Nutrition—For Life!

This week’s guest columnist is Dr. Allan Olson, a family practice resident at the University Health Center here in Lafayette.  Allan is 61 years old, yet is on the long and stressful road of residency that makes a doctor.  How does he do it?  For one, he takes care of himself with a healthy diet.  And there is no better time to learn to eat right than as a kid.  Read more:

How can parents have the biggest effect on their children’s health? Providing a safe environment and promoting physical activity top the list.  However, your guidance with the greatest potential involves something we do every day- eating.  Nutrition is a huge opportunity to help your kids feel good and be well prepared for their day. Furthermore, your food leadership will create habits to insure good health for their whole lives.

What foods are best?  Research is showing that whole food, plant-based nutrition provides the maximum benefits for children and adults.  This means a diet consisting of vegetables and fruits and less animal products (meat and dairy).  Avoiding fast food and processed food (any food that comes from a factory) is also important to eat well.  These contain too much fat, sugar, and salt for your body.

For many people this will be a major change in the foods they eat, and it is important to say that such changes need not happen overnight.  The key is to begin selecting foods which consist of plant products that have not been fried or processed, frozen or boxed. Start using these foods in your family’s diet, and eventually meet the majority of your meal needs with them.

Food choices can influence whether kids develop certain chronic diseases.  Childhood obesity has become much more common, as have diabetes, asthma, and constipation. Studies show most obese childen will become obese adults, and can expect to develop adult diseases early in life, like high blood pressure and heart disease.  In other words, obese kids will live shorter and more miserable lives.  While many factors lead to these diseases, food is among the most important causes, and the most effective cure!

Two examples of how diet can influence health and illness:  Many children with constipation are cured when milk is removed from their diet, and fruits and vegetables added.  Some studies show best results when all dairy is stopped.  Know that eating milk and cheese is a matter of choice, not necessity, for children and adults.  We do not absolutely need milk or other dairy in a healthful diet.

Asthma provides another example.  Asthma has become very common in children. Asthmatic airways become inflamed, breathing becomes difficult, and kids wheeze.  Often kids with asthma also have allergic runny noses and itchy skin.  These can be treated with medications, but we are finding that in many children they can be prevented with a plant-based diet.  Specifically, the antioxidants in plant foods seem to both prevent and treat the inflammation in allergy and asthma.

Now food companies have seized this idea and manufacture foods with added antioxidants, touting them as more healthy.  However, studies suggest that antioxidants in processed-food are much less effective than in whole foods.  It seems the whole food must be eaten to get the health benefits, and that natural foods contain other beneficial components besides the antioxidants.

Here are some more hints on diet.  Breakfast really is the most important meal.  Be sure your kids eat it every day, if only some fresh fruit.  Have your kids eat at home as much as possible, at the table with the whole family.  This is an important social time for families, and you can be sure your kids are eating right.

Avoid sugary drinks like soda and other canned or bottled drinks.  Even those which are sugar-free and artificially sweetened are not good.  Sugar-free drinks still do not keep off the pounds!  The best drink is water, though some sports drinks are okay for electrolyte replacement while exercising, or if your child is sick with vomiting and diarrhea.

Finally, eating should be fun!  Invite your kids to help you plan meals based on plants. Include their ideas in selection and preparation.  Make trying new foods an exciting challenge.  Your children may need to try a particular food a dozen or more times before they like it.  Your choices for their diet will help shape their choices- for life!

Green can be good, not just good for you

I grew up in New Jersey, home to many chemical companies.  I remember one day in my fifth grade science class when some food scientists from one of those companies came to visit, and impress us with what magic they could do with chemistry.  One demonstration was giving us a glass of clear green fluid to drink.  We tasted it, agreed it was delicious, but could not place the exact flavor.  It tasted familiar, but not like the lime we expected.  The scientists then revealed the mystery: it was root beer flavored!  We all went, “Oh yeah,” and talked about flavor and color and presentation and expectations.

Food scientists have been working then and the decades since to perfect making processed foods delicious.  They use chemicals and processes with such artfulness that now a cake made from a box tastes better than scratch-baked.  However, in their processing in great taste and texture and color, they have processed out something more important: nutrition.  How can green beans compete with potato chips that science has designed to tickle our senses and brains to the max?

