I’m a pediatric nutritionist with long experience, and I wish you’d stop talking so much about food and nutrition with your kids.
That sounds crazy, I know. Food and nutrition are absolutely pivotal for your kids’ brains, behavior, growth, mood, learning… everything. No wonder then that food, recipes, and nutrition talk are all over the internet and mom blogger universe. From how to make killer bento lunches to keto for kids (mistake, BTW, unless under certain circumstances), everyone has something to say.
The good thing about this is that we are all woke now on the importance of what we eat, where food comes from, and how we grow it, whether it’s chickens, chocolate, or chard. We really are what we eat. We eat, and we turn the food into us – hair, bones, teeth, mood, and all. Period. That’s pretty much it (though a lot can go wrong along that path.. fixing that for kids is pretty much what I do).
But… there is a HUGE downside, and it’s bad for kids. It creates undue anxiety, stress, and overwhelm for kids, young ones and teens alike. It really stresses moms out too. I run into this often in my clinical practice, and I can tell you that it has gotten worse as our (justified!) enthusiasm for whole, healthy foods has exploded in the last 10-15 years. You’ll want to avoid these pitfalls with your kids. Here’s my list of Fail vs Fabulous, when encouraging healthy nutrition and food habits in your family.
It’s so easy to label a food “good” or “bad”. There’s plenty of junk out there, including organic junk. Obviously, it isn’t what kids should live on. But don’t drill these labels into your kids’ minds. What they need to learn is discernment – and they will. Eventually, ideally, when they’re out and about on their own without you, those “bad” foods should be neutral to them.
What do I mean by “neutral”? I mean that the idea of eating that food doesn’t provoke anxiety. It isn’t even compelling, because it was never forbidden in the first place. It doesn’t elicit judgment or shaming for themselves, or toward friends and peers who eat those foods.
As long as there is no safety or egregious comfort issue – as in, needing an Epi Pen, or a vomit-to-shock (FPIES) reaction, hives, migraine, nausea, bloating, burning diarrhea, disabling gas pain – then let kids have forays into junk. Not daily staples or regular snacks, mind you, but occasional dabbling.
Instead: Provide treats for special occasions (or every so often for no reason other than it’s fun) with no discussion about whether it’s “good” or “bad”. Again, safety issues and food allergens or triggers aside, simply make or buy some fun food, and let your child enjoy, care-free.
My one exception: Spoiled food. This IS bad and dangerous and kids need to learn that too. So, tell them.
2 – Don’t Expect A Young Child to Have Discernment (or even care)
Speaking of discernment, forget needing your four year old to have it. That’s your job. Children do not need to know what organic is, or glyphosate, or MSG, colors, additives, gluten or what have you. They shouldn’t care either. They’re little and they have much more important stuff going on in their little worlds. Please stop walking them through the supermarket and asking them to pay attention to labels or what you’re buying. Believe me, they are observing. They don’t need the specifics, and this will only be information overload that can lead to anxiety or meal time control battles. They need you to be chill, in charge, and happy that you’re with them (most the time). That’s about it.
Instead: Lead by example. Say less, do more. If your child accompanies you shopping, let them day dream and leave them alone; if they love chatter, join them in the randomness of it. Your child doesn’t need every moment to be teachable!
If they see something truly junky or sugary or processed that they pitch a fit for (and they will, because supermarkets place colorful cartoony packaging at your child’s eye level on purpose), that’s your call. Sometimes we can get away with floating to the next aisle with a soothing “Hmm no I don’t want to do that today” (and refrain from giving a reason why). Other days, you know the both of you don’t have it in you to make it home without giving in. Up to you, but avoid each supermarket trip rewarded with a junk treat.
If you’re in servitude to your stove or kitchen and miserable making all this scratch beautiful food, guess what – your kids know. Even your baby can tell. The most important thing here is that you get to be happy and enjoy food. Even if there are stressors, including big ones, about what can be safely eaten in your household, endeavor to find the joy in some of it. Joy is, above all else, why we’re here.
3 – Stop Explaining Everything and Stop Feeling Sorry For Your Kids with Diet Restrictions
You’re in charge. You’re the adult. If you know your child does poorly with a particular food, and they are fiendish about getting it and asking for it constantly anyway, oh well! You know best and have decided that they’re not going to have that food, period. Remember: This goes for foods that are a known danger or debilitating to your child – not for foods that are imperfect, but harmless.
