The Twinkie Did It, Mom, I Swear: The Crisis in Child Nutrition and What It Does to Our Kids

English: Hostess Twinkies. Yellow snack cake w...When I read Kelly Dorfman’s new book, What’s Eating Your Child, a few weeks back, I was stunned by the number and variety of child health problems that turned out to be related to diet. The book is a quick yet informative read, built from clearly explained case studies of children with health issues ranging from anxiety to Asberger’s, all of whom are significantly helped by her simple, effective nutritional fixes.

Here’s Dorfman’s compelling version of “we are what we eat:”

One basic law of physics says that you cannot make matter from nothing….In the case of the body, its ability to create must start from what it takes in or is born with. In other words, any growing, healing, development and functioning you accomplish must evolve from from what you come with, eat, drink or breathe. You are born with about seven pounds of matter that will expand into a hundred-something pounds….What one eats has bearing on mood, energy, susceptibility to illness, digestion, sleep, learning, healing capacity, and more.

The book centers mainly on Dorfman’s sensitive, case-specific assessments of the issues affecting particular families, and the tone is gentle and explanatory rather than judgmental. But it was nonetheless amazing to me that so many children in the book, living in a food-abundant society like our own, have such utterly crappy diets.

In many cases, though it should perhaps be obvious, diet is the last place it seems anybody looks for a solution, even for serious child health problems. The book is full of stories of families who have been to an elaborate pantheon of expensive medical specialists for their child’s health issues, and of drugged-up children taking medications more suitable for adults — medications that do little to address the problem, and carry a risk of serious side effects. All the while, the kids are snarfing down nothing but Twinkies, Wonder Bread and soda, yet no one apparently connects the dots until Dorfman gently suggests a vegetable or two might improve the situation.

Predictably, she puts it in a nicer way than I just did:

Few parents start out with the goal of feeding their children toaster pastries for breakfast and peanut butter crackers for lunch, yet an astounding number (if my practice is any indication) end up there. … The scenario of a typical diet gone bad starts at age two when a sleep-starved mother hands her red-faced, screaming toddler a cracker or cookie so he will just shut up.

She goes on to rightly label cookies and crackers for toddlers “like crack.” As someone who very recently violated every principle I hold dear to repeatedly stuff “Toppables” crackers into Maya in an attempt to get her to shut up for the duration at recent family memorial service, I can personally attest to their addictive, and seductively taming, properties for toddlers.

Even my own impertinent darling, despite our generally uptight dietary controls, asks for “biscuits” “crackers” and “cookies” daily and by name. While she only very rarely gets them, and the ones she typically does get are made of organic oats and taste like wallpaper paste, this has yet to cool her ardor. Toddler crack? I’d say more like heroine.

And past the toddler stage, things don’t look very bright either. Dorfman reports that most children over-consume salt, bad fats, and added sugar, adding:

An October 2010 study reported that the top sources of calories for 2 to 18-year-olds were [] cookies, cakes, granola bars, pizza and soda. Nearly 40 percent of the total calories consumer were from empty-calorie foods.

Up against these odds, Dorfman is undaunted. To find the cause for a specific problem, she becomes what she calls a “nutrition detective,” putting the clues together either to figure out when a food is a harmful irritant, or to identify a deficiency might be causing the problem. Some of her conclusions are astonishing, as when she demonstrates that chronic ear infections may be related to milk allergy, or that speech delays in two children were likely caused by a lack of adequate essential fats in their diets.

She also points out that each of us has highly individualized nutritional needs, a factor called bio-individuality. This means that even within a family, the dietary needs of one child for a particular nutrient or mineral may be higher than for her sibling, a reality that unhelpfully may conceal the relationship between nutrition and that child’s health issues.

On the flip side, there are also linkages among family members due to genetics, as in the family in which a shared intolerance for gluten negatively affected the behavior of both parent and child, causing irritability, behavioral irregularities and distraction in both.

