The hardest thing about nutrition is to actually do what you know you should do. We all know that a diet of whole, unprocessed foods is best, and that in order to avoid sugar, excess salt and nasty chemicals, cooking at home with fresh ingredients is preferable.
But knowing and doing are two really different things, as I am aware from my several evenings last week of watching videos on the evils of sugar consumption while stuffing my face with oatmeal cookies… though at least they were made at home!
Over a year ago, when Maya started being ready for solid foods, I first took a close look at how and what we were eating, and became far more interested in tracking nutritional controversies and monitoring what we bought and ate. It occurred to me then that while our pediatrician had said she was now ready to “eat whatever the family is eating,” our family meals were not healthy enough to be a strong foundation for the well-being of a person who weighed only 20 pounds or so.
I thought we could do better than our haphazard ways. For her diet anyway, and insofar as what we ate while we were home, I decided I wanted to close the considerable gap between what I knew versus what we did about nutrition, and to deal with at least some of the environmental health issues related to chemicals in food.
We let our concerns about Maya lead the way, in other words, which has meant that our whole approach to food has gotten better. Like anything about “greening” our choices or becoming more intentional about consumption, the changes we made were small, gradual and happened over time.
While each one may have caused some difficulty at first when we were figuring out what to do, they eventually became habit. It turned out that only four types of changes were needed to remake our approach, and that now it’s easier than I would have thought to just say no to parts of our diet that were less healthy.
Food expenses are now a much larger percentage of our family budget. But food costs as a percentage of household costs have dropped considerably since the 1960s, and, as a nation, the quality of our food supply has actually been degraded as chemicals and fillers have been subbed in for actual food. If we all were willing to spend a little more on simple, real food, the market would doubtless shift again.
Eating this way also tastes way better. These days, if we do skimp and eat something that is cheaper, processed or junky, both my husband and I can taste and feel the difference, immediately. For my husband in particular, who used to eat nearly every lunch at McDonalds, the dramatic differences our improved diet has worked in our sense of taste has been a shock (and is a bit of a pain while traveling!).
Below, I’ll describe our 4 categories of major changes and how and why we made them.
1) Going organic, and then eventually grass-fed, pasture-raised for dairy and meat:
We started by being much more careful about buying organic versions of whatever Maya would eat, and eventually, after some reading about the nutritional, contamination and sustainability advantages, have switched almost entirely to grass-fed, pasture-raised meat and dairy foods.
First, choosing organic foods is important because the chemicals in pesticides show up in foods, albeit in small amounts. These chemicals have been linked to birth defects, nerve damage, cancer, and other effects that might occur over a long period of time, according to the EPA, which notes that some pesticides also pose unique health risks to children. Even trace amounts have no place in food for either pregnant women or for small children, who need every nutrient and whose bodies are still developing. In addition, organic foods are free of antibiotics, growth hormones, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), unless contamination occurs by GMO crops.
We’re fairly strict about this one: when fruit or vegetables are not available in an organic form, we skip it and eat ones that are. In particular, fruits that are porous or have no skin to peel, like apples, grapes, berries or tomatoes, or things that grow on or near the ground, like potatoes and peanuts, tend to have higher levels of pesticides in them. We also buy organic for the processed versions of foods, such as raisins, hummus, peanut butter and tomato sauce.
Organic is certainly more expensive. If you are concerned about costs, you could buy organic food for just the pregnant women and children in your family, or you could target the organic foods you buy by looking at the helpful lists from the Environmental Working Group that indicate which foods have more or less pesticide residues — the Dirty Dozen or Clean Fifteen. In addition, farmer’s markets offer some well-priced organic or near-organic (no pesticides, no chemical fertilizers) foods, and Community Supported Agriculture shares (CSAs) can offer savings on seasonal deliveries (though not all CSA farms are organic or near-organic; you can find a local one here).
Grass-fed dairy and proteins are higher in trace minerals, vitamins and nourishing essential fats, because the animals are living how they are designed to live by nature. Chickens that eat grubs and scratch in pasture, out in the sunshine, produce more nutritious eggs. And cows, which are ruminants meant to eat grass, do far better and require far fewer antibiotics or other drugs when on field.
In many modern farms, including for chickens and pigs, animals never venture outside, instead spending their lives in small metal cages or pens. And “free range” labels are misleading — most chickens that are supposedly in this category never see the light of day.
Our industrial food system actually sells us an egg, most of the time, that is worth less, nutritionally, than an egg should be. Trace minerals and vitamins are missing (lower vitamin D from a lack of sunshine, for example, or vitamin E) — as well as healthy, unsaturated fats, and thus we would need to eat more to get less.
Nutritionally impoverished food is so because of inhumane, factory farm conditions that are abusive to animals. Garbage in, garbage out. Given these connections, and what we know about what it does to us through our food, consumers should really be demanding better quality protein far more of the time.
