So your child is underweight, not eating well, not growing well. You’ve been told to give him calorie dense drinks like Ensure, Pediasure, or Boost; lots of butter, pudding, whole milk, and cream; and of course, lots of ice cream. Is this healthy?
Seeing these common recommendations is one of my least favorite findings as a dietitian in private practice working with kids. There are four problems here that can interfere with restoring your child’s robust health:
One, these drinks and foods are made with conventionally raised dairy products, which can contain bovine growth hormone, pesticides, traces of genetically modified feed corn proteins, and antibiotics, not to mention possible heavy metals from agricultural chemicals. All of these agricultural interventions have been linked to problems ranging from higher incidence of ADHD to earlier onset menses, other hormone disruptions in boys and girls, allergies, and neurological disorders.
Two, the child’s underweight status may be at least partly due to an undiagnosed milk protein intolerance or allergy – which irritates and inflames the gut, making nutrients and energy even harder to absorb. Be sure to get this sorted out before relying on any milk protein sources in your child’s diet.
Three, milk protein (casein) is often a constipating protein source, especially in children with some digestive insufficiency issues, like reflux or imbalanced gut microflora. Healthy gut microflora (bacteria) add enzymes to help us digest and absorb food, and keep bowel habits on track. If your child is unable to comfortably pass a soft formed stool most every day, then appetite can weaken – exacerbating the problem of packing in calories.
Last but not least – drinks like Ensure, Boost, and Pediasure rely on refined sugars and corn syrup (in various forms) to up their calories. I don’t like this because corn syrup is noted for containing a bit of mercury in every teaspoon, thanks to agricultural processing. Corn is also a genetically modified crop. Emerging research suggests that proteins in foods from genetically modified crops can trigger allergy. More allergy = more gut inflammation = more difficulty absorbing nutrients and energy = poor growth and gain. And, there is no sound argument for relying on refined sugars as a major strategy for growth and gain in children.
You can do way better.
First, make sure you are not battling undetected food sensitivities or food allergies. Get tested! You may need to avoid milk protein sources entirely, in order for your child to feel hungrier and digest more comfortably. Many labs and providers can assist with this, and this is a specialty in my practice too. Make sure you look deeper than just IgE allergy responses with a conventional MD allergist. For more information on this, see either of my books.
If eggs and nuts are allowable, get a powerful blender or food processor – the sky’s the limit, with those two ingredients adding creaminess without milk or ice cream. Everything on my list below is organic, no added sweeteners in the milk substitutes, and raw where possible. When using nuts, blend those first to smooth consistency with ice and a small amount of the recipe’s liquid. Then add remaining ingredients til smooth.
Banana Cream: ¼ cup raw cashews, 1/2 ripe banana, 1 cup almond milk, dash vanilla flavoring, 1/2 c crushed ice, 2 TBSP sesame tahini, 1/8 teaspoon stevia powder, hefty dash cinnamon. Add cacao nibs or if you don’t have those, organic mini dark chocolate chips (1 teaspoon) for additional zip. Blend ice, cashews, tahini, and 2-3 ounces of almond milk together first, until smooth and creamy. Add vanilla and remaining almond milk, and blend again til smooth. Add cacao nibs and blend to desired consistency.
GI Soother: 2 peeled apples, 3 stalks celery with leaves, 5 mint leaves, 1/3 seeded peeled cucumber, 2 teaspoons ground flax seed or ½ teaspoon flax seed oil, ½ – ¾ cup white grape juice, 2 TBSP whole coconut milk, crushed ice
Not Latte: 1 cup organic brewed iced (decaf) coffee, 1 raw egg, 1/2 teaspoon maple syrup, 1 TBSP sesame tahini, 3 TBSP cashews, 3 ounces almond milk, 3 ounces whole unsweetened canned coconut milk, crushed ice
Power Peanut: ½ soft ripe avocado, 1 TBSP cacao nibs, 1 TBSP hemp protein (such as Nutiva brand), 1 TBSP peanut butter, 3 ounces whole unsweetened canned coconut milk, 3 ounces almond or hemp milk, 1 teaspoon honey, crushed ice
Pineapple Smoothie: Fresh pineapple chunks ¼ cup, 1 ripe banana, 3 ounces whole coconut milk, 3 ounces unsweetened almond milk, dash vanilla, 2 teaspoons flax seed meal, 1 whole egg + 1 TBSP egg protein powder (option: try soaked hemp nuts in this one too)
These two are modified from a favorite book of mine called Raw Food Cleanse, which has several great recipes for smoothies, soups, and dips.