Explaining and justifying your parenting choices to a young child (or even a teen) is, um, a bad idea. Doing so engenders entitlement in your child, which can make their opposition and protests even bigger. In little ones, expect tantrums, anxiety, and meltdowns when you try the “here’s why” route. In teens, expect impressive arguments, brooding, and door slamming. Most of all, don’t expect or need your kids to agree with you.
Instead: If a child asks for a reason why, offer it in the most developmentally concrete way for that child’s age. Refrain from volunteering comments like “it’s bad for you” or “will make you sick” or “your body can’t have that.” Don’t label the food or your child’s body as defective or bad.
Younger kids can be redirected with “there isn’t any more of that at the store so I found this one instead” or “I think this will feel really good in your tummy. Let’s try it and you let me know.”
Teens are reaching a point of practicing discernment on their own. Experimentation and screw ups are par for the course at this age. Let them experience the discomfort of eating the wrong food. You will decide when you have had enough as a parent: “I realize this isn’t what you want, but I am the one taking care of/rescuing you each time you feel sick from eating xyz. So, that food is no longer going to be in the house, and I won’t buy it anymore. If you eat it on purpose outside of here, I won’t be able to help you.” And then there’s always “..because I am the one buying the food, and I said so.”
4 – Stop Feeding Your Kids Like They’re Gwyneth Paltrow (or expecting them to like it)
Oh dear. How many, many food diaries I have seen that look this beautiful: Green smoothies, pumpkin seeds, sprouted Einkorn homemade bread, kombucha, fermented kvass, homemade dosa, coconut flour pancakes, avocado toast, bone broth… Or, a list of light veggie snacks all day long: Carrots, celery, nori, cucumbers, and apple slices with a few cashews. Or, a food diary that shows me 120 grams of protein and less than 60 grams of carbs (a nearly ketogenic intake).
Those are beautiful foods. Some kids really love this stuff. But, usually, it turns out this is a little dysfunctional. There are too many food rules in the house, and it’s causing tension to comply so stringently with eating only organic, perfect whole foods.
I’ll also usually discover that in these households, kids are falling off their growth patterns, experiencing stunting, or underweight. What tends to happen here is kids end up low for total calories, low for carbohydrates, and high for fats and protein. This is a great eating style for adults (who are not growing), but it can cause stunting and underweight in children.
Here is a common anecdote from my practice: I began working with a mom whose child was eating an overly restricted diet. Mom removed all processed foods entirely, based on the belief that any of them, at any time, are bad. Her child also happened to be a picky eater and refused many textures, limiting her choices more. On top of this, based on a misinterpreted blood test for a food sensitivity panel that the mom had somehow done on her own prior to our meeting, the child was only allowed to eat 7 foods, and had been eating this very restricted diet for years. She was not growing, had miserable behavior and sleep problems, and was trending toward anemia.
It turned out, right off the bat, the child could eat many foods that mom had wrongly assumed were trouble. A shift in view point on the good vs bad food mythology helped a lot. The child’s behavior improved immediately and she gained some much needed weight. Finally, her brain and body were getting replenished.
But even after a few sessions, things didn’t sound quite right. So I asked for an updated food diary. Mom shared a usual day food intake of small quantities, throughout the day, of raisins, peanuts, maple syrup, rice, potato chips, and a brownie. That was it. That was a usual day of food. This explained the re-emerging problems: No protein, no good fats or oils, too little food over all, a grazing pattern, and few micronutrient rich foods (for vitamins and minerals).
Mom said this child would sometimes eat chicken. So I asked – what if you gave a chicken nugget, would she like that, or try it?
A big silence followed. Mom was stunned. She had never done that, and wouldn’t, “because, you know, they’re so junky.” We agreed to give it a try after a quick search gave us some brand options she could live with. There are ready to heat and eat versions of this stuff that aren’t so terrible, or are gluten free too.
Instead – This child was already eating a junky poor diet. It didn’t matter if the peanuts and maple syrup were organic. Those alone don’t make up a whole foods diet. So, toss in some fun. Find some ready to serve, heat-and-eat stuff so you don’t have to work so hard cooking it all from scratch. If you hit on something, then you can make your own scratch version even better if you like.
