By Jenny Sherman
Everyone has heard the saying “you are what you eat.” Never before, however, has there been more evidence to suggest how true this old adage is, or how strong the link is between nutrition and mental health. Numerous studies now clearly demonstrate that a poor diet can be a contributor to depression and other mental health concerns. Paradigm takes seriously the impact a teen’s diet can have on their life—how it can cause, or at least be a factor, in their struggle to find physical and emotional well being, and, ultimately, achieve their full potential. Paradigm doesn’t just talk to youth about healthy eating — a conversation many teenagers scoff at. Rather, the focus is on engaging young people, helping them gain an appreciation for nutritious food, and an understanding of where that food comes from. To top it all off, they get to experience how delicious healthy food can actually be! From an in depth nutritional evaluation, to growing their own foods in an organic garden, and finally enjoying the fruits of their labor in expertly prepared meals, Paradigm residents leave treatment more mindful of what they put into their bodies, and how it impacts their physical and emotional well being.
Nutritional evaluations are provided by Paradigm’s Clinical Nutritionist, Jennifer Cassetta. She works directly with program participants regarding nutrition and the mental and physical benefits of healthy eating — and in contrast, the devastating effects of having a poor diet. Jennifer meets one-on-one with each client at Paradigm from the moment of his or her arrival. She then goes over their health history, lifestyle, dietary intake and what their diet has been like up until that point. “It can be really disturbing, to be honest,” she says of some of those meetings. Youth report skipping meals, eating processed foods, consuming a lot of sugar, cereal, fast food, energy drinks, and coffee. She is careful to add, “It’s not just teens who maintain diets like these. But eating this way from an early age can cause future health issues like diabetes, high blood pressure, and osteoporosis.”
In an effort to impact such patterns, Jennifer teaches clients the concept of intuitive eating. “Listening to the signals your body is giving you, eating until you’re full, and eating when you’re hungry,” she explains. Counting calories is something she discourages clients from doing. But in many cases, diets are so poor that intuitive eating is not so intuitive, and requires a formalized plan. This is, of course, always the case if the young person is diagnosed with an eating disorder.
Teen Eating Disorders
According to Jennifer, skipping meals is one of the worst things a teenager can do and one of the most common behaviors she sees. She shared the story of one client who had a lot of shame and guilt about overeating. This teen would starve themselves through breakfast and lunch and then gorge on unhealthy foods after school. Jennifer helped her see the correlation between the shame and guilt and the behavior. If you change the behavior, you take away those negative feelings. The client began eating three sound meals a day while in treatment and is now free of the overwhelming cravings she had before. Cravings are another thing that Jennifer tries to identify in clients—why they crave what they crave, and in contrast, why they aren’t craving anything, and are lacking an overall appetite. Jennifer also works with clients to identify foods that are both good for them, and have the potential to bring them joy. ‘People get excited when they learn that many things that are good for them can also taste so good. Nobody is being encouraged to eat soggy broccoli,” she quips.
When asked to identify the single most important issue she sees related to teen’s diets, Jennifer soundly states, “Water consumption—most kids do not drink water. Instead, they opt for soda, coffee, and energy drinks, and as a result, they are severely dehydrated.” She goes on to describe, “Being dehydrated definitely affects [their] emotions and brain health—massively. It also affects insulin and weight, and can take away minerals from your bones.” Jennifer uses the metaphor of a wilted flower. When you don’t water a flower, it wilts. When you water it, it blooms and blossoms. People are the same way, and it is important for teens to understand the significance of water intake in their diets.
Clearly, healthy eating habits play a critical role in the overall treatment that takes place at Paradigm. The nutrition evaluation is where it all begins, but it continues with the organic garden and ends with chef prepared meals that are both healthy and delicious. Clinical Assistant Rachel Gordon is Paradigm’s Organic Garden manager. Rachel has a BS in Environmental Horticulture Science from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and she enjoys incorporating her love of gardening into her work with the youth at Paradigm. Clients regularly spend time in the garden picking fruits and planting vegetables. This voluntary activity gets them active and outside, into nature—and Malibu provides the best there is.
According to Rachel, many enthusiastically get involved in making sure that the organic source continues to flourish, not just for themselves, but also for youth who will come to Paradigm in the future. ‘It’s something that the youth love to participate in,” Rachel explains. “It’s something that gives them ownership—over their food, and taking care of plants—and ultimately taking care of themselves.”
In the organic garden, residents plant and harvest peppers, squash, herbs, strawberries and citrus fruits, among other nutritious foods. According to Rachel, gardening is absolutely connected to nutrition and healthy eating. “Growing your own fruits and veggies strikes up conversations about how to incorporate them into your everyday life, and how to make your meals more balanced and more nutritional, and how to actually bring that into your cooking.” Many teens come into the house after having eaten junk food for much of their adolescence, and most embrace a transition to healthy eating while at Paradigm, that they will incorporate into their lives long term. Rachel witnesses the change in youth all the time. “It’s actually really cool to see. We teach them with the garden, the nutritionist, and with the chef as well. It’s tied together. We slowly incorporate the healthy living aspect into it, and the kids get really excited about it,” Rachel says with her own excitement ‘Having ownership of their own food gets clients genuinely interested in healthy eating, and then they begin asking questions and engaging even more.”
Food goes straight from the organic garden, to the hands of a top-notch chef, to the table. Paradigm employs multiple professional chefs at each residential location. They are tasked with working in collaboration with the nutritionist to assist teens in learning how to eat healthily AND enjoy it. Each chef comes from a different background, and each brings something unique to the table. Residents are afforded opportunities to partake of a wide range of cuisines ranging from Italian to French, Californian, Indigenous, South American, lvorian, and Fusion. Specialized meals are designed to meet the needs of clients who eat kosher, vegetarian or vegan, or those who have allergies. But the chefs don’t just cook—they are passionate about showing teens how to cook and eat healthfully. Executive Chef, Claudine LeMare states in a charming, thick French accent, “Good food makes a good life. Every meal, we celebrate good choices.”
Start on the Path to Healthy Eating Today
Historically, mental health practitioners have put too little consideration into the role that food and nutrition play in regard to emotional well-being. The evidence is now clear: what and when we eat impacts our mental health. When teens are struggling with depression, anxiety or substance dependence, the first, and perhaps least, expected place to look is their diets. Paradigm Malibu believes strongly that medication isn’t always the best or first answer—sometimes, the answer can be found on the plate right in front of you.