5 Signs That Your Kid Might Have Orthorexic Tendencies
Updated: Aug 29, 2019
The vast majority of the people I ask have never heard of Orthorexia before. Actually, unless they have personal experience with it or work in the eating disorders field, I'm almost always the first person to mention it to them. "Ortho-what?" On top of that, a good chunk of the people that I have talked to about it have been surprised and wondered whether they might have something along those lines.
That is partly why I personally believe Orthorexia to be more prevalent than we realize and I think it will continue to become more prevalent as awareness grows. Knowing what it is and what to look for is just one way we can be there for our kids in this diet-steeped clean-eating culture.
Of course, kids (just like adults) might have legitimate food allergies and medical reasons to steer clear of certain foods or food groups. Not to mention ethical and religious beliefs. But I still think it could be worth digging a little deeper into the emotional, mental and spiritual reasons that might be tied in with the physical, medical, ethical and religious reasons.
I'm using "kid" here in the broad sense of your child and also to point out that dieting and eating disorders have been known to begin in elementary school. While there is a puberty and eating disorders connection, it would be misleading to think that our children are untouched by things until they are teenagers or even pre-teens.
Finally, I'd like to point out that I’m not offering a diagnosis to anybody here. Even if there were officially established criteria for diagnosing Orthorexia (which there aren't yet), I’m not a trained therapist or doctor and it wouldn’t be my place to make that call... plus this is just a blog post. In this post, I’m speaking from my experience, my observations and my research including the Bratman Orthorexia Self-Test. Given that, here are just a few helpful signs that your kid might be leaning toward Orthorexic tendencies.
5 things to notice that might point to your kid having Orthorexic tendencies
1. They consistently get up and move around, exercise, go for a run or some other spontaneous exercise after meals. Maybe even getting increasingly anxious, irritable or fearful when they aren’t able to stick to this pattern. You might also notice a growing frustration in your kid that the post-meal exercise feels less and less effective or satisfying for them. Prompting them to do more. This might be especially noticeable after meals that could be considered “unhealthy”.
2. They make spontaneous, irrational, unfounded or seemingly unrelated decisions to cut out whole food groups in a “vow-like" manner. These seemingly out-of-the-blue “food rules” or “resolutions” may be connected to feelings of shame, sadness, rejection, ridicule, disappointment, etc. These “vows” might be your kid's attempt to to control a situation, gain acceptance or ward off shame. It might even seem completely unrelated to the situation at hand. For example, “That’s it! No more carbs!” or “I’ve had a terrible day. I’m not going to eat dessert for the rest of the week” or “I feel so full! I’m only eating salads from now on.”
So why are these food rules important to take note of? Let's say a few days later your kid does have some dessert. You figure, "Of course I knew they wouldn't stick to that. They love ice cream. They were just feeling emotional and now they've moved on. They're a kid. No big deal." Hopefully that's the case. Another option is their early-release to ice cream might be violating their food rule rather than giving up the rule altogether. Violating these self-imposed food rules could easily bring secret feelings of shame, anxiety or isolation. Violations could even spur greater "vows" and even more shame.
It could also be easy to miss the connection between that food rule violation and a longer morning run the next morning. Upping the exercise could be a self-punishment for violating the rule, an attempt to compensate for what they ate or a way to manage the anxiety from "breaking the rules".
3. They take pride in being known as “The Good Eater”. It seems like saying “no” to “unhealthy” foods just comes easier to them. The family knows that they just eat “healthier” than the rest of the family and we all make accommodations for them. If you find yourself substituting "healthier" food for your kid, it's good to ask yourself (and them), "Is this a temporary solution to soothing anxiety?" How anxious does my kid get eating what we're all eating? They might even want to bring their own food with them when they go out to eat with the family or go to a friend’s house. That way they can ensure that they'll have a "safe food" option.
4. They seem to quickly and firmly internalize “clean” and “unclean” or “safe” and “unsafe” food rules. These can be based on small comments or bits of information picked up from the people around them or social media. They don't question or consider. They just adopt and commit. On the flip side, they may hyper-research nutritional value and "good" or "safe" foods. Sure, your kid might just be really interested in nutrition, but look to see if there is any fear or anxiety behind their search and how much rigidity there is when they implement their findings.
You might hear your kid say things connecting the “cool”, “popular" or "beautiful" people with specific food types or diets. These kinds of comments point to a connection between values, food choices and acceptance. This could reveal the belief that “better people eat better”. A very common underlying belief that a lot of us subconsciously hold and which is incredibly prevalent in American society today.
5. You can see perfectionist tendencies in them around choosing the “right” foods. There are lots of ways this could be seen. Here are two examples. They might take a long time to order at a restaurant because there is an internal (possibly silent) struggle between which food is the “safest”. Or they may go into every restaurant and order immediately because they already know what they want. Or at least they know their food rules so well that they could tell you what they “can” and “can’t” eat in any given restaurant. They don't pay attention to what sounds good or what their body wants at that moment. That's not a consideration. The only consideration is what is "safe" and allowed.
Again, I’m not saying that these are sure signs of Orthorexia. I’m saying they are things to notice and pay attention to. These are just a few of the signs that your kid might have Orthorexic tendencies. Some of these behaviors can easily overlap with other eating disorders or dieting too. If you're concerned after reading this, pay attention to that. Don't just brush it off but don't jump to any final conclusions.
There are free consultations and assessments from eating disorder treatment facilities all over the world that you can contact. If you aren’t sure and you want to talk about it, feel free to give me a call. I'd love to chat with you. Got questions? I love those too!