Let kids be kids. They need different diets than adults. They shouldn’t be eating they way you do, most likely. Peruse my blog for more ideas and tips on how kids eat, what they need, and some recipes to try.
• 5 – Baby Led Weaning Is Great… For Babies
No, babies and children don’t know what they need all the time, and don’t necessarily have a keen inner wisdom that they can tap at a moment’s notice. Some babies wean because they feel eager and ready to move on. Some can’t get there, and won’t, even when it is safer and healthier for them to do so. Don’t pressure your young child to know everything. I’ve met many toddlers way past the day they needed to wean, and mom is still waiting for permission to do so. Nope nope nope. You’re in charge, mom.
Likewise, toddlers and kids need direction too. Weaned or not, presenting food all day long in a parade of choices is often just plain overwhelming and frustrating for little kids. It’s too demanding to expect that they will know what to do. This strategy can create anxiety in young kids, while mom or dad get super frustrated by the poor growth and picky appetite that this can often trigger too.
- Don’t expect them to guide you in making their food choices. Sure they will have their preferences, but it is your job to feed them.
- Don’t expect that they will always know or verbalize when they’re full or when they’re hungry. Especially when kids have used reflux medicines, appetite and its cues will be weakened over time. If you need help with this, contact me or speak to your pediatrician.
- Don’t chatter about how important food is. Just make or buy something you love to share and enjoy with your family.
- Don’t allow non stop grazing. Toddlers and young kids grow, sleep, and behave better with distinct snack times and mealtimes.
- Don’t limit texture options to just pincer grasp foods and pouches. Kids can be rigid. The longer you wait for them to reach for a new food, the longer you may be waiting. I’ve met several four and five year olds who don’t know how to chew. It’s ok to rock their world a bit and expect them to progress much earlier on.
Instead – Make food a benign or pleasant background piece. At snack or meal times, it’s just there, beckoning. Allow a choice between 2, maybe 3 foods at most. Present mixed textures and novelty, including foods that might be messy or that require mastery of a utensil. Let your child feed himself or get messy. Good help can be had with a pediatric occupational therapist if need be – let your doctor know you’d like help, and get a referral, if feeding is so stalled that your child isn’t growing or gaining well.
I really meant it …
…when I said that the most important reason why we are all here is joy. Eating and food are great paths to create it, share it, grow it. More than anything you say or do around food in your household, making food a generally positive, inquisitive, and expansive experience is what will create good self care and eating habits in your growing family. For extreme picky eaters, you may have other problems afoot that need tackling. Check out my e book here for more details on how to redirect that too.
Halloween used to be pure fun, but now that so many kids have food allergies, it’s definitely complicated. Somewhere between 8-10% of US children have a life threatening food allergy. Among those, about 40% are allergic to more than one food. I’ll bet food allergies may be underreported – just in my own pediatric nutrition practice, I often meet kids who have never been screened by their pediatricians or referred to allergists – and lo and behold, we find food allergies.
Then there are also food sensitivities, and food intolerances. These can occur with or without allergy reactions (which is why your child may still feel or function poorly eating a certain food even if your allergist said it tested ok). Sensitivities involve layers of the immune system different from allergy reactions and tend to emerge more insidiously or slowly, with eczema, anxiety, stomachaches, picky weak appetite, or irritable stool pattern. Intolerances can be immune-mediated or purely digestive in nature, and can include those wacky behavior changes some of you see when your kids eat stuff heavy on dyes and sugar…. like, Skittles! Kids can have one or all of these problems at once – allergy, sensitivity, and intolerance – to some of the same foods, or entirely different foods.
There are ways around it. It’s not like it used to be when kids could go door to door (without parents even!) grabbing goodies indiscriminately, and bickering over who got what with siblings once home (always interesting at my house growing up with five kids). Here are tips to help your kids have fun on Halloween even if they have food allergy and dietary restrictions.
- Teal Pumpkin Project – if you haven’t heard about it yet, dive in! Look for the Teal Pumpkin for non-food treats and little toys.
- Trick or Treat Fairy who takes your child’s candy cache and leaves a coveted toy (or toys) in its place – like the Tooth Fairy, only better.