How a Nutrition Detective Clearly Links Child Health Back to Food

I highly recommend this book. I found its approach balanced, sensible and sensitive. When families and other doctors were skeptical about the contributions of nutritional factors, Dorfman explains how she would patiently allow them to exhaust the traditional medical diagnoses first, and then move in to restate the obvious. Her approach, overall, is both gentle and painstaking. And behavioral change is obviously harder than popping a pill. Still, at times I wished the book was a little more directive, as it lacks a chapter that summarizes all the dietary “do’s.”

Nonetheless, the overall message is obvious: sugars, highly processed foods and refined flour products tend to take over the diets of children, taking up space where real foods should be, and creating taste preferences that lead to “picky eater” syndrome. She suggests a method for insisting that picky eaters diversify their food preferences, and also takes this problem of a mono- (and nutrient-deprived) diet as seriously as it likely deserves.

For stiffer medicine, she also suggests that we not keep anything in the house that we don’t want our children to eat. This is harsh, but good advice. I know the day is fast approaching with Maya that “do as I say” won’t work anymore — and this rule of thumb seems right to me (and will push me into the final clean-up of my own dietary act, as it were. Ahem.).

In addition to emphasizing organic, whole foods and a wide range of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and highlighting the importance of a protein- and nutrient-rich breakfast (a few of my own ideas on that one are here), she recommends that children (and adults) take a multivitamin, and she touts the significant properties of cod liver oil for its essential fatty acids.

Since I have always been skeptical about the uptake of minerals and vitamins from supplements, her insistence that these additions are important to the diet, and her well-reasoned arguments in support of that idea, are causing me to do a rethink.

I looked around briefly for products that would fit the parameters in the book, and they were hard to find. For vitamins, she recommends one with a good variety of minerals, and the full set of B-vitamins (which gummy vitamins are typically missing), and not more than 2,500 IUs of Vitamin A.

For cod liver oil, she indicates that we need more than 1,000 mgs total of the active ingredients of EPA and DHA. We were already taking a popular brand of fish oil capsules, but a closer reading of the label revealed we’d need choking hazard-levels of 15 pills per day each to get that amount of active EPA and DHA! (She also recommends probiotics — the more live bacteria the better, and chewable ones should be avoided because they are too low in live cultures.)

So I wrote to Dorfman to ask for recommended brands for vitamins and for high-potency fish oil that had been cleansed of mercury, PCBs or other pollutants found in fish. And wonder of wonders, she actually wrote me back, of course with some very helpful answers. Noting that it would have been far more dicey for her to officially recommend particular products in her book, she said:

With [cod liver oil], it is tough to stabilize the potency so to get the higher amounts of EPA/DHA you may have to get regular fish oil.  Nordic Naturals has a patented process for purifying fish oils and are good.  They are available widely.   Their Ultimate Omega (which is also available with vitamin D) comes in a bottle as a liquid.  I recommend it a lot.  However, their products have a strong fish flavor.  If you need a neutral tasting clean product, consider 2 tsp. of Omega Cure.  It mixes easily with other foods.

As far as a well balanced multiple, check out these wafers.   Two per day contain 15 mg of zinc.

We’ve ordered both products, but they have not yet arrived. I’ll just note that the Omega Cure site also includes fish oil chocolates and cookies, thereby introducing significant cognitive dissonance into my nutritional wanderings. I’m so curious about whether these are tasty or not that I’m sure to break down and order some eventually… if you’ve tasted them, please let me know how they are! Fish oil chocolates, mmmm!

Two New Zealand chocolate fish.

They don’t really look like this.

One more note:  Given the frightening lack of any real regulation of food supplements, you may want to check the products you are using against the testing being done by the only private group to fill in doing what the government should be.

Unfortunately, you’ll have to pay for the privilege. The group is called Consumer Lab, and membership is $33/year. They do regularly find problems with supplementation products, so if you spend a lot of money on these kinds of things, it would easily be worth it to join.

You also can and should look for labels on supplements that indicate that they adhere to Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), the highest sanitation, process validation and quality standards that are voluntary standards from the federal government. Especially if you are feeding the supplements to children, this level of compliance with basic health standards is a no-brainer.

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This book may be for you if…

Because Dorfman’s book presents nutritional solutions to such a wide range of child health problems, below I provide a list of issues with her accompanying suggestions so that readers grappling with these issues in a child’s or their own health will see that this book may offer some useful insights, or at least some avenues to try as an alternative to prescription drugs or mere desperation.