Soup Option, serve warm: ¼ cup raw cashews, 1 cup vegetable broth (such as Imagine brand organic), 6 stalks fresh young asparagus, 2 stalks celery with leaves, ¼ teaspoon fresh thyme leaves – blend all til smooth.
Pumpkin Navel: ¼ cup raw pecans, 1 navel orange, ¼ teaspoon orange zest, ¼ cup pitted dates (soak these ahead of time to soften), dash vanilla, crushed ice, ½ cup almond milk, 2 TBSP cup cooked canned pumpkin puree, 1/2 teaspoon honey or dash stevia
Honeydew Lime Creamsicle: Click here for this really good smoothie – doubles as frozen pops in hot weather.
– For any smoothie with fruits like kiwi, berries, papaya, peaches, pear, or mango, adding a raw egg or ground flax seed will create a creamy texture while adding healthy fats, protein, and minerals. Using egg protein powder is an option too. This will make your smoothies fluffy and creamy at the same time, but won’t add the fats you might like.
– Raw nuts blend to a nice creamy consistency with the right tool – a powerful blender, Vitamix, or Bullet mixer. Soak raw nuts (and seeds) ahead of time if you like a more smooth, less grainy texture.
– Hemp seeds, flax seeds, chia seeds, and cacao nibs are up and coming as alternative sources of protein, healthy fats and oils, and minerals. Add these to any smoothie to boost nutritional value along with calories.
– Wean sugar-holics off their favorite processed calorie booster drinks by making your own without any added sugars: Instead of honey, maple syrup, or molasses, switch to an organic stevia powder, which is potently sweet at a tiny dose. One eighth teaspoon is enough to sweeten an 8 ounce blended drink. Add cinnamon in larger amounts – 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon – to kick up the sweet and benefit from cinnamon’s blood sugar modulating effects.
– Unconventional but healthy options for sweeteners in smoothies can create the creamy texture kids like, plus add extra fiber, vitamins, and minerals to smoothies. Try left over baked sweet potato (skins removed), cooked canned pumpkin, or leftover roasted mashed parsnips, which have a surprisingly pleasant and gentle sweetness when prepared this way (easy, fast, and good; use ghee, not butter, for extra sweetness and to avoid dairy protein).
– Cook brown rice in whole coconut milk with honey, nutmeg, and cinnamon for an alternative to all the pudding your child may have been told to eat. Use a slow, low heat method and add almond or coconut milk to the liquid if needed during cooking. An hour or more of slow cooking may be needed.
– Use coconut milk to make mild (but calorie laden) curry sauces that can go over favorite chicken or fish dishes.
– A good blender or VitaMix will turn raw nut pieces into a creamy smoothie, but organic nut butters are an option if using whole raw nuts is too gritty a texture for your child.
– Get the benefit of butter without the allergy or GMO hassle by using organic ghee (clarified butter). Pricey, but when you need it, you need it. Ghee has a sweeter taste than butter that isn’t clarified.
– Skip the soy. Even if it isn’t genetically modified, it’s a frequent allergy offender, just like dairy protein. And there are endocrine effects from soy that are concerning enough for me to suggest that parents don’t use it as a major daily protein for a child. Translation: A serving here or there is fine, but don’t use it as your child’s protein source at every snack and meal daily. Soy protein is a common addition to bottled smoothies, energy bars, and protein powders.
– If multiple allergies are in the picture – and nuts, eggs, and seeds are out – then work with a knowledgeable nutritionist who can assist with using essential amino acids, medium chain triglycerides, and safe oils to build smoothies around tolerated carbohydrate sources like ripe peaches, pears, avocado, plums, or winter squashes and pumpkin.
These options will give your child several nutrients, healthy fats, more protein, and calories to burn that are head and shoulders above some corn syrup, vitamins, and milk from a cow raised on chemicals. Remember that poor appetite and weak growth pattern can be signs of deeper problems with the GI tract, digestion, absorption, or inflammation. For strategies to sort these out, see either of my books, or get in touch. Troubleshooting growth pattern is one of my specialties in practice.