- Bake some allergen friendly treats to trade for candy. Cookies, bars, cupcakes, or even Halloween themed fat bombs – the choices are endless.
- Organic-ingredient candies are often allergen-friendly. They are pricier, but worth it if it means avoiding that ER co-pay or Epi-Pen drama, or just for your kids’ joy and peace of mind. Here are some examples (I have no affiliate relationships with these brands BTW – I just like these a lot)
- Alter Eco makes non GMO organic chocolates in several varieties. They aren’t certified gluten free, but have no gluten ingredients, and many have no nut ingredients. Some do have milk ingredients. Check out the Quinoa Crunch or Burnt Caramel, two of my favorites.
- The Natural Candy Store lets you choose candy by dietary restriction and by organic candy status.Give their grid a try, see what you get – it’s genius! Here’s what I got when I selected strict gluten free, strict peanut free, certified non GMO, no corn syrup, certified organic candy.
- Yum Earth makes certified GF, organic, nut free, non GMO and vegan (that means strictly dairy and egg free) candy ready for Halloween sharing.
Be Sure You Don’t Make This Halloween Food Allergy Fail! …Here’s a mistake I witness often working with well meaning parents: Feeling sorry for your child. Or, unwittingly, for yourself.
When a parent comes in after we’ve started nutrition care process and spends a lot of time explaining why this can’t work because it is too hard to find or prepare substitute foods ….Hmmm. That’s not where we need our focus, and it is not what your child needs to hear from you. It’s also more about you than your child. You’re in charge of what is in your house to eat, and you do have a large measure of influence over what your child eats at school. Let’s strategize about how to do it, not about how hard it is. And truth is, it’s not so hard – once you decide it isn’t, commit to it, roll up your sleeves, and get started. It’s not too different from a weight loss project: Ultimately, you just get your butt in the gym and change up some eating habits you know aren’t helping, and you make it a lifestyle commitment.
Forget the drama about how they’re missing out. Talk about that in front of your kids, or worse – to your kids – and they will believe they are missing out and will feel bad about it. Talk up all the new choices there are to explore, and engage your kids in the discovery process, whether it’s making homemade treats, taste testing new store bought ones, or dreaming about the toy-trade options. Happy Halloween!
Let me tell you the five most helpful to-do’s I have seen parents use for their children’s health, as we start a new year.
These come from my twenty years’ experience working with families in my pediatric nutrition practice – with mostly complex, difficult cases who couldn’t find improvement elsewhere. In other words, even if your child is really challenged with feeding, growth, chronic illness or disability, developmental trials, allergy or more, I can tell you that these five tips are still my top picks, for setting up the healthiest foundation possible for your kids.
You might think I am going to talk about stuff like picky eating, junk food versus organic, gluten, food allergies, eating more vegetables, probiotics, vitamins, the latest autism protocol, whether or not you should do GAPS, gut biome… Nope. I definitely do cover all that and more in my clinical practice and in my blog, so have a look around.
These tips are about you – and how subtle shifts in your approach to health and what your family eats can cause unexpected benefits to unfold in everyone’s health.
1 – Get fierce about this: Adopt the mantra that health – not illness, disability, endless doctors’ appointments, or dependence on prescription or over-the-counter drugs that bring unwanted side effects – is your child’s birthright. It’s the baseline they are entitled to. Picture them at their healthiest and happiest. Imagine the unimaginable, if that is what it takes. Start with that picture of the joy good health brings.
If they’re not there, if your children are saddled with chronic illness, don’t lament, and definitely don’t feel sorry for them – they have you as their advocate and model, and they need positivity and possibility. Hold that image of total health that they need and deserve. Assume they have it already, and lead the way toward it, quietly and persistently. Expect a good outcome. Their bodies are built to grow, heal, and restore. There is always potential for healing.
2 – Chill out about food. Robyn Obrien’s 80/20 rule is a comfortable sweet spot. Her suggestion is to work for “progress not perfection”. Unless you know your child will sustain severe injury or consequences from eating certain verboten foods which must be avoided, don’t pathologize food. Don’t judge. Don’t chatter about how horrible this or that food is.