If you are dealing with any of these issues, the list below by no means should replace your review of all of the information in the book, which includes detailed case studies, full descriptions of the problem and methodology and a candid discussion of how well the nutritional solutions worked. Dorfman is also available for consultations and is based in Northern Virginia.

Health Conditions Addressed by Nutritional Changes, by Issue, Cause and Solution

Frequent nosebleeds/stomach pain — Gluten intolerance (despite negative test for Celiac disease)

Lyme disease symptoms not addressed by antibiotics — High Iron levels in Prenatal Vitamins (brief mention)

Very picky eater, upper respiratory and ear infections — milk (casein) allergy or other food allergy

Serious reflux (GERD) — Milk allergy, addressed by alternative formula (not soy-based), probiotics and zinc carnosine

Near-constant stomach pain, craving wheat-based foods, eczema, anemia, severe mood swings and/or behavior issues — Gluten intolerance (again, despite negative test for Celiac)

Very picky eater, deficient growth, lack of hunger — Zinc deficiency

Constipation, Eczema — Milk allergy, addressed with pro-biotic supplements, Liquid-L Carnitine

Rash or “chicken skin,” dry hair, lack of thirst — Essential fatty acids deficiency, addressed with fish oil supplement

Insomnia — Melatonin, in small doses (caution about drug interactions with SSRIs); other practical advice, such as increasing exercise and decreasing sugar/caffeine

Hyperactivity, Aggression, Moodiness — Decrease sugar (she notes that a small subset of sugar-reactive children do get hyperactive from sugar, despite more general findings of no link between hyperactivity and sugar); increase magnesium; DMAE supplements (sardine oil nutrient)

Anxiety — fish oil supplementation to increase amino acids, protein and nutrient-rich diet

Ear infections linked to ADHD — Eliminate common allergenic foods (dairy, wheat, soy and/or eggs); address with probiotics; evaluate auditory processing

Autism with behavioral deterioration from some foods and sudden rash, or                 Itchiness or red cheeks or rashes from certain foods — Pesticides on strawberries (my note: likely methyl iodide or methyl oxide) or other foods, such as fruit

Hives (after all food allergens and contaminants are removed) — Allergy to genetically modified corn and soy

Dyspraxia, or speech delays — Deficiency in essential fats, addressed with Fish oil supplementation, Vitamin E complex, and Choline supplementation (one child also needed Taurine supplementation in addition). The book also helpfully contains a guideline by which to measure speech delays in toddler development, and highlights the developmental urgency in addressing this issue as early as possible.

Hyper-sensitivity (Sensory Processing Disorder, or SPD) — Deficiency in fatty acids, vitamins and minerals, addressed with fish oil, and mineral and vitamin supplementation 

Sofa Saga, Part 4: Some Success! Two Great Sources for Greener Sofas

I know from some questions I’ve gotten that folks were worried about my sofa sitch. So for all (two of you) who were wondering: are Laura and Maya sitting on the floor amidst all those toxic dust bunnies? Or am I stuck in mid-air, in a yoga chair pose, hyperventilating as my thighs complain louder than an oddly persistent toddler at (twenty minutes past her) bedtime?

Your fears can now be put to rest. We will soon have someplace actually and truly non-toxic on which to rest our weary dogs at close of day.

In fact, I’m happy to report that I found a few affordable options for furniture free of chemical flame retardants! And you’re the lucky reader who gets to hear all about my quest.

(If you’re new to this blog or topic, look here, then here and here for the exciting earlier stages of my formerly sad sofa saga. It will be worth your time, I promise. Even if just for the image of our “family doctor.”)

There may be other folks out there who do this in the big wide world as well. As it turns out, a possible trick is to find a custom furniture manufacturer who will work with you (or already has purged the chemicals), and then to decide the foam or filler that’s right for you. The trickiest part of the trick is that, if you don’t happen to be, say, Leonardo DiCaprio, you may also have to convince that individual to give you a decent price.

Or the next time you need a new piece of furniture, you could just contact one or both of the companies below who make greener custom items.

