Teaching Good Nutrition Begins in Infancy

Teaching Good Nutrition Begins in Infancy

We hear the mantra that the very beginning of life is when babies learn the most as the reason why we should focus on their education from the very beginning.  But we all know from personal experience that nobody actually remembers being a baby.  It’s hard to associate a period of our own lives that nobody can even remember with being the most ideal time for learning.  Yet, even nutrition needs to be taught from the earliest stages, even in infancy, before your child even reaches the age of one!

Late last year yet another study was released that confirms this once again.  What babies were fed in infancy directly correlated to what they consumed later in life, at age six.  Babies who were fed unhealthy foods in infancy grew into children who were more than twice as likely to consume unhealthy foods as children – and of course, many other studies confirm that behaviors cemented in childhood are carried through into adulthood.  In essence, what you choose to feed your baby directly impacts how they will choose to eat during the rest of their lives.

Did you know that over 30% of 6-year-olds consume fruit less than once daily?  Nearly 20% of 6-year-olds consume vegetables less than once daily.  (Personally, I do not even know what these kids could possibly be eating, since fruits and vegetables are virtually all my kids eat!)  Even the US government recommends a minimum five servings a day of fruits and vegetables, so these kids are definitely not meeting nutritional guidelines, not even nutritional guidelines I find sorely lacking.

This study, done by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), found that kids who were fed less than one serving of fruits and vegetables per day in infancy were more than twice as likely to eat less than one serving per day of fruits and vegetables when they were six years old.  No wonder the AAP is getting desperate to get kids to eat their fruits and veggies in any way possible!

Starting babies out eating fruits and vegetables is the easiest thing in the world.  Babies are a captive audience when it comes to food.  They only experience as much variety as you provide them with and their taste buds are uncorrupted by flavors like sugar and salt.  All babies naturally gravitate toward sweet flavors (actually, I think most people do), which makes it even easier to give them fruits and vegetables as kids.  I fed my babies a wide variety of sweet foods when I started them on solids: stewed fruits like apples and pears, mashed soft fruits like bananas (especially delicious mixed with some mashed avocado) and ripe peach flesh, and steamed sweet vegetables like purple and orange sweet potatoes or carrots.

My kids generally had one to two servings of oatmeal (cooked using expressed breast milk for added nutrition), one serving of a sweet fruit or vegetable, and one serving of a savory vegetable (such as pureed spinach or peas) per meal.  I would also mix savory and sweet vegetables together (such as peas and carrots or spinach and butternut squash/pumpkin) and might even add fruit (pears with peas and carrots, for instance).  For ideas, look no further than your local grocery store – what fruit and vegetables combinations are being sold in prepackaged baby foods?  Those foods are tried and tested, so you know the flavors go together well.

I always made all my own baby food, which is easier than it sounds.  I often made extra of whatever I was preparing for dinner and simply set it aside and pureed it.  Other times, I would specifically cook up a batch for the baby but I would freeze the majority of it in quarter-cup ice cube trays.  That way it took maximum a half an hour of time per week to make separate food for the baby.  Of course, you could just buy baby food! Today the range of organic baby food free of added sugar, salt, and preservatives is growing.

Studies like this one show just how important it is to start educating your kids about nutrition from the very beginning.  Their first lessons start when they first start solids!

Why Are so many Kids today Obese? (Part 3)

Why Are so many Kids today Obese? (Part 3)

Genetic predisposition provides a significant challenge to those of us who are trying to raise healthy kids and to feed our kids a healthy diet.  Some of it is our kids’ natural human predisposition to prefer high carbohydrate and high fat foods.  Some of it is our kids’ habituation to excess sugars, fats, and salts in all our processed foods today.  And some of it comes down to societal pressure.

At the core, we are social animals.  Children are fully aware of social pecking orders from a young age.  When a child sees their friends eating unhealthy foods, they want them as well.  At least 90% of teenagers admit to being strongly influenced by peer pressure and the vast majority of kids say that doing something their friends do improves their social standing.

Peer pressure has a huge influence on children, particularly from the time they start school.  If your child consistently has healthy food and knows unhealthy food is discouraged by you, the parents, your efforts to educate your child on good nutrition habits could be drastically undermined if their friends disapprove.  Whether it’s through showing off their own unhealthy choices and your child’s desire to fit in with them, or if friends are making fun of your child, peer pressure can significantly influence your child’s food choices.  This is why obesity has reached epidemic proportions in youthful populations.