I encourage parents to use empowering language, even with small children. I discourage labeling food as “bad” or something that will “make you sick”. This can burden children – even teens – with unnecessary anxiety.
Instead, use words that show the power to choose. If your child eats something that backfires into discomfort or behavioral disintegration, ask which food might feel better next time, if they’re old enough to consider that question for themselves. If not, tell them what you will do next time: “Next time I’ll have xyz ready to eat instead, and you can see if that feels good”. Or “I’ll give your teacher a new snack for you at school. Maybe that will feel good instead.” Don’t harp on what a mistake a transgression was, especially if your child made the choice or if the choice was beyond their control. That is too easily internalized into feelings of powerlessness or failure by a child.
Notice your phrasing, demeanor, and tone when talking about food and health. Leave out the dark, judgmental stuff and emphasize food feeling good, tasting good, or being fun to share or experiment with.
3 – Read food labels? Now try this. If you’re like most parents I work with, you read food labels ad nauseam. You scrutinize every ingredient that passes your child’s lips – especially if you faithfully eat only organic food, avoid corn syrup or dyes, or if your kids ever needed an Epi Pen for eating the wrong thing!
Great. Now try this: Read a vaccine package insert. Read the whole thing, including the ingredients (often listed under the word “Description”). If you care about what’s in your child’s food, you will definitely want to know what is injected into them.
This is a great resource to see the full insert for each vaccine in the schedule. To see ingredients, search for the word “description” (which – as you may wonder – does not necessarily disclose all the ingredients, some of which are allowed to be proprietary, per the FDA).
I’ve met many a mom worried about letting their kids eat, say, corn chips or dairy (because they heard either was “bad” for everyone) – but never knew that Prevnar 13 – just one of dozens of shots on the schedule – has GMO soy fragments in it. Or that Recombivax has yeast, soy, formaldehyde, dextrose, and aluminum in it.
Recombivax is given to newborn babies. If you wouldn’t let even traces of GMO soy, formaldehyde, or aluminum touch your newborn baby’s tongue, why would you let these be injected? Note that eating any protein – or toxin for that matter – is far safer than injecting it, especially if your child is prone to any sort of reaction.
No need to dwell on what a contentious conversation anything with the V-word is, or indulge the drama and emotional reactions to this topic (I’ll delete comments that do). I get it. My graduate training in public health was full-on pro vaccine. I don’t need any instruction here, thank you very much.
It’s just that it’s high time for common sense. We talk a lot about food ingredients, including traces of glyphosate in GMO foods. Nobody talks much about ingredients in your kids’ shots. The “trace amount” argument loses traction once you see that kids receive anywhere from 70 to 100 doses in their first five years, when they are the most vulnerable to the burden of toxic exposures.
It would be fabulous if there was a pharmaceutical or biological product that actually was reliably, equally safe and equally effective for every kid or baby, every single day. But that is just magical thinking. There is no such thing, anywhere. Not a food, not a medicine, not even a fragrance. Can you imagine if it were mandated that all public school children eat Adderall every day, because some kids are too hard to manage in the classroom due to ADHD?
So this is why my Number 3 is for you to learn exactly what’s in your kids’ shots (or yours, if you’re planning on getting pregnant). They are potent. Don’t take them lightly. They may be helpful, or like anything else, they can be harmful. Too many may overstimulate the immune system to cause problems later on. Learn what is in vaccines, when they’re given and how often, and scrutinize if your child really needs them all.
For example: Your child won’t need boosters if they retain immunity from a prior dose – more may not be better.
If you’re upset because someone gave your kid a bag of Skittles at school, then wig out about the kid next door who skipped chickenpox vaccine, I think you’ve got it backwards. Just my opinion.
Besides, don’t you believe your own kid’s chickenpox shot worked – ?
In this scenario, the candy may be the lesser of two evils. Chickenpox vaccine is made with human fetal DNA, guinea pig embryonic tissue, sucrose, glutamate and MSG, and fetal bovine serum. Check out page 6 under “Description”.
4 – Heed your intuition. It’s a powerful healer, guide, and protector for your kids. And at the same time, remember that intuition is not a mandate for you alone to know everything!
In all my years as a clinician, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a mom say “I just had a feeling” …and how often that feeling was right. I’ve certainly had that moment many times myself as a mom.