Without further ado, then, I present the options: Tah-da…

Option 1:  A Nice Man from North Carolina Does Right By Me

Any attentive readers of the earlier parts of the sofa saga may be cheered to learn that my initial assessment of one Mr. Kenneth Fonville as a truly good guy was not at all off-the-mark.

Mr. Fonville, owner of Eco-Select Furniture, was kind enough to scan and send me his furniture foam’s Certipur label, knowing fully that I would run it by flame retardant toxicity expert and environmental scientist (and fellow North Carolina resident) Heather Stapleton. Stapleton, as anticipated, promptly analyzed its fake-ish assurances of eco-safety with aplomb, revealing that the label, in truth, said nothing at all reassuring on the topic of flame retardants.

I cheekily shared her analysis with Mr. Fonville, who checked into the issue further with his foam supplier. He reported back that he was able upon request to purchase foam without flame retardants in it, and that his fabrics were similarly untreated.

The offerings from Eco-select Furniture are largely traditional designs, covered in leather, hemp or other materials, with many green features, such as locally harvested sustainable hardwoods in the frames. They do use some soy-based foam in the furniture, rather than latex, for durability reasons. (Note that his blend is 25-30% “soy-based” feedstock and the rest is petroleum-based, which may be significant information for those wanting an ultra-green sofa or chair.) Their prices are also generally aligned with regular, non-“eco” furniture.

Mr. Fonville started his company fairly recently, in 2010, and his background was in traditional furniture companies, having worked more than 30 years in the industry. He began the new venture because he had become disappointed in the poor practices in the industry and the reduced quality of many imports, and he knew he could do better. His most popular furniture designs are these:

I will likely be ordering a new leather club chair to replace the icky Ikea one we have downstairs, and will look here as well for other furniture needs as they arise.

Option 2: (Green) Sofa of the Stars

Robert Craymer, of RCGreen, was once, quite literally, a rock star. Or was at one time, anyway, according to this 4-minute video featuring his eccentric ways, as well as some of his modern furniture designs. He also offered me a good price (which I promised not to reveal) on a new sofa:

Robert’s turn toward all things green first came about in 2006 when he was asked to design a novel lounge for the premiere showing of “Who Killed the Electric Car?” a tragi-comic documentary about how Detroit utterly screwed up its best opportunity to innovate on energy usage in cars. (As an advocate who watched the industry commit hari-kari over fuel economy standards all through the early aughts, this movie artfully broke what was left of my heart.)

At any rate, Robert took the themes of the film seriously, designing what was, for its time, a truly groundbreaking lounge, with furniture and items made sustainably and responsibly. Here are some of his other designs:

On foams and fillers, he was quite helpful in explaining the options. Basically, for the foam inner core, most furniture makers use: latex, soy blend, standard U.S.-made foam or foam made overseas (often in China). For cushions, options are latex, soy foam wrapped in cotton, cotton alone, or wool interior with a cotton bag on the outside.

For RCGreen designs, customers can choose the foams and fillers they like, but the materials do have disadvantages and advantages (also, he says he doesn’t use any foreign-made foams).

For example, a wool-wrapped cushion or seat can feel, as you might expect, lumpy and it will likely become harder over time. Latex, he said, is reported by some customers as having an odor (though Robert doesn’t smell it), and is more rubbery or bouncy, even though in his shop it’s wrapped in cotton. Soy-based foam, also wrapped in cotton, has been free of customer complaints. All of these are available without flame retardant chemicals.

I’m still weighing the options on fillings. There’s good evidence that soy foams may not be that much greener than traditional petrochemical foam, and many “soy-based” foams  actually have only a small percentage of soy in them, meaning that the manufacturing process that produced the rest of the foam is still a problem in that it makes nasty chemicals as a byproduct. And soy is mostly a genetically modified product, with terrible environmental costs in places like Brazil. I’ve asked both of these companies about the percentages of soy to traditional, petrochemical foam. (The EcoSelect answer is above, RCGreen’s soy foam is 22 percent soy.)

