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"Righteous Eating" Feeding Into Eating Disorders

There’s been a lot of scary stories about food lately, from the peanut butter recalls to the discovery of mercury in high fructose corn syrup.  Many parents, myself included, have become more critical about what finds its way onto the dining room table.  And when the kids ask why, well, I tell them.

But how much information is too much?  Many doctors, dieticians, and eating disorder specialists feel that putting too much emphasis on the foods we eat is creating anxiety in children, possibly even setting them up for future eating disorders.  According to the president of the School Nutrition Association,

“We’re driving our kids absolutely crazy…. All the stuff about preservatives and pesticides. All an 8-year-old kid should know is that he or she should eat a variety of colors, and don’t supersize anything but your water jug.”

Dr. Steven Bratman refers to a fixation on health foods as orthorexia, or “righteous eating”.  I like this particular choice of words because it gives me perspective; in all my green endeavors, I try not to appear “righteous” in any way.  I don’t want my kids to feel guilty about what I might say if they eat Snickers ice cream bars at a birthday party, and I don’t want them worrying about their health if they stop at McDonald’s with their uncle.  But I do want them to understand that packaged ice cream bars and fast food burgers aren’t ideal choices.

Here’s what I think we as parents can do to encourage a healthy diet and a healthy mindset:

  • Don’t label foods as “good” or “bad”.  By extension, many kids will feel they are bad if they eat or even want “bad” foods.  (Ever eat a bag of chips and tell someone you were bad today?)
  • Talk up the positive, downplay the negative.  By all means, eat organic, but don’t emphasize the pesticides in non-organic. 
  • Serve healthy snacks without being overly critical of unhealthy choices. I think being too critical sets up eating junk food as a form of defiance.  I have an 11 year old, I know defiance when I see it.
  • Be flexible; this gives your kids permission to be flexible. 
  • Cook with your kids.  How they see you prepare foods is how they will instinctively prepare their own foods as they grow older.
  • Eat slow family dinners.  I think this is so vitally important: take time to eat mindfully and savor your food and time together as a family.  Show by example that good food is meant to be enjoyed.

The key, as in all things, is balance: educating our kids about healthy choices without instilling fear. 

It’s a fine line to walk.  How do you achieve it?


Photo Credit: efleming under Creative Commons



  1. Agree with these overall, and will add this meaty article from the NYTimes called “6 Food Mistakes Parents Make” http://tinyurl.com/d8lhje which puts emphasis in perspective.

    That said, there’s a purpose in using these ‘ewww’ tactics calling attention to what’s IN food, as a counter-marketing tactic and intervention based game, because, quite frankly, it works.

    In fact, our whole “Dare to Compare: Gross Out Game for Good Nutrition” is based on taking an entertainment approach to healthier eating by engaging kids in hands-on analysis of what they’re consuming in media, mind and body when opting into junk food.

    It’s more ‘analyze than demonize’ as kids have to arrive at that ‘eewwwww gross’ Fear Factor moment themselves (which is how counter-marketing works…seed the thought, let kids find the ‘aha moment’)

    So I guess I’d argue there’s a time and place for calling attention via shock value; in our case, we deal with high risk obesity intervention to fight fire with fire. And it works.

    Here’s an example if you want to try it at home:

  2. Robin Elton raises an issue that comes up in a myriad of ways as we raise our children. “How much information is too much?”

    Right, we don’t want to frighten our children so they are afraid to participate in life and that includes eating.

    But, as parents, grandparents, teachers, counselors and other caretakers we walk a line of protecting our children and equipping them to deal with realities of the world.

    It’s difficult and heartrending to have to teach our children not to engage with strangers or get in strange vehicles or be charmed by someone luring them with a story of a kitten or puppy. We don’t want them frightened of people but we don’t want them so naive that they are vulnerable to danger.

    We teach them to hold our hands when we cross the street because cars are dangerous. But we don’t fill their minds with horrible pictures of disaster.

    So with food we need to protect them and inform them at a level they can appreciate for their age. The fact is that our food supply is not the best and does have problems. The fact is that junk food does cause health and weight problems.

    Surely loving and informed adults can find a way to provide necessary information to our children in a way that both protects and empowers them.