It can be tough to go against the advice of the expert specialist at the Mayo Clinic, but you can do it if you simply feel you must, even if you don’t know quite why just yet. You know your child best.
Don’t confuse intuition with fear, or with the egocentric idea that only you can help your child. While I’ve often seen a mom’s intuition impressively steer a child to a good outcome, I have also seen families withhold good care options or block alliances with good providers, out of fear that they shouldn’t trust anything, or a belief that only mom can know what to do. Neither approach is very successful.
Look for your allies and resources, know your own strengths as well as spots where you could use help, allow the help in, and remember – you do know your child best.
5 – Drop the drama. When we have kids with struggles, it’s so easy to be seduced by the drama of what it takes to be their parent.
It’s easy to over-identify with the tasks of caring for kids with learning disabilities, developmental concerns, feeding and growth delays, allergies, and more.
Don’t do that. It messes up your kids. They’re not here to fulfill you in some way, or address your needs. They’re just here. Pretty much, to be themselves.
I meet traumatized families. Families who have had too many trips to the ER for severe allergy reactions from an accidental walnut, for seizures because a medication keeps failing, for passing out because of FPIES reactions and non-stop vomiting. For these families, a plain old broken arm sounds pretty good. Families isolated by too many dietary restrictions, by developmental disabilities including autism, anxiety disorders, or processing disorders.
I meet families who have been verbally battered or treated with great insensitivity by doctors, teachers, neighbors, or even friends or family members. Trusting becomes hard. As a parent, it’s hard at times not to feel victimized, to feel like the hardship with your kids may never end, and to lapse into the trap of believing that this whirlwind of medical/developmental/educational crises is… your whole and sole self.
But this isn’t about you.
Underneath and in between all that, there is your child, endeavoring to just be. Like any other kid.
The kids who come out of these tempests with the best outcomes, in my experience, are the ones whose parents can remain aware of this. These parents do not attach their own pain, ego, fears, sadness, disappointment, frustration, or feelings of inadequacy to the child, or to the outcomes. They don’t focus on diagnostic labels, whether it’s eosinophilic esophagitis, PANDAS, autism, Crohns, FPIES, or whatever. They rarely if ever use the labels around their kids, because they know their kids are not the labels. They obtain the labels as a path to health and wellbeing as is useful – that’s it. They don’t spend too much time on Facebook groups devoted to their kids’ labels. They focus on actionable solutions. They trust the fact that as parent, they are doing the best they can.
You’re in charge. You set the tone. Your kids will follow suit, even if they have seemingly insurmountable challenges on their plates. I used to hate it when my mother advised, “don’t complain, don’t explain” …but, she was right.
When parents hear “nutrition matters for baby” or “kids need a good breakfast”, what does that really mean? There are plenty of vague platitudes out there filling parenting web and print media, cereal box side panels, and TV ads. But how important is this, really?
Even before pregnancy, what we moms eat and what toxins we are exposed to affect our unborn children. Whole foods organically grown in healthy toxin free soil without genetically modified seeds or feed grains will safely nourish you and your kids – and it really does matter. For example:
– Vitamin D status before and during pregnancy may affect growth of the fetus, length of pregnancy, and immune function for baby after birth. Babies may be at more for risk intrauterine growth retardation in moms who are vitamin D deficient. Even adult outcomes for mental illnesses may be impacted by mom’s vitamin D status during pregnancy.
– Ideal iron status – not too much, or too little – is crucial for normal fetal development. Iron can cause lasting damage to fetal organs and brain tissue, if the wrong amount is on board.
– Toxic exposures for you now may influence whether your grandchildren get cancer.
– Ultrasounds may damage DNA expression in your baby’s brain. Limiting exposure to these while pregnant may be safest.
– Missing folic acid, a single simple nutrient, can have catastrophic outcomes for baby. Taking it before you conceive may prevent birth defects.
– Unvaccinated babies have fewer allergies, ADHD, and chronic disease than vaccinated children. Toxins in vaccines along with early and aggressive exposure to injected antigens may be making our children more chronically ill. This bolsters the need for strong nutrition to support strong immune response. Even vaccinations taken by mom prior to pregnancy may have a negative impact too.
