Friday, November 13, 2009

In Defense of Healthy Choices

It happened again today. Two women told me I'm "a terrible mother" because I didn't raise my children on sweets. We'd been talking about the latest happenings with our families, and I began to tell the funny story of our girls' first bubble gum experiences, which happened just this week. But that's as far as I got in the story. The women were horrified to hear the girls had never had gum before, and further terrified to hear the girls were not raised on diabetes-inducing, cancer-promoting junk food. They needed an explanation. They needed me to justify my dietary decisions. They asked. They ridiculed. But they didn't take the time to listen. Instead, they turned away.

So much for sharing a cute story.

It's true. My daughters (now 7 and 9) didn't get that first big, pink wad of stiff bubble gum until this year's Halloween festivities introduced it to our home. But why does that make me a bad parent? WHY do parents who protect their children's health by limiting their junk food consumption in the early years have to DEFEND themselves? Shouldn't it be the OTHER way around?

Throughout our daughters' early childhood, we've done our best to feed them healthy food. I breastfed each of them, fed them veggies from our garden or farmers market when possible, made our own baby food and continue to provide homemade meals that most often do not involve a brightly-decorated box. They never tasted sugar until those homemade cakes on their first birthdays, and for YEARS, they thought real fruit leather (dried fruit) was the be-all and end-all of desert treats. Over the years, we've slowly introduced ice cream, then home-baked goods. And now, on rare occasions, they get candy.

Honestly, our kids never seemed to miss those things they'd never experienced. While you and I may jones for any of a number of those treats that tempt us in the check-out line, since they hadn't experienced them, they never even asked for them. (Have you ever had a Hob Nob? No? Then you probably don't have the urge to grab a cup of tea, a plate of the delectables and have at them like I do.)

SURE, I've beem SORELY tempted to share some of our favorite treats with them to see that look of discovery, epicurean delight, excitement in their faces. But we weighed the consequences, and opted to delay these discoveries in favor of building a healthy foundation upon which they will, of course, make their own dietary decisions with increasing frequency.

I continue to believe we did the right thing. It has been god not only for them, but for me as well; since they aren't allowed the treats, I typically don't bring them hom for me or Mr. B, either. Therefore, we all manage to avoid them. Meanwhile, we've discovered there ARE other wonderful, delicious treats that don't involve, say, chocolate. (GASP! I KNOW!) And the girls have had such broad experience with non-sugary, healthy foods that their thirst for unhealthful snacks is minimal.

So, the real question is, WHY must we pressure our fellow mankind to eat unhealthy foods that will, in all likelihood, contribute not in our healthful growth and well-being, but in our early demise? As if it weren't already difficult enough to stick with the healthy options.

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  1. While I don't think not giving your kids gum until now makes you a terrible mother in any way, shape, or form... it seems that your reaction to their reaction was kind of similar to theirs... you make a different choice than me, implying mine was bad. Nuh huh! YOURS is bad!

    I'm sure you dont' really feel that way, but in your post when you say, "WHY do parents who protect their children's health by limiting their junk food consumption in the early years have to DEFEND themselves? Shouldn't it be the OTHER way around?" it sounds like you are assuming that those who don't do things your way are not protecting their children's health.

    Many of us who let our kids have junk food ALSO feel we are protecting our children's health... I was homeschooled, and raised around many very restricted kids who developed many very bad habits when they grew old enough to... that is a big part of MY decision making process, and why I feel it is so important to give my kids choices (obviously they have been around different people and family members than yours, because they were offered gum WAAAAAAAAAY before they were 7 or 9 :)

    All that to say... adorable pictures!! And vive la difference!

  2. EXcellent points, Sarah! And yes, while I did say, "Shouldn't it be the other way around?" I suppose the big difference here is that I have NOT criticized the way THEY raised THEIR children (all grown now).

    Allowing kids to make their own choices is a wonderful thing, and we do that, too, when we feel they are mature enough to deal with a given situation. Still, I'm not offering them a doobie or beer or wine and letting them make that choice at this point - while those are all illegal for them at this point, the fact that someone determines legal vs. illegal means someone else has determined these things are bad for developing humans. That's how we feel about candy. But that's just us.