Nutritionists, pediatricians, and other child advocates have been fighting a losing battle against the food industry.  We say, “eat more fruits and vegetables and wheat fiber, they are better for you.”  However, if people listened and ate only what was good for them, then all the manufacturers of soda, candy, chips, boxed cereal, boxed processed food,  juice drinks, powdered drinks, instant dinners, frozen dinners, fast food, and snack food would be out of business. 

We have to get smarter than saying “eat healthy” and then forcing McDonald’s to put some apple slices in the Happy Meal.  The only way to make green vegetables able to compete with manufactured foods is to make them as delicious.  We have to saute them in garlic and olive oil, serve them with hummus and other healthy dips, marinate and roast them on the grill, simmer them into home-made soup.  And then we have to encourage our kids to try them.  It takes something like 14 tries for a kid to learn to like something, so we can’t quit after 13 tries.  Then, when a kid begins to like vegetables and other healthy foods, we begin to win the war on obesity and stomach aches. 

A much fonder memory of my childhood in New Jersey was when my mom would make home-made vegetable soup on cold winter days, delicious and warming after a morning playing in the snow.   That is a better green memory than clear green root beer, and the kind of memory we need to leave our kids to help them stay fit and healthy.

Keeping Kids Healthy and Fit, so They Can Be Kids

This past Thanksgiving I spent a day at one of my favorite havens- Boy Scout Camp.  No TV, plenty of outdoor activity for the boys, and limited junk food.  However, this past visit had its disappointments- many of the kids I taught were already obese.  There were kids surfing their iPhones around the campfire.  The Trading Post did brisk business in candy bars and soda. 

I usually don’t mind the Trading Post or iPhones.  However, most of those kids already have a steady diet of soda, junk food, and electronic entertainment every day of the year.  Goodies that were once a special treat away from home have become the norm at home. 

This over-consuming of junk food and entertainment leads to other medical problems besides being merely fat and idle.  These kids feel bad about themselves.  They do worse in school.  They fill doctors’ offices and emergency departments with complaints of stomach pain and constipation.  They will grow up to have early heart attacks, depression, diabetes, strokes, gall bladder attacks, cancers, knee and foot pain. 

Obesity is not entirely our fault.  Humans and other animals were biologically programmed eons ago to eat, store fat, and rest when food was plentiful, as a hedge for when food was scarce.  Now, in our modern society, times are always good when it comes to finding calories.  And biology had no need in the bad old days to provide us with an off switch for eating and resting.

Our biological bent to obesity is now also aided and abetted by the food industry.  In the 1950s the industry had a dilemma: how do you convince an already well-fed people to eat more, in order to accelerate profits?  They invented “food science,” where chemists manufacture additives to make food more delicious and more delicious-looking.  They invented advertising based on psychology to sell us that food and get us hooked, like addicts and their first taste of heroin. 

And it worked.  Who doesn’t love junk food, myself included?  Even in France, where they are famously fussy about their good food, McDonald’s does its biggest business outside of the US.  So how can we save our children from what we have wrought on them?  And what about our planet, which is groaning with the burden of  supporting our junk food habit?  And what of the unfairness, the sin, where billions in the world still go to bed hungry?

The answer is that our brains must take charge over our biology.  The hard work starts at home- don’t buy junk food and soda!  Don’t bring it into the house!  Make sure your kid gets a fruit with every meal.  Give them a vegetable with lunch and dinner- if only a handful of carrot sticks (my favorite go-to vegetable).  All grains should be high fiber- whether it is wheat bread or high fiber breakfast cereal.  Dinner should be eaten with all the family members together, talking about their days and their lives, practicing conversation, stimulating each others’ brains,  rather than watching TV. 

More hard work- be firm with your kids about the TV.  It should not be turned on at all on school days.  Computers should only be used for school work on school days- not for surfing, watching videos, or playing electronic games.  Kids should never have a TV,  computer, or game system in their bedroom.

If your kids are bored and whining and start to fight, stay strong!  That boredom is incentive for them to go out and start exploring and making their own fun, which is how kids grow good brains and strong bodies.  That is when they learn to love books, friendships, board and card games, sports, and outdoors.  Soon the no-TV/computer rule becomes easier to enforce.

Play is the work of childhood.  It is now harder and harder to protect your childrens’ play from the onslaught of advertising, junk food, and electronics.  But this is part of the hard work of parenting, so your kids can be kids again.