    Joanna Poppink, MFT

  3. Audrae Erickson says:

    The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy report and the journal article it references fail to meet scientific standards for serious research and published literature. It would be wrong to conclude that there is any kind of food risk based on these reports.

    No mercury or mercury-based technology is used in the production of high fructose corn syrup in North America.

    In 1983, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration formally listed high fructose corn syrup as safe for use in food and reaffirmed that decision in 1996.

    It is important to put these questionable findings into context. The mercury levels cited by these reports are far below levels of concern set by the federal government. For example, EPA sets limits for mercury in water at two parts per billion. In comparison, the authors measured levels at parts per trillion in foods with high fructose corn syrup. Trace amounts of mercury can be found in the air, water, soil, and many other foods. The authors admit that they cannot determine the source of the mercury cited in the report. The reports are also based on outdated information.

    ChemRisk, Inc., a scientific consulting firm, examined the recent report by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), “Not So Sweet: Missing Mercury and High Fructose Corn Syrup,” and the Environmental Health journal report “Mercury from chlor-alkali plants: measured concentrations in food product sugar,” by Dufault et al., 2009. The full analysis can be found at http://www.sweetsurprise.com/news-and-press/press-releases/hfcs-mercury-study-flawed.

    Audrae Erickson
    Corn Refiners Association

    • Windy Daley says:

      Audrae Erickson: Can you tell us honestly, how much of that artificial red drink (from your commercials) do you personally consume and give to your own children?

      The health crisis in this country is real, and as a teacher, I can report that the school foods are addicting the children of this country to fast/processed foods–with the help of ads by organizations like the corn refiners.

      For example, meals might be a Kellogg’s Pop Tart for breakfast, and a corn dog for lunch–both washed down by artificially colored, HFCS laden, hormone laced strawberry flavored milk. This is not a one time thing–but regular school nutrition.

      We must educate our children to be aware of media manipulation, and to question the motives of those who would deceive us (for profit).

  4. I think the sign off from CRA above says it all…Just like when you read a voter ballot on propositions, I go straight to the source of who is behind the voice, and CRA consistently has used this ‘trace’ argument time and again, just like the chem companies do with the lead in lipstick (I just attended the Teens Turning Green national summit, and found the debriefing almost verbatim to the CRA ‘counterpoint’ above…it’s only a ‘little’ lead, not enough to…blahdeblah, times ‘x’ amounts of applications per day times ‘x’ amounts of other products with ‘trace’ amounts, ad infinitum…)

    I won’t launch into a long-winded rant on our food supply fillers and additives of frankenfood extraordinaire, but I WILL link to a post I wrote awhile back weighing in on the HFCS advertising absurdity that made all of us in the health and nutrition (and branding!) arena roll our eyes.

    At the end, you’ll find links to a plethora of voices in the HFCS debate for context…

  5. Um…well…maybe just a MINI-rant…sorry to be a blog hog…but wanted to add I agree with Joanna P. on the eating disorder recovery too; we need to watch the balance (and the ballast) to make sure kids stay on solid ground without massive swings to either end of the spectrum. And yes, I agree loving adults “should be able to find a way” to impart informed choices, but it ‘shouldn’t be so hard’…food should be a NON-issue, rather than a righteousness factor that it’s turned into. Why?

    Gee, let’s see, we now have a $15 billion food and beverage industry directly marketing to kids that’s undermining our parenting efforts…pummeling
    junk food messaging incessantly (like PopTarts and Pizza Pockets being hawked at school lunch concession stands STILL even though many thought that was long gone, sigh).

    In short, it would be at least ‘neutral’ to give us half a chance to parent well without setting us up for food fights w/offspring that shouldn’t even be in the dialog to begin with.

    Industry has made food the focus by putting profit over public health, which in turn shifts the spotlight to ‘what we’re eating’…which in turn creates ‘righteous’ reasons not to shovel the junk in kids’ mouths…which in turn puts way too much emphasis on the tug-o-war bit for kids’ health and well-being.

    It’s all a cycle…with short term profiteering at the expense of a long term health care crisis of a generation of kids.

    Regardless of whether it’s disordered eating of thinspiration or heavy/obesity issues, the righteousness should be coming from the public who demands safer standards/policy/parameters for the well-being of our ENTIRE population.

    (Ok, Robin, so, um…that was a mini-rant…I haven’t had time to post in awhile on ECP, so…;-)


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