Tips from an Expert: Understanding Orthorexia
After a young viewer shares her story about battling orthorexia, an obsession with eating natural foods, Rachael asks an eating disorders specialist to shed some light on the behavior. "People just get obsessed with eating natural foods and healthy foods and reading labels to the point where it interferes with their life," explains Dr. Cynthia Bulik, the director of the University of North Carolina Eating Disorders Program and author of Crave: Why You Binge Eat and How to Stop It. She says this is a growing condition that affects all age groups.
"We're seeing little kids in pre-school who are coming in obsessed with foods. We're seeing all the way through moms who are so desperately trying to do the right thing for their kids that are just getting obsessed ... and then we're even seeing seniors who think that this might help them live longer," she notes. And, she says media reports about which kinds of foods are good or bad for you may be fueling these concerns. "I think we really have gotten into this sort of food fear culture ... just in terms of all these horrible things we're hearing about the trans-fats, all of the things we have to worry about - we're creating anxiety about eating and eating is supposed to be something that's great between families ... about sharing, caring and loving."
Dr. Bulik says moderation and balance is the key to developing healthy eating habits in your kids (and yourself!) and is offering her strategies below:
Allow treats in moderation. "These are really 'sometimes' foods," she says, encouraging parents to join their kids for the occasional french fries or chocolate cake. "We want to make sure that our obesity prevention efforts do not encourage obsessive relationships with food or contribute to the development of eating disorders."
Don't focus on every individual meal. "Parents should feel free to take a more bird's eye view of their children's nutrition. Sometimes we can get over focused on having every meal be completely balanced. In reality, most kids are pretty good regulators of their intake. For example, it is common for children to have a large meal one day and then a smaller meal the next," Dr. Bulik explains. "Look at the week as a whole and ask questions like: 'Did my child have breakfast every day? Did my child have daily servings of fruits and vegetables? Did my child have a lot of variety throughout the week? Did we have meals together? Did we basically have a healthy balanced week? Did my child get some form of physical activity every day?' This kind of a weekly inventory can allow the parents to relax while still getting a good overview picture of their child's health and well-being."
Banning foods will backfire. "One possibility is that the banned food becomes the forbidden fruit and then children will go crazy when those foods are made available to them outside of the home. This could even lead to loss of control eating which may be a precursor to binge eating," Dr. Bulik warns. "The second possibility is that the children become anxious and obsessed about eating only natural or organic foods, which can also lead to social isolation and even more anxiety."
Take any diet change seriously. "If your child came home from school and said 'I'm going to try my first cigarette' or 'I'm going to have a beer with dinner tonight' you would see this as an alarm bell. If your child comes home and says 'I am going on a diet' the same alarm bells should go off," Dr. Bulik says. "This should be a call to get involved, understand what is motivating the statement and make sure you help to make sure that your child is focusing on moderation, healthy activity, healthy eating and a focus on health and strength rather than size and shape."
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