The Art of a Head Start: How Lifelong Health Begins in the First 10 years
Updated: Nov 6, 2021
Have you noticed the increasing rates of eczema, allergies, asthma, ear infections, and other childhood diseases among your children, grandchildren, or little friends? Not only this, but have you noticed that many of our adult friends complain of chronic GI distress, trouble focusing, or increased rates of chronic diseases such as blood pressure issues, heart disease, diabetes, or cancer?
No offense, but it's rare to find a parent or doctor who makes the connection between the way our children are eating and the rising rates of ear infections, asthma, eczema, ADHD, GI disorders, and diseases like heart disease and cancer later in life.
We often think that our children are resilient and that a diet with more processed foods won't affect them negatively. This assumption is akin to thinking that just because your car is brand new, you can fill it full of cheap gas and oil and it will still run perfectly. This is false, and can often lead to your car's engine not working as well or for as long as you would hope. Just because our children are healthy when they come into this world, doesn't mean that they don't face the same problems that adults do when eating a highly refined, processed, saturated fat-heavy diet.
According to Dr. Joel Furhman, the author of "Disease-Proof Your Child", the assumption that children can thrive off of the current standard American childhood diet is leading to a generation of children growing up with the predisposition towards many types of disease, including but not limited to diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Even if this argument about the future health of children doesn't speak to you, there is research suggesting a nutritious diet can help prevent many childhood infections and health issues. I doubt you will find a parent who loves when their child has chronic ear infections, requiring chronic antibiotic use, and producing an even weaker immune system.
On a plant-based, nutrient-dense diet, Dr. Furhman has been able to help reverse children's needs for constant antibiotic treatment of ear infections, improve the symptoms of ADHD, alter the progression of childhood inflammatory conditions, and stop the DNA damaging effects of a Standard American Diet that leads to cancer later in life.
And yet, feeding kids a nutritious diet has so many health benefits beyond preventing disease. Children are more likely to understand their hunger, avoid negative behaviors such as violence and addiction, have healthy immune and intestinal systems, and know-how to care for their health.
What does a nutritious diet for a child look like? Let me warn you, it's not cows milk 3 times a day and grilled cheese sandwiches.
Children eat a relatively small amount of food. When we as parents decide that the food they will consume will come from vitamin and micronutrient deficient foods such as meat, dairy, eggs, and sugar, we set them up for health problems. We think those foods are essential because of the marketing surrounding them, but believe it or not, they are not good sources of protein, calcium, or any other nutrients for that matter. They are actually full of a harmful substance- saturated and trans fat.
So, in order to give our children the best nutrition, we actually need to focus in on the foods that relay the most nutrients. While macronutrients (fat, carbohydrates, and protein) are important, they are often considered the only nutrients we should be concerned about. However, most children will eat enough of these if given a varied diet, although we should pay special attention to the type of fat they consume. What they won't get enough of if we aren't being intentional is micronutrients.
Micronutrients are vitamins, minerals, and even smaller molecules like phytochemicals that are essential for cellular function. Research is now indicating that much of our disease processes are as much to do with a deficit of micronutrients as they are the addition of harmful food components such as saturated and trans fat.
Micronutrients, fiber, and healthy fats (Omega-3 fatty acids) are abundant on a plant-based diet. Having these key nutrients will build the foundation of good immune systems, healthy GI tracts, and big healthy beautiful brains.
Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans provide abundant micronutrients and fiber, along with essential carbohydrates and protein. Nuts and seeds provide essential fats in a healthy balance (omega 6:omega 3 ratio) that are necessary to build up nerve and brain tissue, although an algae-based DHA/EPA supplement is also recommended for plant-based children.
This is a diet that arguably everyone should be on, but it is also a way to ensure that your hormones are in balance for fertility, and that the baby in your womb has access to these same key nutrients before they enter the world.
Of course, eating a plant-based diet will look different based on the age and stage of development of your child (see my next blog), but exposing your children to these foods from day 1 (they can taste flavors in the womb and in breastmilk) is so important.
Childhood is a time period full of rapid cell division and growth. Every time that DNA is unraveled to be copied, it becomes vulnerable to harmful compounds that are floating around in our children's bodies. These harmful compounds could be saturated fat, nitrates, and nitrosamines from processed meat, refined sugar, protein and lactose from milk, toxins and pesticides from our environments, or a number of other harmful substances. This is why it's important to avoid unnecessary chemicals in our homes, eat nutritious plant-based foods and when possible to buy organic for our kiddos. Why? Because exposing our littles to dangerous compounds may be one of the strongest predictors of their cancer risk later in life.
What does a standard North American childhood diet look like? It may not seem all that bad. Oatmeal for breakfast, mac n cheese with a side of fruit or veggies for lunch, chicken and potatoes for dinner, a sweet treat every now and then. I don't want you to feel guilty if this is what your child's diet looks like at the moment.
What I hope to do is inspire you to creatively incorporate more plant foods into your littles diets, and reduce the amount of unnecessary saturated fat, sodium, oil, processed and grilled meats, and other animal-derived foods. As I mentioned, not only do kids not need saturated fat, sodium, or the cancerous compounds in cooked meat, these foods also contain very few micronutrients and omega-3 fatty acids needed for a child's development.
What could this look like? A hearty chia and flax seed oatmeal or pudding for breakfast with breastmilk or formula for kids under 2, or soy or pea milk for those over 2. A peanut butter, banana, and hemp heart toast with a side of fruit and steamed broccoli for lunch. For dinner, an avocado and cashew cream sauce pasta with black beans (iron and protein-rich) and a tomato and pineapple skewer on the side.
Again, stay tuned for my next blog talking more about what a plant-based diet for kids looks like.
You don't need to be a helicopter parent who micromanages everything your child eats in order to teach them to be plant-forward. My best advice is to adopt this diet not only for your child but for your own health as well.
Just for fun, if you need some advice on how to talk to older kids about a switch to a plant-based diet, try some of these phrases!
"I'm sorry honey, but I can only give you a small serving of kale because if you have more of it, you will be stronger than me, and I can't have you being stronger than me right?"
"Ooh, you know why mommy loves carrots and spinach? Because carrots and spinach help her eyes be healthy. That way she can see all of your adorable smiles and funny faces until she is very old!"
"Did you know that you have more small bacteria living on you than you have cells in your own body? It sounds gross, but these microbes are what help us digest our food and get ALL the benefits from the food as we can. So in order to feed our friends, we should enjoy lots of beans, greens, fruits, and nuts. They LOVE helping us eat these."
For teens: "I know you love playing soccer (or being in theater, or favorite pastime), and I just don't want you to be sluggish during your game or performance. Junk food is just going to slow you down, so I packed hummus, a healthy sandwich, orange juice, and black bean brownies for you to take today."
If you want to know more about how to protect our children from childhood and chronic diseases, read Dr. Joel Furhmans book "Disease-Proof Your Child" or read his website pages here.
More great resources on how to healthfully feed a plant-based child:
The Plant-Based Baby and Toddler
Nourish, The Definitive Plant-Based Nutrition Guide for Families
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