On the nutritional side for children, and especially young children, its critical to know that the brain — and all of the connections in the brain — are actually made of fats, and so having high quality fats in the diet is essential to healthy development. As the LiveStrong Website notes:
Each neuron [in the brain] has an axon and a dendrite, which help send and receive information throughout the body. The speed at which the information can be sent is largely impacted by myelin. Myelin is a thick substance made of fat that insulates the neuron’s axons and dendrites. This insulation of the nerve fibers allows information to be sent and received by the brain at a much faster rate. Myelination, or the formation of myelin, begins at birth and continues rapidly throughout the first two years of life.
For Maya, we use grass-fed butter liberally, and organic coconut or peanut oil for cooking. We also give her whole milk, and will continue to long after the dietary recommendations are to switch to skim (myelin develops throughout childhood). And for other essential fats, we feed her (organic) avocados and coconut milk weekly.
As this would suggest, we generally ensure that at home, we use grass-fed, pasture-raised milk, meats, eggs, and butter, as well as cheese when we can find it. These items are harder to find, but again, the taste is so delicious that it become its own motivation.
We buy meats and eggs from a supplier at our local farmer’s market, or look for ratings of 4 or higher at Whole Foods for meat (which is not always easy to find). We can get grassfed eggs, butter and milk at the local co-op (Natural by Nature is one brand for butter and milk; we also like the less-homogenized milk sold in deposit glass containers from Trickling Springs Creamery, which does have an organic option). For cheese, if you look closely, Whole Foods sells some very affordable grass-fed cheeses in the dairy case.
2) Minimizing processed foods:
I used to like Trader Joe’s more than anybody. But I’ve stopped going, because I realized that much of what I bought was convenience foods, much of which was full of preservatives and chemical additives. I’ve become a label hound, and basically will not give Maya anything with stabilizers, “gums” and fillers (like guar gum, carrageenan, or the like), or sulfites or other preservatives.
In fact, I just put down the box if there is anything at all in it but simply described real food. As a consequence, the only pre-made food Maya eats with any regularity are the pot-pies from the organic farmer’s market stall, which are made with organic, real ingredients and nothing else.
3) Minimizing sugars:
Kids love sugar, and Maya’s no exception. In the presence of sugar, she becomes all misty and rhapsodic, and will even bring up the topic unprompted. But the evidence is strong and growing that we’ve all been lied to, more or less, about sugar. A calorie, it now appears, may not just be a calorie. In fact, a calorie of sugar, rather than merely making us fat if we don’t burn it off, may actually do other kinds of harm in the body. And predictably, high fructose corn syrup is a health disaster.
Sugar belongs on our list of highly processed, refined and nutrient-deprived foods. At a minimum, it takes up room where real food should be. At worst, it does far more harm, including disruptions in brain processing and insulin production that derails health, leading a recent 60 Minutes investigation to ask whether it’s “toxic.” In the face of such suggestive evidence, I would propose, as I usually do, a more precautionary approach.
We do not give Maya sugar on any regular basis. She’s had ice cream or other treats perhaps 5 times in her short life. Her “cookies” have 2 grams of sugar only, and are used sparingly as snacks. I have been known to quietly forget to give her birthday cake at a party when it didn’t seem she would notice or care. I also have looked for alternatives to sugary beginnings for breakfast (20-odd other ideas for toddler breakfasts are here).
We skip sweetened yogurt (we make our own with plain yogurt and unsweetened berry jam); do not do fruit roll-ups or gummy “fruit snacks” or breakfast cereal; and generally endeavor to avoid any kind of pastry, white bread, or refined flour products. (Processed flour, without germ in it, basically converts to sugar when eaten.) We use organic brown rice cakes, oat-based crackers, nuts or fruit instead as snacks.
Unless she’s sick and needs a hit of vitamin C, we also do not generally give her juice, which is very high in sugar and can create a sugar craving. (Needless to say, soda and fruit drinks are completely off the list.)
We do sometimes allow coconut water on very hot days. And Maya does eat some wholegrain bread and occasionally has cous-cous or ravioli (wholewheat when we can find it). But I am skeptical of wheat generally, and look for other whole grains to use in our foods, like brown rice, quinoa or millet. I also will sub in rice flour in place of wheat flour in recipes on an experimental basis.
In general, monitoring sugar around children makes me feel Grinchy. Although I acknowledge that I am really out on a limb here, I really do wish that we would stop framing key events around sugar. Birthday parties, ice cream socials, etc., all put sugar consumption at the center of fun, and kids get the message loud and clear. As it turns out, for children, there is no level of sweet that is too much, and the marketers and candy makers know it. (In fact, when I taste how incredibly super-sweet they’ve made classic candies like M&Ms these days, it makes my teeth hurt.)
The party circuit cake-thing might even be acceptable if it was in fact a rare and special moment to eat sugar. But rather than being saved for a special occasion, today kids eat sugar all the time. As someone who has spent her adult life listening for the siren call of my next sugar fix, I think we will have a lot of work to do to wean the next generation off its highly addicting properties if it actually turns out that the nutritional studies now being done on the serious health risks of sugar are right.
