Dear Class Moms:
It was great to see all of your smiling faces at last week’s potluck. There’s nothing quite like connecting over the shared mission of motherhood – of working so hard to grow healthy, happy kids at a time where the guidelines of parenting have become so complex and convoluted.
We all want the best for our little ones – we want to know how to make the right decisions. Making these decisions requires connecting the dots about the power of preventive medicine. But these days, I find it difficult to watch the average kid eat, drink, and play with toys. Hearing about the various behavioral, allergic, and autoimmune struggles some of these children are trying to manage, I can’t help but reflect on how important it is to understand the power our lifestyle choices have on these health outcomes.
I know how hard it can be to parse out fact from fiction and cut through media fear-mongering, so I thought I would share some of what I have gathered from hundreds of hours of digging through piles of books, journal articles, and consulting experts. It’s what I do for a living … and I feel better when I share the fruits of this labor.
I’m hoping that some of you would like to have access to this information (and for those who aren’t, you can stop reading now!) but haven’t been exposed to it through more conventional channels.
So here are my top five optimal children’s health tips from my professional work that I apply in my home:
1. READ EVERY LABEL.
As I looked across the countertop at our playdate, I saw plate upon bowl of processed food snacks and boxed juices. So many of the choices that we make as parents are easy to leave unexamined because of the “everyone does it and most people are just fine” default assumption. The truth is, most people are not fine, and it is all too easy to dismiss the relationship between our dietary intake and our health. Often these effects are delayed, variable, and cumulative.
Let me make an example of one ubiquitous “food.” GOLDFISH. The classic American kid’s snack. These friendly looking crackers sport a not-so-friendly ingredient list, which includes genetically-modified vegetable oils, neurostimulating dyes, and monosodium glutamate under the cover of “autolyzed yeast.” Once a child tastes MSG there is no going back.
So what’s the scoop with GMOs? Genetically modified organisms in foods alter gut bacteria and affect immunity, digestion, and the gut-brain-axis. At this point, the research is unclear as to whether negative effects are secondary to the high levels of pesticides in these Roundup Ready foods or to the introduction of genetic alterations of plants into our own DNA, or a combination of these effects. This isn’t an experiment I want my child participating in… how about you?
2. INFLAMMATORY FOODS
I hope my daughter is not the only kid in the class on an organic, low sugar, gluten- and dairy-free diet. It’s not because she has autism or a chronic disease. She is one of the healthiest kids I’ve seen, perhaps in large part because we follow this top five list.
Gluten: Based on research around the effects of gluten on gut inflammation and the myriad ways that this can manifest in the body, including the nervous system, I believe this is at odds with her long-term growth and development.
Dairy: Dairy is a related inflammatory food for some when it is highly processed as in the prominently displayed cheese sticks, which are so easy to offer. Does pizza really need to be a toddler staple? We think, “Oh, it’s a party, it’s what they love,” but these singular-instance choices accumulate into a lifestyle that perpetuates behavioral and health problems. Somehow, there’s always an excuse for a party.
Sugar: There are certain things that our genes just have not evolved to cope with and sugar is one of them. At work, I strive to educate my patients about sugar’s impact on the brain and the body driving inflammation, forgetfulness, and behavioral changes. Some even say it’s toxic. It’s so tempting to feed the addictive pleasure our kids feel when they have it, but are we really slowly poisoning them?
3. PLASTICS ARE TOXIC
The microwave was humming at our gathering and I’m sorry that I was preoccupied by nagging thoughts of the endocrine-disrupting chemicals leaching into the hot food. Even those plastic water bottles contain Bisphenol A (BPA) have likely been sitting in the sun at some point in their lifespan.
The water that we give to our children is best filtered to remove fluoride, pesticides, and other chemicals to minimize negative effects on their thyroid and brain development.
When we worry about early sexual development in our children, we should think about the effects of plastic toys, food containers, and even the hidden sources of these chemicals like pthalates in our processed food and girly cosmetic kits.
My goal is to minimize the assault on our children’s immune systems, and to help raise awareness that these foreign compounds add up over time.
4. CREAMS, LOTIONS & HAND SANITIZERS
Purell has become synonymous with careful parenting, but is it? Antibacterials often contain toxic ingredients like triclosan and promote a “hygienic” state not supportive of the biodiversity of flora we are now learning is so important for our bodies to have.
Yes, we are outnumbered 10:1 by micro-organisms that inhabit our body and help us to function. We were born with much of this colony, but we can subtly shape it all the time. These bugs that we live with determine how we absorb nutrients and fend off unwanted germs. It is an intelligent network that we need to protect.
While we are discussing things we are slathering on our kids bodies, consider the sunscreen and bug spray that seems so important for their protection. Consider worrisome ingredients such as neurotoxic DDT, preservatives such as hormone-disrupting oxybenzone and parabens, and fragrance and recognize that you may be trading some sun rays or a bug bite for a poisonous dose.
It’s not a trend or “a hippie thing” to purchase more simplified, thoughtful products. In my opinion, it is parental empowerment through wise consumer choices.
5. NATURAL IMMUNE SUPPORT
I know that colds, flus, coughs, and sneezes have become part of “normal parenting life.” While I believe that infections, even serious ones, are part of natural immune building and fortification, the persistent low-grade immune compromise we see in so many children around us is representative of a flagging system.
Despite what you may have heard, the current vaccine schedule has been implicated in eroding immunity. A recent German survey of 8,000 unvaccinated children pointed to the poor health of the heavily vaccinated. Unfortunately, we are still waiting for a formal vaccinated vs unvaccinated study, now 200 years overdue.
All of the above — including a nutrient-dense, unprocessed, organic, real-food diet — support natural immunity.
I’ve been called a hard-core health nut, and I know that my zeal for this lifestyle appears overly intense. I wasn’t always this way. McDonald’s and Friendly’s were fixtures of my adolescence, and candy and Red Bull buoyed me through my medical training. It’s only through my later life and personal and professional obsession with these topics that I have come to understand the power of these little choices.
If most moms knew that the choices they were making every day mattered to their children’s guts, immune systems, hormone balance and brains, I know that they would want a trusted source to help shape these consumer decisions.
My attitude is, once we get these basics taken care of, we can all relax and have a good time. In my mind, it’s sort of a “deal with it now, or deal with it later” scenario. I suspect that many of you know these things, but don’t want to be “high maintenance” about the details. Once you know that others feel the same way, I’m hoping you will speak up too.
There are some really great resources out there to help you navigate and personalize these choices. You can start with shifting a few small ones and build from there. I love: Fearlessparent.org, Healthyhomeeconomist.com, Greenmedinfo.com, Mercola.com, Healthychild.org, and Foodbabe.com for starters.
See you at drop off!
Kelly has a hard time leaving her doctor hat at home, and will definitely be the one bringing her own grass-fed hot dogs to the barbecue.
This post originally appeared on Nurture Parenting as Dear Class Moms… Or, What I Want You To Know About Your Kids’ Health.