Let me start with a confession. I am a child of the 70’s. My parents are boomers and grew up in very meat and potato households. Casseroles were king and chips counted as a staple vegetable in our diet. Weight and body image have been a struggle my entire life, in large part because of the eating habits I grew up with. There is no food shame intended in this post. In fact my goal is for you to simply ask yourself, am I making the better choice for me and my children most of the time. For me this means the 80/20 rule. Am I opting for a healthier choice 80% of the time?
My quest for mind/body balance started when my children where born. ADD and depression are part of their genetic heritage and I wanted a way to set them up for success. I knew that if the body and brain were at war, it was a downhill fight. I also knew enough about neural plasticity and the interplay between environment and genetics that ADD and depression could be greatly mitigated by diet. I had the added challenge of Sarah’s reflux and sensitivities to dairy and soy. If they were going to have a healthy relationship to food it was going to have to start at the beginning. So with 2 babies, 2 dogs, a house, and a teaching job all on my plate, I set out to give my children a boost.
That sounds overwhelming. I know. But remember its about making a better choice most of the time. At around 8 months old I started cooking them simple, real foods they could feed themselves. What could be better or easier than a carrot? I finely diced them and cooked them with garlic. Sprinkled on their highchair tray, carrots were a hit. I added peas and diced broccoli, always with a hint of herb, always boiled until it practically melted. By 9 months, they wanted nothing to do with “baby” food and were exploring all kinds of carefully cooked fruits and veggies. All whole foods, no crazy mills, no jars, no squeezable pouches.
As my children grew, I continued with the whole foods, less processed foods approach. I bought plane yogurt and added fruit and vanilla on my own. We spent time together on weekends making our own bread. Field trips to Whole Foods or Central Market to find exotic fruits and veggies became a favorite adventure. Hamburger cookouts were still part of our lives. Movie night always had popcorn and brownies. No one ever felt like they were missing out, but I could see that the way my children related to food was fundamentally different from my relationship with food. They ate when they were hungry. They craved fruit and carrot sticks for snacks. They had no guilt over eating an entire piece of cheesecake. No food was bad or forbidden, but we were opting for healthier choices most of the time. It was a balanced relationship that I strive for still.
Today they are both happy and healthy high school seniors. Bailey embraces her curves and is proud of her strong six-pack abs. Sarah is long and lean and still thinks fruit is an excellent dessert choice. With a focus on whole foods and strong bodies we have navigated the ups and downs of growing up and changing dietary needs. In the process, I got healthier too. I worry less about what I weigh and try to follow their example and focus on how I feel.
But that’s just the external. What about the internal effects of food? For starters, I haven’t called in sick for work in years (and I was the kid with chronic bronchitis and strep). Bailey hasn’t missed a single day of school since kindergarten. Sarah has only missed one or two days in 18 years. Research has confirmed that nearly 70% of the immune system resides in the gut. Processed food, excessive sugar, and poor nutrition weaken the gut and its ability to keep us healthy. Its that simple. Diets rich in prebiotics and probiotics keep the gut in balance and your immune system running at peak efficiency. And where do you find these? In whole foods: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and dairy. Diets high in processed foods, which are often high in sugar, lead to poor probiotic/gut bacteria health. They also lead to sugar cravings that only weaken the gut even more and continue the vicious cycle.
Whole food diets don’t just keep your gut happy, they can actually help you feel happy. The brain/gut connection directly affects attention, cognition, and irritability. We’ve all had a “nervous” stomach but like so many of our bodies functions, it is a balanced system. Stress causes gastrointestinal distress and likewise gut health can be a contributing factor in your stress levels. Research is just beginning to understand how certain strains in the microbiome are directly linked to illnesses like depression and OCD.
A child with poor nutritional health that is labeled as ADD/ADHD/SPD (among others) can be helped with a change in diet and simple behavior modification. Medication and therapy, while both powerful tools, are often lacking on their own. I advocate starting with diet, sleep, and exercise. And the fact is, poor gut health sets these children up for failure. We are literally making life harder for them when we give them processed convenience foods. In turn that makes our lives as parents harder.
So while the transition from a more processed food diet may be met with resistance, in the long run you will have happier and healthier children. Happier children will reduce your stress levels too. And if you think processed foods are easier, remember, what can be easier than a carrot? Nature is the ultimate convenience food source. Start there and see where it takes you and your family.
If you’d like more information about the brain/gut connection check out the links below. You can also contact me at ALLIED PARENTING for information on my “Food for Thought” parent and teacher workshops.