Peer pressure is not the only social influence on our kids’ diets.  Children also face obesity problems because of the world they are born into.  Unfortunately, our socio-economic backgrounds influence the likelihood of obesity. There is a reason why obesity is higher in poorer areas and lower in wealthier ones. In the US especially, it is hard to find fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables in poor or rural areas, and those that are found are rarely available as cheaply as unhealthy pre-made processed foods are.* Additionally, poorer people are unlikely to have the leisure time and money to pay for expensive gym memberships, or even to have the social supports or education to exercise on their own.

Furthermore, the relationship between diet and disease may not be as well-known to those in lower income areas, or to people with less access to education on health and diet. People living in poorer socioeconomic areas generally just do not realize that spending a little more on healthy food today will save them a lot of money on health care tomorrow.

Family circumstances also have a significant impact in lower income families where both parents work, or where the single mom is working.  A lot of mothers shopping for food for their children also say that even when they know the food they are buying is unhealthy, they just don’t have the time to prepare healthy meals from scratch.  Even if they have the availability of healthy prepared foods, many of them report they do not have the money to purchase them.**

These, then, are the three significant issues we face when confronting the epidemic of childhood obesity: natural biological inclination, habituation to unhealthy habits, and social pressures.  Now that we know what we are facing we can formulate a plan to deal with them.

* Sarah Treuhaft & Allison Karpyn, “The Grocery Gap: Who Has Access to Healthy Food and Why It Matters.” PolicyLink. Available at http://www.policylink.org/atf/cf/%7B97C6D565-BB43-406D-A6D5-ECA3BBF35AF0%7D/FINALGroceryGap.pdf

** Shelley L. Koch, A Theory of Grocery Shopping: Food, Choice and Conflict Berg Publishers, London 2012.

Why Are so many Kids today Obese? (Part 2)

Why Are so many Kids today Obese? (Part 2)

Yesterday, I explained one way our genetics predispose us toward behaviors that encourage obesity.  But that’s not all.

We all have taste buds.  Those little bumps on your tongue, those different sections that taste different flavors.  We all have them and they are all unique.  Of course, smell is also a big part of taste, so our individual senses of smell affect our senses of taste.

However, in general, we humans all possess the same basic mechanism for taste.  We may perceive foods slightly differently (a particular gene, for instance, predisposes some people to taste bitter flavors more strongly, in dark leafy greens for example, than other people, who will perceive more of the sweetness present in those vegetables*), but we are all generally drawn toward the same basic elements, as discussed yesterday.

However, there is another factor at play here: habituation.  It is said that a person can get used to anything.  In my experience, I think that saying is mostly true, at least in regards to flavors.  When we eat the same sort of food over and over, we can come to like and even prefer it, even if initially we did not like it much.  A lot of this can be seen culturally, as different cultures across the world have come to really enjoy foods that actually induce vomit in visitors from other cultures.  (Nattō being the one that springs to mind most readily.)

This habituation also applies to the potency of certain flavors in food.  If you consume a lot of salt in your diet, for instance, you need more salt to taste it.  Yes, some peoples’ taste receptors and individual, unique, biology do contribute to the starting point, but any person who starts eating very salty food will soon become accustomed to it and will need more salt in their food to taste the salt than someone who eats food with very little salt.  The same principle applies to any flavor.  Bitter? Think about people who enjoy drinking black coffee. Spicy? Just try eating Indian food the way the native Indians do! Sweet? Just look at most kids these days, who need sugar added to their fruit juice for it to taste sweet.

The companies who produce our foods know this principle well and capitalize on it.  They know their customers can become used to just about anything, and indeed, come to prefer it.  In fact, we were just discussing this with someone today!  As my husband pointed out, look at certain fast food establishments.  They cannot use the highest quality products because they cannot consistently provide them.  They can guarantee they can consistently provide lower quality products, on the other hand.  Therefore, if the potatoes they receive are of a superior quality, they cannot use them to make fries.  If the meat they receive is of the highest quality, they have to reject it.  Just think about it: Imagine going to McDonald’s one day and getting a burger made from kobe beef, then going back the next day and getting their usual cheap meat.  Would you be disappointed? I bet!  Consistency is the name of the game in fast food and “quality control” means controlling the quality so it is consistent, not so it is of the best quality possible.

