There are no solid medical studies (randomized placebo controlled trials) to prove that any type of dietary restriction (plant-based diets, veganism, vegetarianism, gluten-free, sugar-free, cleanses, etc.) has definitive long-term benefits on growing children and teens (or adults, for that matter). Yet, many parents and youth are seduced by the lure of dietary extremism. As a physician who provides psychotherapy to kids and teens with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, PTSD, adjustment issues, etc., I need to express my deep concern about this. There are multiple levels of physical and emotional damage that can occur as a result of engaging in restrictive food behavior. And no matter how mature youth may seem, their abstract thinking is still in development and they may not fully comprehend that "cutting out carbs" may not just be "cutting out carbs." It may be a way to feel more in control of their chaotic lives. It may be a way to lose weight because they think that'll make them feel better about themselves. It may be a subtle holier-than-thou attitude they pick up from grown-ups in their lives. The list goes on.
Today’s food restriction culture is dangerous, especially for our youth. Even if well-meaning parents, adults, documentaries, and magazines don’t say the following exactly, many teens tell me that the underlying nutrition lessons are: “deny yourself and you’re better,” “restricting is not an option,” “if you don’t eat organic, you might as well eat fast food.” These smart youth describe first world food restriction as "privileged" and "elitist" but they nevertheless feel compelled to subscribe to it. They feel alienated from their parents and peers who follow extreme diets but can't help but to follow suit. And then...oh the dark, dark places they reveal their vulnerable, developing minds go…
Bottom line: unless a youth has a serious, diagnosed medical condition that requires dietary restriction or is being raised in a family with longstanding religious dietary guidelines, it's worthwhile to take a step back from all the food hoopla and consider the potential harm in unfounded claims of miracle, cure-all, one-size-fits-all food plans and diets.
I advise parents of my patients to keep it simple. Eat well-balanced, nutritious, and home-cooked meals with your kids as often as possible. Briefly express gratitude to the cook or comment on the deliciousness of the food, but avoid negative or black-and-white food judgments or opinions that aren't backed by science (like “bread is crap,” “the piece of fat on the steak is so gross,” “sugar is horrible,” etc.). Kids will learn to choose good, nutritious, varied foods in appropriate portions if it’s role modeled at family meals.
Food is fuel. Meals and snacks bring people together and teach social skills and reinforce positive self-worth. Beyond that, thinking, controlling, and restricting food isn’t necessary and can be harmful.
Here are some “food for thought” articles about the pitfalls of food extremism: