Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Little Food for Thought

Children's eating habits are very very important.

The effect of nutrition on young minds and bodies is very well documented.
We know that food is the body's fuel, and who needs the best fuel more than people who are still growing and developing?

I cannot fathom how loving caring parents can come to hurt their children by feeding them the wrong things.

There are several reported cases worldwide of young children dying because of vegan or fruitarian diets, the latest in March this year in the UK. It really is heartwrenching to read the cases. In some of the cases the mother was breastfeeding, but wasn't getting enough from her diet for her milk to correctly nourish her child, and in some of the cases the infant had been weaned far too early (risky to begin with) and started on a diet that starved the child of essential nutrients. To me, this is terribly tragic, especially so because most of the parents thought that they were giving their child the best start. They truely believe in the value of veganism, and did not understand the damage that they were doing to their own child.

Then there is the other (much more prevalent) extreme of children being poorly fed into overweight or obesity. 25% of 5-17 year olds in Australia! I can only speculate about the reasons for children becoming obese, or on parents attitudes and motivations, so I won't. I believe the circumstances are too varied and plentiful to generalise about. What I do know, is that even though these children aren't dying as young, they too are having their lives shortened significantly. This is such a problem in western nations that there are diet books being aimed at 6 year olds.

My beliefs are:
  • Children should recieve only breastmilk (or substitute) until they are at least 6 months old, and then (ideally for as long as the child desires) complimented with solids. Breastmilk is uniquely tailored to each and every child (and is very dynamic according to age, outside temperature, and even time of day), and anything the child needs is drawn from the body. HOWEVER if a mother's body does not contain a particular nutrient (such as the essential B12, which is from animal sources) the milk does not contain it either. A mother that insists on a nutrient deficient diet MUST take a supplement, or switch her child to a breastmilk substitute, like formula.
  • Children are effected by food in very unexpected ways. Examples include: dairy causing colic, asthma, and skin irritation; or gluten/wheat causing behavioural disturbances. I have seen again and again on online parenting communities how many parents have had problems solved by eliminating certain foods.
  • Full-fat dairy can be essential for some children in order to get enough protein, B12 (if there is no/not enough meat in their diet) and calcium (if they eat grains, which hinder calcium absorption).
  • Grains and legumes damage bodies. They do not provide any nutrition that cannot be better gained from other sources. Fibre, vitamins and minerals are all more plentiful in fresh fruit and vegetables and protein (from legumes) in meat (or dairy). It is more than beneficial to replace any grains with produce. One positive to grain consumption is that beneficial bacteria like to feast on them, so cutting grains needs to be balanced with probiotics from another source, like yoghurt (coconut milk yoghurt for those who can't tolerate dairy) or fermented fruits/vegetables.
  • Fat is not evil. Children NEED healthful fats for correct immune, eye and brain development. This is complex, because some foods turn potentially healthy fats into dangerous fats. Some fats that almost everyone agrees are healthy are from coconut, nuts, avocados and other plant sources. I personally believe cholesterol is an essential fat.
  • I agree with the view that if food is not nutritionally dense, the body will demand more of it in order to get sufficient nourishment. It is the lack of nutrients in packaged, processed foods (and grains...) which cause overeating, leading to overweight and obesity, NOT fat itself. 
  • Eating meat from pasture-raised animals, fresh (ideally organic) fruits and vegetables, spices, nuts and fats from natural sources is the best nutrition for growing bodies and minds.

With all that being said, I know that it is hard to keep children eating well at all times. My own family love to provide WildChild with peanut-butter on toast, muffins, cows-milk ice-cream, yoghurt and a myriad of other things that I consider less than ideal. It is impossible to give children a 'perfect' diet (if such a thing even exists). It is enough just to be aware of how food affects you and your children, and do your best with what you have.