My point is that the family we were speaking with was giving their son a burger he didn’t want to eat because it wasn’t a McDonald’s burger.  The parents were trying to explain to the son that this burger was handmade from high quality beef and tasted much, much better than a McDonald’s burger, but the kid wasn’t buying it.  He was so accustomed to the low quality McDonald’s burgers he was used to that he actually preferred it.

This helps explain a lot about the obesity epidemic today.  When paired with our preference for sweets and fats, a tendency to need more and more of a flavor in order to taste it contributes significantly to obesity, especially in children, who are highly susceptible to both of these things.

Remember that as adults we tend to exercise more control over our natural inclinations.  If we get a craving for sugar we can recognize it for what it is and choose to ignore it (or not).  But a child who gets a craving for sugar generally just pursues it.  It tastes good and feels good (at least in the short term) so that is what kids will want.

Our own natural biology is a huge contributor to obesity in children.  Understanding and being aware of those natural urges and those natural human inclinations is the first step in conquering childhood obesity or stopping it before it starts.

*Inoue H, Yamakawa-Kobayashi K, Suzuki Y, Nakano T, Hayashi H, Kuwano T. “A case study on the association of variation of bitter-taste receptor gene TAS2R38 with the height, weight and energy intake in Japanese female college students” J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 2013;59(1):16-21.

Why Are so many Kids today Obese? (Part 1)

Why Are so many Kids today Obese? (Part 1)

Today, obesity is being called an epidemic, as if it is some sort of communicable disease.  And in some sense, it really is.  It is spreading rapidly across the entire world.  However, unlike diseases carried by other animals, human or not, obesity seems to be spread by the corporations who sell us unhealthy food and the societies we live in that teach us it is okay to eat them.

For those of us who want to raise healthy kids, we are the guardians of their dietary educations.  But if we are going to educate our kids to be healthy, we have to understand the adversary we are fighting.  What is causing so many children today to become obese?

The greatest cause of obesity is our own natural biology. That’s right, any human being on this earth who is overweight can blame it on their genes and be completely truthful! We as humans have evolved with the ability to store fat as a survival mechanism. Traditionally, humans faced intermittent periods of feast and famine. There may have been a few years of massive abundance, followed by several years during which humans may barely have scraped by. Weather, animal migration patterns, crop failures or booms, or (in later years) governmental policies or mismanagement could all cause the patterns of food abundance to vary. In order to survive the years of famine, human bodies developed the ability to store fat for future use.

Human tastes also developed with the goal of taking in as much fuel as possible whenever possible. The more calories a food has, the greater our preference for it will become.[i] Our bodies naturally want to take in as much as possible in order to store as much as possible against future possible (and likely) famine. We naturally crave high-energy foods. Few people find the thought of a simple salad makes their mouth water, but the idea of a juicy steak has them salivating.

Today, those of us living in Western, first world countries have likely never known hunger or want from lack of availability. With 50% of food in the US being wasted, even the poor or homeless in America need not know want, so long as they are willing to dumpster dive a bit to feed themselves.[ii] In the affluent West, there is no reason why any person should know famine in the way our ancestors did. There is no excuse for children to die of hunger as they do in the third world.

But this bounty is both a blessing and a curse. Today we have access to a greater variety of foods than ever before in history. We can buy mangos in Alaska and watermelon in the dead of winter. We can also buy more high-energy foods than our bodies know what to do with. We eat pizza and cheeseburgers, chocolate and potato chips, deep fried foods and sugarcoated cereals. And not only do we eat these things, but we crave them, in massive quantities.

It’s hard to fight against our own biology. Our bodies tell us we want foods high in fats and sugars. Our taste buds tell us a Big Mac tastes better than a spinach salad, that an ice cream cone tastes better than a bowl of plain oatmeal. If all that’s available is a healthy steamed veggies, we can eat it and be satisfied, but the instant we smell our neighbor grilling fatty pork chops, our stomachs instinctively begin to rumble. If this is happening constantly, how can we possibly resist?

