Clean eating has become the new buzzword in recent years. In an effort to eat healthier — and maybe even lose weight — teens are turning to whole foods or foods in their less processed states, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and high-quality dairy and animal proteins.
As parents, it sounds like a healthy trend for kids living in a society with a growing obesity problem, right? Well, not so fast.
There’s no official definition for clean eating and it can wind up extreme and quite restrictive. For some people, clean eating may mean getting rid of all processed foods, while others it could mean only eating foods that come from the ground. It might mean limiting certain ingredients, such as modified cornstarch, or only eating organic or foods with ingredients you can pronounce.
“All of these catch phrases imply food is healthier, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for you,” said Dr. Jessica Castonguay, an adolescent medicine specialist in Akron Children’s Eating Disorders Program. “A growing, active child needs higher amounts of nutrition and eliminating whole food groups can actually stunt their growth and lead to missed milestones.”
What’s more, clean eating can create a snowball effect. It usually starts out innocently to make healthier choices, but it can quickly escalate. Teens can build on the movement and slowly whittle down their options because they’re not meeting their everchanging definition of “clean.”
“It can become an obsession and play into safety fears that some foods are ‘dirty’,” said Dr. Castonguay. “It can quickly turn into a situation where a teen develops a major fear of “unclean foods” and leads to disordered eating.”
When should parents worry about their teen’s eating habits?
Disordered eating can become apparent in a teen’s response when presented with “unclean food” outside the home. For example, if a teen attends a party that is serving cupcakes, but refuses to eat them or has fear of eating them because they don’t meet her criteria for clean eating, that can be an indication of disordered eating.
Dr. Castonguay offers additional signs for disordered eating, including kids who:
- Refuse to eat with the family.
- Do eat with the family, but insist on preparing their own food or make strict special requests, such as asking parents to no longer use butter, oil, cheese, etc., when cooking.
- Used to eat a wide range of foods, but unexpectedly have extreme dietary restrictions.
- Suddenly decide to go on a strict diet, become vegetarian or vegan, or cut out whole food groups.
- Become very thin.
- Seem more anxious or depressed.
- Increase talk on weight and body shape.
There are physical symptoms that may point to disordered eating, as well, including fatigue, trouble concentrating, constipation, shortness of breath due to anemia and loss of menstruation in females.
How can parents encourage healthy eating without the fear of it going badly?
Dr. Castonguay shares the mantra in her office: “All foods fit!” All foods that we consume have nutritional value, but some fit in our diets more than others.
“As parents, we should never restrict any type of food 100 percent,” she said. “In fact, restricting something from kids has been shown to make them want it more. Instead, we need to change the narrative about food and normalize the thinking that all foods are acceptable.”
The National Eating Disorder Awareness Week (#NEDAwareness) is Feb. 21-27, 2022. We invite you to #SeeTheChange and #BeTheChange through advocacy, awareness and community building.