– Breastfeeding is as or even more powerful than vaccination at preventing infectious diseases – so powerful in fact, that the CDC has promoted cessation of breastfeeding to keep natural antibodies from negating those in vaccines! Score another point here for nutrition solutions over pharmaceutical ones.
– Genetically modified organisms in food crops (GMO) are linked to increased allergies and organ damage. These foods are unlabeled in the US – so that means you’re probably feeding them to your family. Look for foods that tell you they contain no GMO ingredients. Livestock and farm raised salmon are typically fed GMO corn. Splurge on organic meats to avoid this when you can.
These are just a few bullets from the staggering amount of information on nutrigenomics – that is, how nutrients (and toxins) impact gene expression and outcomes for our babies. But one fact is too often overlooked for parents nowadays: Nutrition really matters, and it’s up to us to engage it. Your child’s immune system depends on a steady flow of toxin-free nutrients and foods, and a well functioning digestive tract, in order to mount a vigorous response to fight infection. Your child’s brain needs the same, to grow and function to potential. Nutrition is an ensemble piece if there ever was one. Nutrients and foods work together, relying on each other in cells and processes in the body, to create a hale and hearty human. No pharmaceuticals – vaccines included – do these jobs. Food and nutrients do this.
Despite this old wisdom – documented by decades of nutrition science and practice – pediatrics today pays little due to helping parents build kids’ nutrition. Nutrition studies are not part of your pediatrician’s training. Emphasis is heavy on pharmaceuticals, a shift that has happened in the last generation. As a child, I visited the pediatrician very rarely; I have not a single memory of me or any of my four siblings going to the doctor with an illness. We each passed through the rites of chickenpox, mumps, and measles; we never got ear infections; we very rarely got colds or flu. My friends came from families of three, five, or even six or seven children. I knew no one with asthma, allergies, diabetes, epilepsy, or other conditions or disabilities. With all the pharmaceuticals now given to children beginning from birth, we must ask if these are making kids less well, and more debilitated. Over half of US children now have a chronic disease or disability – obviously, using more pharmaceuticals has not improved health for our children.
Pay as much attention as you can to real food for your family. Cooking from scratch is a lot of work, but start – somewhere. Even a few more whole food meals or snacks a week will give your kids fewer toxins, more minerals, varied protein, and essential fats and oils – all key for brain and immune function. Even busy families can begin with these ideas:
– Trade processed fortified breakfast cereals (infamous for delivering too much corn syrup, sugar, additives, or even too much iron for some children) for whole grain oatmeal, eggs, or additive-free organic breakfast meats
– If cereal is non-negotiable, transition to organic brands that use whole grains. Add raw nuts and seeds like cashew, sunflower, or pumpkin seeds.
– Once a week, try a session with your kids of making your own cereal. Use whole oats, nuts, seeds, cinnamon, honey – any granola recipe can do.
– Trade sugary GMO concoctions like Ensure, Pediasure, or Carnation Instant Breakfast for power shakes made from organic almond, hemp, or coconut milk; add whey powder, nut butters like tahini, honey, and ripe banana. Let your kids experiment with ingredients, within your parameters of fruits, seeds, nut butters, cacao nibs.
– Stuck on Cheezits and Goldfish crackers? Rotate in crunchy nut and seed mixes, Justin’s Nut Butters, raw young asparagus, or crisp bell peppers. Add dips like guacamole or hummus. If all else fails, offer nut butters and dips rich in brain building fats with the crunchy cracker favorites.
– Is Friday pizza night? Give your own homemade a try, and let your kids in on the project. If making your own dough is daunting, purchase an empty pizza round from your grocer’s freezer section and build from there. Use organic cheeses. Experiment with toppings like olives, fresh basil leaves, raw tomato slices, scallion, or barbeque chicken; let your kids spice the pie with fresh minced oregano, raw minced garlic, or fresh hot pepper.
– Use a crock pot once a week for a home cooked meal. Meatballs and sauce, meatless minestrone, pot roast and vegetables, and lentil dahl are just a few meals that cook themselves and offer protein, minerals, fats, and oils.
What I usually hear in my nutrition practice is this: The more families get into preparing real food, the more they get into it. It grows on you. And the best part is seeing your children become healthier and happier, from the inside out.