At the same time as our biology is telling us to consume as many calories as possible, it is also telling us to use as few as possible.  Conservation of energy is the flip-side of the fat storage coin. It would not matter if we ate massive quantities of energy-rich foods, if we were burning all that energy up. But our bodies, in their drive to store as much fat as possible in case of future famine, also urge us to use as little of our energy up as possible, leaving more left over for storage.

Unfortunately, our society enables this behavior. More and more jobs are becoming sedentary or require less and less physical exertion. We go from our beds to our kitchen tables. Our cars are parked in front of our homes and deliver us to the front of our offices, where we sit all day in a chair. Children ride to school in busses and cars, rather than walking.  They sit at desks all day and physical education, when it is even offered, is almost always too brief or infrequent to be sufficient.  We drive home only to plant ourselves on the couch in front of the television. In an entire day we need take no more than a few hundred steps, most of them either to the bathroom (where we sit instead of squat) or to the kitchen (where we take in more calories). Today, it is a common sight to see people riding motorized chairs through shopping malls, grocery stores, or even parks, if they have not ordered their goods to be delivered from the Internet!

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post for more on this subject!

[i] Ronald Mehiel, Robert C. Bolles. Learned flavor preferences based on caloric outcome. Animal Learning & Behavior, December 1984, Volume 12, Issue 4, pp 421-427.

[ii] Timothy W. Jones. Using Contemporary Archaeology and Applied Anthropology to Understand Food Loss in the American Food System. Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, University of Arizona, available at http://www.ce.cmu.edu/~gdrg/readings/2006/12/19/Jones_UsingContemporaryArchaeologyAndAppliedAnthropologyToUnderstandFoodLossInAmericanFoodSystem.pdf

You Are What You Eat: Food Affects Behavior

You Are What You Eat: Food Affects Behavior

First comes the big Thanksgiving dinner...

First comes the big Thanksgiving dinner…

Think about your last Thanksgiving dinner. After you stuffed yourself full of mashed potatoes, turkey, and rolls, how did you feel? Heavy, sluggish, and tired, no doubt. And how did you act? You probably collapsed on the sofa to watch the ball game or to take a nap.

Now, think about your last Halloween. Perhaps you pigged out on candy and sodas. After all that sugar and caffeine, you felt jittery and hyper. Maybe you bounced around, maybe you rushed from one place to another. Maybe you felt just a little bit out of control.

...Then comes the crash onto the couch, when everyone is too tired to move.

…Then comes the crash onto the couch, when everyone is too tired to move.

As adults, we are often insensitive to these effects. We have been living for so long with these results coming from the food we eat that we hardly notice them anymore. We overlook the fact that our hands shake just that tiny bit on our keyboards after we’ve downed an extra cup of coffee; we ignore the telltale buzzing in our heads. After we have a big lunch of meat and bread, we believe we are tired just because it is “the afternoon” and our work is “boring.” We hardly even notice it. And if we do, we blame it on something else. We don’t stop to think that it could be the food we ate.

In other words, we are unaware of what is going on in our bodies. We have disconnected from ourselves. The food we eat really does affect our behavior, but much of the time we don’t make the connection.

Children are different. Children are intimately aware of what goes on in their bodies.  They know, instinctively and intuitively, what effects food is having on them.  If they are honest, they will admit, “I know eating too much candy will make me feel sick, but right now I am eating it because it tastes good.”  Their judgment abilities are not fully developed.  As adults, our judgment abilities should be better – but how can we exercise good judgment without being fully informed?

How can we as adults guide children as to the effects of food on their behavior if we do not even know how food is affecting our own behavior? We do not want to be “the blind leading the blind.”  We need to develop an awareness of the ways different foods change and alter our own behaviors in order to recognize the patterns of behavior in our children that are impacted by food.  Only then can we guide them to make good nutritional decisions so that their behavior will correspondingly improve.

Over the next few days try to cultivate an awareness of how food is affecting you. How does it make you feel? Notice what is going on in your body. Stop a few times a day and really ask yourself how you feel: tired and sluggish, energized, bloated, cramped, gassy, etc. Then examine how that state of being is affecting your behaviors. Feel free to share what you’ve observed in the comments section!