All the talk about "clean" and "real" food kind of worries me. Don't get me wrong: As a dietitian, I'm thrilled when people choose to eat fewer packaged snacks and more fruit, or trade fast food for home-cooked meals.
I'm worried because a focus on healthy eating can veer into unhealthy territory when quality of life suffers for the sake of a "clean" diet: People may start labeling foods as "bad" and ingredients as "toxic", become preoccupied with thoughts about food and health, or avoid eating at restaurants or friends' houses where they don't have control over the food.
There's a term for this kind of extreme healthy eating: "Orthorexia" is an obsession with foods deemed healthy or pure. It's not an officially recognized eating disorder, but with the current mania around clean eating, juice cleanses, all-organic diets, and the Paleo diet, the climate is just right for it.
I'm especially worried for kids, who hear their parents fixating and fretting about food and may internalize fear or shame. Kids shouldn't feel guilty that they like the taste of potato chips. They shouldn't be worried that their friend with Oreos in his lunch is slowly poisoning himself. And they shouldn't fear that something bad is going to happen to them if they eat a non-organic apple at grandma's. If kids are living in a house that's outlawed ingredients like sugar or entire food groups like grains, they may also start fixating on what they're not allowed to have (I'm NOT referring to families with allergies and intolerances that make eliminating certain foods a necessity).
"Surrounding children with negative talk around certain foods, or banning those foods can increase a child's interest in them," says Katja Rowell, MD, a child feeding specialist and author of Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating. "The child who can't have processed flour or refined sugar may devour tubes of crackers and juice boxes at a neighbor's. With age can come secrecy and shame, leading to binge eating and an inability to handle these foods."
Here are some tips for instilling healthy habits at home without putting undue stress and pressure on your kids:
*Pay attention to any signs that your child is anxious or worried about food. Is he feeling nervous about the cake at his friend's birthday party because it contains dyes? Does she repeatedly talk about foods that aren't allowed in your house or even sneak food from school or friends' houses? If so, talk to your child and reassure her. It might also be time to relax restrictive food rules.
*Keep talk around food as positive as possible. Words like "poison" and "toxic" are great attention-grabbers online, but those kinds of words can be downright scary for kids. Create positive associations with food: Have fun and silly conversations at dinner, cook a meal together, talk about how sweet the fresh oranges are.
*Be sure your child understands that people eat differently and that it's not appropriate to comment on or criticize other people's food choices.
*Watch out for mixed or confusing messages. It's okay to talk to kids about balance—like eating lots of fruits and vegetables and reasonable limits on dessert, for instance. But an organic lollipop isn't "healthy", a conventional peach isn't "dangerous", sugary cereal isn't "bad", and your child isn't "good" because he passed up a white flour cupcake at school.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. She is the author of Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.