4) Consuming a wide variety of legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds:
Maya eats a small amount of protein at meals, and we try, sometimes repeatedly, to ensure that the real emphasis is on vegetables, fruits and beans.
We’ve had success with: corn, peas, broccoli, avocado, kale, spinach, mangoes, pears, apples, plums, peaches, apricots, berries of all kinds, melons, cherries, grapes, bananas (duh), figs, oranges, kiwi, onion, celery, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, potatoes, tomatoes, mushrooms, cauliflower, eggplant, green beans, asparagus, sweet pepper, squash, rhubarb (ok, with a little sugar), carrots and beets. I provide this list to show that there are actually a huge number of options in terms of texture, flavor and preparations to try.
While Maya won’t touch some of these things some of the time, she’s been known to eat all of them at one time or another, sometimes smothered in sauce or cheese. (Some thoughts about how to cook these things to appeal to a toddler are here.) When in doubt, making a chicken soup with lots of vegetables is a no-miss proposition.
Dried fruits (organic, unsulphured) are also a hit, including raisins (soften by cooking, as these are a choking hazard), dates, prunes, apricots, etc. Nuts and seeds are also big — we add cashews or almonds to rice, or flax seeds and chia seeds to oatmeal and baked goods (oats, incidentally, are very heart-healthy and have a different and less irritating kind of gluten than wheat).
I am cautious about soy beans, which have weak phytoestrogens in them, and researchers are really uncertain of their effects or safety. We do serve fermented soy, like soy sauce, or tofu (but definitely buy organic, as most soy is GMO). I do like most beans, and buy Eden brand, which uses a safer type of BPA-free lining in its cans. We also like lentils, including toor dal (yellow) and moong dal (green), which are terrific for health and as a medium for cooking vegetables.
Eating out remains a challenge with these guidelines. Sometimes, I find a salad with avocado, chicken and vegetables, and let Maya pick at that. Ethiopian cuisine, which is common where I live, is also a good option.
There is also a premium on home-cooked food, which is demanding in terms of time. I try to involve Maya when I can, because it’s fun and studies show that kids involved in cooking have better diets.
I also often pack our food from home: at the pool last week, in lieu of ice cream or other poolside fare, Maya and a friend happily munched on cukes and rice cakes, with grapes on the side. Sometimes, we give kids sugar because it’s automatic and easy for us, or even because, really, it’s cuter. (After all, no one ever posts pics on Facebook of their kid eating a cucumber. Awww….)
And I notice that when I slip up and allow her to have sugar, Maya becomes hyperactive and has more difficulty sitting still or falling asleep, so on that one at least, it’s easy to see when things head south.
As I have a sample size of one, I can’t tell you whether Maya’s diet has made a difference in her health or behavior. In general, she’s a happy, calm, focused and healthy little girl. Given the relationship between inputs and outputs, it seems reasonable to think that a generally healthy diet might have something to do with her sunny, easy-going ways. Then again, we might just be lucky and my persnickety gene has skipped a generation.
Overall, though this was far from intentional, the up-shot is that Maya eats a low-glycemic diet, more or less. It just so happens that this has been shown by a study published just last week to be the diet most protective against obesity (among a test of diets that included the Atkins approach, and the traditional low-fat, high-carb diet). I do tentatively feel that if more kids ate this way, we’d likely have far fewer health-related issues with kids, and I’ll post a book review next that bears me out.
I am particular in saying that Maya eats a low-glycemic diet because I am still in thrall to the sugar fairy and am having a hard time kicking that habit when I am away from home or at work. While I don’t eat a lot of sugar by some standards, and long ago stopped drinking sodas, I have to have a little sumpin’, now and then. When you add that to the delicious, nourishing full-fat dairy foods and butter we use at home, it’s not exactly a combo that will make you skinny. A truly low-glycemic diet is the obvious next stop for all of us.
Even today, though, I do eat better, much of the time, thanks in large part to our girl, and how much she made us think about our food.
Below are some helpful and interesting links to studies on the impacts of a low-glycemic diet, taken from this Children’s Hospital Website, which notes that they “show different ways that hunger, wellbeing, physical and mental performance are related to low-glycemic diets.”
- Effects of dietary composition on energy expenditure during weight-loss maintenance (newly published study)
- Breakfast glycemic index and cognitive function in adolescent school children.
- Glycemic index and glycemic load of breakfast predict cognitive function and mood in school children: a randomised controlled trial.
- The glycemic potency of breakfast and cognitive function in school children. Long-term effects of provided low- and high-glycemic load low energy diets on mood and cognition.
- Effects of differences in postprandial glycemia on cognitive functions in healthy middle-aged subjects.
- The influence of the glycemic load of breakfast on the behavior of children in school.
- A low glycemic index breakfast cereal preferentially prevents children’s cognitive performance from declining throughout the morning.
- Better cognitive performance following a low-glycemic-index compared with a high-glycemic-index carbohydrate meal in adults with type 2 diabetes.
- Carbohydrate-induced memory impairment in adults with type 2 diabetes.
- The delivery rate of dietary carbohydrates affects cognitive performance in both rats and humans.