  3. Well! I was shocked to hear you were treated badly for not treating your kids carelessly.

    Having been raising children for 23 years now, it’s been a long time that I’ve been asking questions about health, diet, food preferences, brain function, and this encompassed all of my college years, which haven’t stopped yet. It would be false to say that children learn taste preferences early. They’re born with a taste for fat and sugar, the things which are essential to their development, and which predominate in breast milk. After that, our young have been given a long window of time, a sensitive period where their cultural food norms are absorbed. In the physiologically normal sense, cultural food norms are refined over thousands of years and the winning ingredients, those which have been observed to support optimum health and development are passed on by wise elders. Cultural food norms fit a people to a place, and are climate specific and often become gene specific; like adult lactose tolerance, an acquired gene mutation that allows adults to continue making lactase, and thereby exploit a ready supply of nutrients from dairy animals. Those without the mutation only produce that digestive enzyme while they are milk-feeding infants. Our problem today is that our modern food norms have not been time tested, and few of us lived close enough to our great-great-grandparents to have heard about the time-tested pre-industrial foodways that nourished our ancestors. Since it’s the job of all capitalist processed food manufacturers to inoculate our children’s minds with their ideas of food before that sensitive window closes, those of us that want our children to grow up healthy have to keep the junk out of our kitchen and out of our kids reach until our kids are in their teens. It’s not that just one cookie is going to do irreparable damage to their body, but it will do irreparable damage to their idea of what is right and wrong to eat. Just as you would not let your kids hear you tell lies, even though on rare occasions as an adult, that might be the wise, convenient or even altruistic thing to do, learning about foodways is like learning a moral code, and we all know how long it takes to make mature moral judgments. So we have to brace ourselves against the junk peddlers as they are using every tactic they can to fight for our children’s minds and lifelong dollars. That’s why processed food manufacturers like to get so cozy with school lunch programs. And that’s you can get hot dogs, cookies and juice, in baby food versions courtesy of Gerber.

  4. Simplistic as that all sounds, it’s not just cultural learning that determines our grown childrens’ food choices. Scientists are now researching cellular communication via hormones, and other chemical messengers and discovering that high glycemic (sugar and starch) food exposure leads to surges not only in blood sugar, and it’s storage hormone-insulin, but also to another signaling molecule called leptin. I’m sure by now you’ve heard of insulin-resistance where cells become more and more deaf to the ever present signal of insulin to squirrel away the excess blood sugar for hard times; but you probably haven’t heard of leptin resistance. Cells, both in the body and brain become resistant to excessive leptin signals too. Problem is, one of leptin’s jobs is to let you know you have accumulated enough body fat, and can start using energy instead of just storing it. Ever wonder why many overweight people seem to be so lethargic? It’s because their cells have become resistant to the signals of leptin. Cells in their hypothalamus (brain stem area) which control appetite and energy levels aren’t getting the message that they are abundantly endowed with stored energy and can afford to expend some. The receptors on the cell membrane have effectively quit picking up the phone, and quit answering the door, not letting the message get through.

    This happens because the constant barrage of leptin signals from ingesting starch and sugar three meals and two snacks per day, has trained the hypothalamus to believe that there is no new information coming from the cellular communicators, and it doesn’t bother to listen anymore. It’s not just glycemic carbs, there are other things that alter the cellular communication too, like imbalances of fatty acids which make up the doors and windows of our cell membranes and misplaced look alike fats such as trans fats and even plasticizers. Cell membranes work poorly when they are made of the wrong materials and in the average American, trans-fats are the worst offenders. The end problem of course is that the hypothalamus receptor cells are disabled and do not hear the the quiet background leptin signals sent out by your own fat cells, which are sent out to give the brain a constant status report on the amount of stored calories, enabling the brain to make important decisions, like whether the body could sustain a pregnancy and should ovulate or not this month; whether to eat or fast; whether to exercise or hibernate; whether it can afford to build muscle or must tear it down to keep other organs running; and even whether there are enough calories in reserve to take on long delayed healing projects. Can you imagine the havoc raised when a human body does not allow reproduction, can’t tolerate skipped meals, has no energy for exercise, bone or muscle building, healing? These issues practically define our modern miseries of infertility, compulsive snacking, depression, and the scores of people suffering from repetitive strain injuries, including arthritis, osteoporosis, and general malaise.