When do kids need supplements?
If you’re reading this, then you have probably already discovered, hopefully with some guidance from your team of health care providers, that your child has a nutrition problem. Or maybe you’ve come to suspect there’s a deficit for some nutrients in your child. Should you fix it with a supplement? Does that work? What’s the best way to use those?
These are important questions for children with special needs like diabetes, food allergies, asthma and inflammatory conditions, developmental concerns like Down’s syndrome or autism spectrum disorders, inherited metabolic disorders, seizures, or growth and feeding problems. As many as 60% of children with special needs have nutrition problems that can potentially impair their functioning, learning, growth, or development (1). It has been known for decades that keeping children well nourished, whether they have special needs or not, helps them reach their functional potential, by supporting learning, growth, and development.
Supplements may fit into this, and part of my job as a pediatric dietitian is figuring out if, when, and how they do. This is something to discern based on individualized nutrition assessment. I take into account several pieces: Medical history, signs and symptoms, a food diary, a child’s growth history, circumstances of the child’s gestational period, delivery, and early infancy, and so on. The last piece to fill in the blanks would be lab data, because lab data alone can’t describe a child’s nutrition status. Here are some tips to help you use supplements more effectively. More tips are in my book Special Needs Kids Eat Right (2009, Penguin/Perigee) which you can pick up in most bookstores or libraries, or order via your favorite on line bookseller.
– Kids need food! In fact, they need much more food per pound than adults. If an adult were to eat what a toddler needs per pound, that adult would need 8,000-10,000 calories per day just to maintain normal weight. Giving lots of supplements without enough food means your child will probably not be able to use those supplements as intended. So, before buying supplements, do the footwork to give your child adequate and nutritious foods. How to do this for picky eaters with special needs is covered in Special Needs Kids Eat Right.
– Supplements don’t fix problems caused by inadequate food intake in kids. Anxiety, insomnia, irritability, rage/reactivity, behavior, low muscle tone, fatigue, cognitive difficulties, frequency of infections or illnesses, and school performance are all affected by total food intakes in children. Give a balance of healthy fats and oils, clean carbohydrates that aren’t too sugary, and easy to digest proteins every day.
– If you’ve been given a list of supplements to buy based on lab results, beware. Giving a pill for each lab finding out of reference range is a cumbersome, ineffective strategy, in my experience. For nutrition interventions to work well, children need the right amount of food, foods they can digest well, and good digestion and absorption. Your provider can help you assess whether your child needs to repair digestion and absorption before giving supplements.
– Rule out bowel infections in your child with your health care provider before beginning a complex supplement regimen. Remember, whatever you feed your child will be eaten by his resident bowel bacteria first. New research is emerging to describe how important this bowel flora can be – from helping us prevent inflammatory conditions (2), to encoding our own GI tracts with the skill to make digestive enzymes (3). Other research shows that unhealthy bowel bacteria can impact behavior or even seizures in children (4, 5) – making it all the more crucial to balance this piece before using supplements that might “fertilize” the wrong bowel flora.
Those are just a few reasons why supplements need to be worked into a total care plan for your child, rather than given without thoughtful strategy. Work with your health care providers to get it right; given in the right total context, the right supplements can work very well for children. If you need more help and information, contact me or schedule an appointment at NutritionCare.net.
1. Nutrition In The Prevention and Treatment of Disease, 2nd ed. Ann Coulston and Carol Boushey, Eds. Elsevier Academic Press. Burlington, MA and London, UK: 2008
2. Maslowski KM et al. Regulation of inflammatory responses by gut microbiota and chemoattractant receptor GPR43. Nature 2009 Oct 29;461(7268):1282-6.
3. Hehemann JH et al. Transfer of carbohydrate-active enzymes from marine bacteria to Japanese gut microbiota Nature 2010 April 8;464 (7269):908-912
4. MacFabe DF et al. Neurobiological effects of intraventricular propionic acid in rats: Possible role of short chain fatty acids on the pathogenesis and characteristics of autism spectrum disorders Behavioural Brain Research 2007;176:149–169
5. Herawati R et al. Colony count candida albicans of stool in autism spectrum disorders. Clinical Pathology and Medical Laboratory, Airlangga University E-Journal 13(1):November-2006