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Orthorexia & Kids: How to Identify When “Healthy” Eating in Children Goes too Far

Written by: Ashley Smith, MEd, LCMHC
Professional Relations Manager, The Renfrew Center

Orthorexia, or an obsession with healthy eating, can be harmful to an individual’s physical and emotional well-being – and it’s especially dangerous in kids. In this post, we look at what orthorexia is and how to identify it in children.

As a parent or caregiver, you have your child’s best interest in mind when making decisions about their social, emotional and physical health.

It’s no surprise, then, that when you hear from trusted medical professionals that your child should engage in healthy eating habits, you try to instill these practices to provide the best care.

You may have been told to keep your children away from too much sugar, salt and processed foods. You may have even started to focus on healthy eating and nutrition for both yourself and your child. There’s no harm in this, right?

Unfortunately, an intense focus on “healthy” eating can create harmful food beliefs and behaviors. Researchers coined the term ‘orthorexia nervosa’ to help professionals as well as consumers recognize these potentially dangerous signs and symptoms.

What is Orthorexia Nervosa?

Orthorexia nervosa is an obsession with healthy eating that can impact an individuals’ physical and emotional well-being.

While technically not an official diagnosis, researchers acknowledge orthorexia can be debilitating in that the preoccupation with “healthy” or “non-healthy” foods can cause significant stress on individuals’ psychological, emotional, physical, and social health. Those who struggle with an obsession to eat only “healthy” or “clean” foods tend to share many of the same characteristics of anorexia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

There are not as many studies on orthorexia compared to other eating disorders, but it appears that the longer an individual is obsessed with healthy eating, the higher the likelihood is they will start to experience negative physical, emotional and social impacts.

How Does Orthorexia Nervosa Affect Children?

Like adults, children who have orthorexia nervosa become obsessed with eating only “healthy” foods. They often become overly focused on eating “clean,” “healthy” or “pure” foods, which can contribute to heightened anxiety. Children may feel anxious around meals, become stressed when foods they perceive as “healthy” aren’t available to them and may inadvertently lose weight as a result of trying to eat “clean.”

While there is nothing wrong with developing a healthy relationship with food early in life, an intense focus on healthy eating often causes fear of eating “bad” or “unhealthy” foods. So, how do you know if your child has a healthy relationship with food or if their preoccupation with “healthy” eating has gone too far?

Here’s what to look out for.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Orthorexia Nervosa in Children?

Below are some signs and symptoms of orthorexia nervosa in children to be aware of.

  • Losing weight as a result of food limitations.
  • Refusing to go to certain restaurants or grocery stores.
  • Only eating foods perceived as “clean,” “raw” or “healthy.”
  • Equating self-worth or identity with “healthy” food choices.
  • Judging others based on their food choices.
  • Feeling guilty if they eat something “unhealthy.”
  • Eating “unhealthy” foods causes distress.
  • Preparing their own meals and not eating what everyone else in the family is eating.
  • Avoiding places where “unhealthy” foods may be involved (such as birthday parties, sleepovers, or team sport events).

What Should Parents or Caregivers Do?

Do not challenge your child’s food beliefs head-on. A better plan is to understand their fears about being unhealthy and the feelings that they experience when they eat foods considered to be “unhealthy.” It is helpful to remember that orthorexia nervosa is usually more about anxiety than it is about food.

Check in with your own food beliefs and messages. Do you berate yourself in front of your child for eating certain foods? Do you find yourself passing judgment about others’ food choices? If so, work on unlearning some of the harmful messages you’ve internalized from diet culture and developing compassion for yourself and others.

Remember, a healthy relationship with food includes allowing it to be a source of pleasure, celebration, comfort, joy, culture, and connection.

Conclusion

As a parent or caretaker, do not underestimate how important your role is in your child’s recovery; the more information you have, the better you will be prepared to deal with the task of helping your loved one throughout the recovery process. If your child has cut out major food groups, has increased anxiety around mealtimes and/or has lost weight unintentionally, consult with your primary care physician, as well as an eating disorder therapist or dietitian for proper assessment and treatment.

At The Renfrew Center, we believe in educating patients to understand that all foods can fit into a nourishing meal plan. This includes encouraging individuals and families to enjoy desserts and higher fat foods while detangling socially constructed messages that equate food, weight and size with morality.

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