The “greenest” answer on fillings is therefore likely wool, though it settles and can become hard, or natural latex (rubber). I’m a bit allergic to some types of wool, so that is not great. On latex, the notion of a sofa made of rubber (even if wrapped in cotton) doesn’t thrill me — both for comfort and because both of the furniture makers I talked to raised issues (Mr. Fonville talked about its lack of durability; Robert about a reported smell and some level of customer dissatisfaction). Even with the price break, it’s still a real investment for us to get a new sofa, and I don’t want to have to do it again. So I’m a bit stuck on this one.

Robert gave me a substantial price break on the sofa before he learned I had a blog or would write about it in any way (I swear!). That’s because he indicated he’s accustomed to working with people who are dealing with serious chemical-related illnesses or extreme allergies, and he regularly offers them deals in the same way he did for me.

[Update:  Some commenters — including a few friends — have complained about serious customer service issues with RC Green (and some additional public reports are linked to below in the comments).  He does require payment in advance in cash, which is not a sound or defensible consumer practice.  In addition, I should have indicated that I have no way of substantiating whether our sofa is free of FRs.  Please also see the comments for more sources for furniture claimed to be free of FRs.]

The Up-Shot:

It was stunning how difficult and time-consuming it was to find decent, chemical-free options.

Here’s a summary of what I’ve learned: harmful chemical flame retardants are in most foam-based products, including mattresses and sofas. They shouldn’t be there. They don’t help to reduce fires, according to Stapleton and they may even increase the risks of a fire as people inhale dangerous chemicals when they burn. Despite this rank stupidity, they are very hard to avoid, which means that hundreds of millions of people are needlessly exposed, every day. The scale of this is actually hard to take sitting down.

More Sources for Sofas:

Just today, I also found this new post from another eco-blog with a few more companies that make chemical-free sofas — including from Eco-terric, Furnature, and Eklahome — most with hefty price points, and most latex-based. (I appreciated the input in the comments on that blog pointing out the eco-issues with soy-based polyurethane foams.) I’ve since found one more, Green Nest, with prices topping a whopping 5K for sofas.

There’s always the sources for greener furniture that I identified in Part 2 of the Sofa Saga series. For the real DIY-er, here are directions to somewhat affordably make one using an “organic” mattress. For reupholstering furniture with more eco-friendly fabrics, you could check out Harmony Art and Organic Leather.

If you have the dough, for really artsy “green” items (with prices to match), you can also check out a new environmentally focused artists’ market, Ecofirst Art (for lamps and similar decor, there is also has a lower-cost boutique that sells smaller items, EcovolveNow). I would be sure to inquire with all of these sources about how to ensure what you order is flame retardant-free.

I would also refer you to the comments, which include an informative dialogue on fillers and foams, fabrics, greenwashing, transparency and related topics.

if you know of any other sources for custom-made goods or truly green furniture, please do share them in the comments!

If you most understandably lack the budget for new furniture, here are 10 tips to reduce exposure:

  1. Open the windows and air out the room whenever you can;
  2. Wash your hands (and your childrens’ hands) frequently, and definitely before eating;
  3. Vacuum more often, using a vacuum with a HEPA filter, and move furniture to get the dust underneath;
  4. If upholstery is damaged or leaking, fix it promptly and re-establish a seal (use duct tape if you need to, as we did!);
  5. Minimize polyurethane foam products among children’s items whenever you can (most polyester foam is better, according to Stapleton). Just last year, California evidently revised its rule on juvenile furniture to clarify that strollers, nursing pillows and infant carriers are now exempt from the requirement for flame retardants, but older items, or those that have not been redesigned since this change in the law last March, may still have the chemicals (for example, a recent test from an environmental group found them in My Brest Friend nursing pillows);
  6. Don’t let children spend time unnecessarily in car seats (or strollers with foam padding);
  7. Look for furniture from before 1970 or so (if you can stand the dust and dust mites!);
  8. Avoid buying products when you can that are labeled “flame retardant” or “Meets California Technical Bulletin 117” or “Complies with TB 117” or some such nonsense;
  9. Write to lawmakers in California telling them to ditch this stupid law;
  10. When you do need to replace your mattress, sofa or upholstered chair, consider going FR-free! I’ve done some of the research for you, anyhoo, all you have to do is make the call.