By Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH
WebMD Medical Editor
I have a 10-year-old daughter, so reading about the cotton ball diet really struck a raw chord. This new fad seems to be all over You Tube and the internet. As a physician, I’m just as horrified.
Teenagers and younger girls ages 9 to 16 are dipping cotton balls in juice and smoothies and swallowing them. The idea is the cotton will act like “fiber,” keep them full, and replace real food that comes with calories.
Seems simple, but it’s actually dangerous. The cotton balls aren’t usually even cotton, but rather some other artificial fiber containing unknown chemicals. By eating this nonfood, the girls are a set up for malnutrition with all the consequences associated with other eating disorders like anemia, fatigue and a whole list of medical conditions. They could choke on the cotton balls or even get a blockage in their intestines called a bezoar. That’s the same thing as the hair ball a cat spits up, and it requires surgery to remove.
Of course, the cotton ball diet isn’t an isolated fad – or just a special diet gone extreme. In a young adolescent girl it could mean more. It could be a part of a spectrum of psychiatric illnesses with odd names like trichotillomania, where a person pulls their hair, and pica, where a person eats nonfood like the cotton balls or starch, all in the realm of obsessive compulsive disorders and eating disorders.
As a mother, I now see this entire story so differently from how I would have straight out of medical school. How do we recognize when our younger generation is showing the first signs of a possible illness versus just making a poor decision? How do we teach the girls around us to respect themselves? When my daughter is out swimming or playing basketball – I want her to think – “My body is getting stronger every day.”
I want her to want to eat foods that taste good and give her quality fuel. I want her to feel beautiful because of that strength – just like some of the commercials and songs we see and hear every day. The cotton ball fad raises many issues for us to consider — and food for thought for the young women out there vulnerable to what the search engine on their computer brings up for them to read.
What can we do for our youngsters out there? Of course we have to start at home with our own body image and our own view of what’s a healthy lifestyle. But beyond that we need to be informed. Diet fads aren’t healthy, and eating disorders are a group of real illnesses which are very common. Ignoring the signs won’t make it go away. A child may need talk therapy or medication. Start by talking with your child and then get a professional involved if needed. I will.