This Diet Has Good Intentions, But Dangerous Results

For some teens, "healthy eating" is becoming dangerous. 

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Scene: You want to get fit and healthy, so you swap the late night Ben and Jerry’s binges for some quality gym time. A couple of weeks go by, and you start seeing progress (Nice to meet you, triceps!), so you up your workout intensity and trim your diet down to just the essentials. And then you start to crash

Sound familiar? It’s a plan with good intentions and dangerous results—one that shows us that not all eating disorders are noticeably “unhealthy” to the untrained eye. And if it’s this tough for we adults to draw the line between “eating clean” and “eating too lean,” imagine the struggle (and danger) for kids.   

In her research on eating behaviors, weight management, and body image, Rutgers University professor and developmental psychologist Charlotte Markey suggests that an eating disorder following this same pattern is on the rise in young adults.  

Orthorexia, as it is called, is defined by Markey as “an abnormal and distressing over-concern with healthy eating, often to the point that an individual will limit their diet in such a way that they risk malnutrition.”

The disorder manifests as a gradual elimination diet, starting with traditionally “bad” foods (Think: cookies, candy, bread, etc.) then extending to entire food groups, such as dairy, until dieters are left without adequate nourishment. Pair insufficient nutrition with extra gym time, plus little sleep and a load of the usual teen pressures like academics and social relevance, and you’ve got a recipe for hospitalization.

Markey also noted that the disorder knows no one gender and that both adolescent boys and girls are prone to the desire to alter their bodies for appearance and/or performance purposes.   

If you suspect that your teen may be at risk, consult with a dietitian or nutritionist who can evaluate their dietary habits and set them back on a healthier track.

For more information about adolescent dietary habits, consult our eating disorder checklist, and visit the nutrition section of our brand new, staff-curated health resource list for teens