Can Too Much Health Food Be Bad?

The dangers of being overly restrictive with your child's diet.

Introduction

Too Much of a Good Thing

Dinner has just ended in Thousand Oaks, CA, and Bruce Pendleberry is giving kids Chad, 11, and Monique, 9, dessert -- a cookie he deems acceptable. "It's made with rice flour," he says proudly.

Pendleberry, like many parents, is concerned about what his kids eat. But unlike most, he's banned junk food from their lives as much as possible. They eat tofu dogs with sprouted-wheat buns, organic veggies, and free-range meat. In a society where Happy Meals are a staple for many kids, the Pendleberry children rarely go to fast food eateries -- their introduction to them was courtesy of a playmate's parent. They got sick afterward, says Pendleberry with a smile.

Meanwhile, Erica and Scott Hirsch of New York City have a lengthy history of eating a vegan diet free of all animal products. Along with their children Zoe, 5, and Zachary, 3, these days the family eats mostly vegetarian (they have some fish and dairy, though rarely).

"They're not big animal-product eaters," Erica Hirsch says of her kids. "If they had to choose soy milk or regular milk, they'd pick soy."

Even though their diets are very different, these two families have one thing in common: They're trying to feed their children the healthiest food possible. With diet-related illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes on the rise and the epidemic of childhood obesity being attributed at least partially to what we feed our kids, most people believe that American children are eating far too much junk food. Yet, can families like the Pendleberrys and the Hirsches also go too far?

A Misguided Menu

Too Much of a Good Thing

The answer is yes, says Anne Dubner, R.D., a Houston-based nutritionist. In her practice, she's seen at least a 50% rise in patients who cross a dangerous line between eating healthfully and eating too healthfully, a condition dubbed orthorexia nervosa by Steven Bratman, M.D., the Fort Collins, CO-based author of Health Food Junkies.

Matters are made worse when orthorexics impose extreme dietary practices on their kids. "A child's growth and development depend on getting a broad range of nutrients," explains Dubner. Children need fat for nerve development, protein for muscle and bone, and carbohydrates for energy to fuel their bodies and brains. Many strict diets that adults follow (such as low-carb and vegan diets) are dangerously short on nutrients such as protein, calcium, niacin, iron, and the B complex vitamins, especially for children, she warns. Deficiencies can lead to poor growth, weak bones, and difficulty learning. Even if the Pendleberry and Hirsch children aren't missing nutrients (in this case, their parents are both health professionals trained in alternative dietary practices), there still may be other dangerous repercussions, says Dr. Bratman.

He speaks from experience. He now calls himself a recovering health foodie, but at different points in his life he was a raw-foodist (someone who eats only fruit, vegetables, and other foods that don't require cooking), a macrobiotic, and a total vegetarian. When he and his wife became parents, they subjected their daughter to the same vegetarian health-food regimen they practiced, forbidding birthday cake, holiday goodies, and pizza. "I wouldn't even let her eat sugar at other people's houses," he says.

By the time his daughter was 4, however, it became apparent to Dr. Bratman that she wouldn't fit in with other children if she continued to eat that way. Besides, it was almost impossible to restrict her while she was at other people's homes. Dr. Bratman's conscience got the better of him -- he began to feel guilty about the diet he was inflicting on his child. As he reevaluated his motivations, he came to realize that he suffered from an obsession with righteous eating. Furthermore, he feared that if he didn't try to change his ways, he would turn his child into a miniature version of himself: someone bent on eating "good" foods and eschewing "bad" ones.

Check Your Labels

Too Much of a Good Thing

In an attempt to teach their children how to eat well, some parents make the same mistake as Dr. Bratman. They categorize foods as good or bad. Besides hardwiring your child for a lifetime of perhaps unfavorable associations with certain foods, it's not exactly the truth. "There's no such thing as a bad food," says Dubner, who points out that all food provides energy, its primary purpose. "My 5-year-old understands that there are two food groups: foods that are fun to eat and make you big and strong, and foods that are fun to eat and don't make you big and strong," she adds.

Many parents risk categorizing foods based on their own trendy, unscientific eating beliefs, which could change. Remember how "fat-free" was the best thing since sliced bread? Well, now that some of the most popular diet plans for adults extol the virtues of proteins, it seems that carbohydrates have become the worst thing. Still other parents ban certain foods by claiming allergies, even though true food allergies are uncommon.

Donna Spruijt-Metz, Ph.D., an assistant professor of research in preventive medicine at the University of Southern California, warns that too much vigilance can harm kids' future eating habits. Children who grow up with overly strict diets could feel alienated and turn resentful because they can't eat the way their peers do. In fact, as they get older, over-restricted children often sneak prohibited foods as a way of rebelling. According to Dr. Spruijt-Metz, this is particularly common when parents try to force children to diet for weight loss. "Researchers have repeatedly found that restriction of desired foods backfires," she notes.

Also worrisome is that your kids may go along with the program. Since they're only able to understand fairly simplistic explanations of why they eat differently from others, they may draw overly simplistic conclusions about food. If your family doesn't eat meat, for example, your kids might be appalled that their friends do. "They'll say, "Sara's bad because she eats meat." It's a ridiculous way to spend your life as a 5-year-old," says Dr. Bratman. Kids can also start giving too much power to food, even though dietary choices are rarely responsible for anyone's total well-being, he explains.

Getting Back to Healthy Habits

Fortunately, for most parents, there's little chance that orthorexia will enter their lives. Still, they may stress over their kids' junk food obsession, and that can lead to over-vigilance. The key, experts say, is striking a balance. Even Pendleberry and Hirsch say their children are not perfect eaters -- nor would they want them to be. "You can't stop kids from having sweets," says Pendleberry. "Anyone who tries it won't succeed. If they think they're doing it, they're dreaming in most cases."

The first step in walking the fine line between unhealthy vigilance and responsible parenting is checking your own eating habits. If you've gone overboard in your approach, experts offer these suggestions:

Don't use food for anything more than nutrition. It shouldn't be viewed as a reward or punishment. "We use food, sweets, and TV to keep kids quiet, but there's no alternative to parenting," says Dr. Spruijt-Metz.

Set a good example. If you try every fad weight-loss plan, your child sees it. In the ongoing Framingham Children's Study, researchers at Boston University School of Medicine found that children of parents with erratic eating habits have more weight and body-fat problems.

Don't play Mini-Me. Your child is not a miniature version of you. Children have special nutrient requirements that must be met in order for them to develop properly. If you need help figuring out how to ensure that your child gets what he needs, consult a nutritionist.

Save control for portion sizes. Rather than cutting out entire food items, teach your child this golden rule: Everything in moderation.

Get moving. Exercise can make a bigger difference in your child's life than a highly restrictive diet. Active kids tend to do better in school, enjoy better social and family relationships, and have greater confidence than their sedentary peers.

'Fess up. If you've already put your child on an overly strict diet, explain that you were wrong and that from now on your family will eat more of whatever food you previously banned, suggests Dubner: "Kids appreciate the truth."

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Copyright © 2002. Reprinted with permission from the November 2002 issue of Child magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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