scientific research exposing the fact that dietary fats are not responsible for adipose tissue (body fat), many other restrictive diets have jumped in to take its place.

While no diet is “bad” in and of itself, a diet that eliminates entire food groups based on questionable scientific research should be avoided for anyone susceptible to an eating disorder. While many people “try on” restrictive diets but “cheat” and go off-plan regularly without major impact, someone who has an eating disorder takes restrictive diets to an extreme. Those of us who are vulnerable to eating disorders often use “healthy diets” as a way to engage in our eating disorder behaviors in plain sight.

As parents, we must encourage our children to be their own people – independence is a critical goal for all of us. However, if that independence includes eliminating entire food groups (without a medical reason), we need to protect our children from eating disorder development.

The newest form of eating disorder is called “orthorexia,” in which someone becomes obsessed with a “healthy eating” plan. This may involve becoming vegetarian or vegan, or swearing off carbs or anything that comes in a package.

We want to honor our children’s independent viewpoints, and their sensitive reaction to animal cruelty and the environment should not be dismissed. However, we must also look closer, and identify whether we can support our children in finding ways in which to express their political viewpoints in ways that do not put their psychological and physical health in danger.

We must walk the fine line between supporting our children’s burgeoning opinions and protecting them from obsessions and disorders. If your child is capable of cutting out an entire food group with absolutely zero “cheating” or flexibility around it, it may not be a positive sign of incredible willpower and strength, but a dangerous sign of obsessive tendencies, and a desire to control the world using his or her own body.

7 steps for parents who have children who are pursuing a elimination-based “healthy eating” plan.

  1. Talk to your child about the reason behind the decision to adopt the plan. Listen to his or her underlying reasons. Acknowledge the dual goal of supporting his or her independence while also setting boundaries based on what works for your family and what types of food decisions you are willing to allow a child living in your home to make.
  2. Conduct research together and independently to determine the medical and scientific facts behind any restriction-based diet. You are looking for large, peer-reviewed studies. Books written by experts – even people who have a Ph.D. or an M.D. – is not enough. The no-fat diet remained popular for so long because it was promoted by a medical doctor. But while there appeared to be lots of research, it fell apart when put under the peer-review process.
  3. Discuss the ethical and political elements of your child’s desire to adopt the diet.
  4. Conduct research together and independently to better understand the ethical and political elements of your child’s restriction-based diet. Work together to identify methods of promoting the ethical or environmental issues that do not impact his or her physical body.
  5. Discuss opportunities to pursue a blended diet, in which your child can maintain some level of his or her plan, but with flexibility. For example, you may agree that while your child can eat a vegan diet all day, she or he must participate in the family dinner, which will include non-vegan foods. Your child might be resistant to this idea, but it is important that you maintain health boundaries within your home.
  6. If your child is adamant and appears fearful about adjusting his or her diet, that is a sign of a possible obsession. Agree that you understand his or her position, and then say that you will set a few appointments with a registered dietician to discuss the diet in more depth.
  7. Seek a registered dietician who has experience diagnosing and treating eating disorders. Who you choose to advise you and your child about dietary restriction is critical if your goal is to prevent the development of a  full-blown eating disorder, so take your time researching and interviewing a dietician

More on this topic: Dietary changes that involve eliminating and drastically restricting food groups, including “clean eating,” vegetarianism and veganism, should be carefully assessed in your teenager

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