  5. The worst part of leptin resistance is the hunger. When your hypothalamus gets poor information about your fat deposits, it concludes there is insufficient fat stored. It makes you hungry, craving sugary, calorie dense foods to build you up for the famine which you surely must be in. It sends out chemical messengers that cause you to delay healing injuries, in favor of putting the energy toward fat storage, more and more fat storage, even though it’s still ot hearing the signals from the abundant fat already on deposit. Leptin resistance begins at a young age. Mouse studies have induced leptin resistance in immature egg follicles of gestating female fetuses. The result when the next generation is born, is mice that readily gorge on anything in front of them, with seemingly no ability to regulate their hunger, and even when placed on a calorie restricted diet, they still divert energy toward storing fat, at the expense of their muscle and bone mass.

    The good news is: Leptin sensitivity can be restored, or substantially improved through dietary manipulations. The bad news is, girl children, because they carry the egg follicles for the next generation from a few weeks after they have been conceived, can transmit their mother’s dietary indiscretions down to their own children, a jump of two generations.

    To learn more about how starchy/sugary foods affect leptin, which affects your metabolism and ultimately your whole health just chug through Google, paying special attention to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) studies.

  6. All I can say is that I think every mom does her absolute best. Unfortunately nutrition is quickly becoming a lost art. I applaud you for your diligence in seeking out what is best for your girls. I have had many conversations like the one you have described. I just find that I don't share the "cute stories" much because most people find them weird and make uncomfortable comments. I was told when my daughter was three by my mother-in-law that I was a terrible mother because she offered her a doughnut and Savanna said, "What's a doughnut?" I personally thought that it was wonderful that she asked that! Why does a 3 year old need to be eating doughnuts?! My mother-in-law thought I was the devil- seriously! Now my boys eat very healthy as well and their idea of dessert is blending dates rolled in coconut- that's their idea of cookies- and they are darn good! Oh, we just do our best and let others think what they want. :)

  7. Thanks, Holli! I think you're right not to share, but it just feels so wrong. I don't share as a means to convincing others of ANYthing. Just conversationally imparting funny tidbits from our lives. My new mantra: Must. Keep. To. Self.

    Oh. Wait. Here I am speaking out again. DOH!

  8. It doesn't just stop at food. There are some people that are insecure and will judge you harshly if your parenting choices differ from theirs...whether it be how much t.v to watch(if any), which movies to see (or not)...the list goes on and on and on. Believe me I've been there, on your side of the equation. Kids have parents for a reason, and parents must use their OWN judgement for their OWN kids! Others need to mellow out and butt out:)

  9. I’m so sorry to hear you had to put up with rude comments and backward thinking women. You are doing a wonderful job with your family. I agree with your logic one hundred percent.

  10. People are really weird when it comes to parenting choices. I generally have a live and let live attitude. And for Lila -- 5 yo -- I tell her when she's at a friend's house, she makes her own choice whether to drink the soda or eat the candy. At our house, we limit soda, juice etc.

    Which is considered very strange for the average Argentinian. Everyone gives sweets to kids. The school, family, friends, strangers. Everyone. Once, quite a while ago, Lila had a massive tantrum and a woman came up and tried to calm her down with candy. (Needless to say Lila's accompanying parent almost had a tantrum on that woman).

    I tend to think, tho, that when people ridicule it's because they aren't secure with their own choices. Many think it's impossible for a child to go 7 years without ever trying gum. Clearly it's not. How were you able to do it but they weren't?

    I also find the best way to promote healthy eating in our kids is to do it ourselves. They're more likely to copy what they see than do what they're told.

    Anyway, glad I found your blog. It's good to meet you!

  11. Leigh - Really well put. Thanks for your support. And I know there are parents out there like us, but we don't hear from them often enough. Thanks for your comment!

    How were we able to do it? Well, gum's an easy one. Neither of us chew gum, so the girls don't see it around much. And like with all candy and sweets ('til now), they've not been super curious about it. They've really enjoyed the treats Nature provides us - fresh strawberries in our garden or local fields; juicy peaches; crunch apples of all varieties; baked goodies and, well, I confess ice cream has been on the menu for YEARS! :)


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