In his 1988 Report on Nutrition and Health, then-Surgeon General of the United States C. Everett Koop wrote, "Your choice of diet can influence your long-term health prospects more than any other action you might take." Let us rephrase this a bit Your choice of diet for your child can influence your child's long-term health prospects more than any other action you might take as a parent.
Food provides the energy your child needs to grow, learn, jump, stretch, and play. It provides the nutrient base necessary for building a strong and healthy body. Food also provides immediate information] to the body. It can make your child feel full and re-energized, or tired, jumpy, and irritable. The breakfasts you give your child, the lunches eaten at school, the snacks you provide, the dinners you prepare all provide the building blocks for every cell in your child's body.
The Historical Use of Diet
Hippocrates, the "Father of Medicine," wrote, "Let food be your medicine. Let your medicine be your food." This recommendation is as important for us today as it was in ancient Greece. Food was a primary form of medicine in ancient cultures and has continued to be used as such through the ages. Warm teas and soups for colds, prune juice for constipation, toast and crackers for diarrhea-all are well-known and time-tested "medicines."
Food is important not only for curing illness, but for preventing it Today, the importance of diet in maintaining health-and conversely, in contributing to the development of disease-is increasingly evident. A proper diet is therefore useful in treating acute and chronic childhood illness as well as in promoting and enhancing optimal health.
The American Diet Today
A hundred years ago, food was prepared in a very different way than it generally is today. Most importantly, food was prepared and served more simply. In the last several decades, thanks to food-processing technology, we have seen the development of a vast selection of "quick-fix" packaged, canned, frozen, boil-in-a-bag, and microwaveable foods that get us in and out of the kitchen fast. Few people cook in the traditional sense of the word, at least on a regular basis. It's easier and more convenient to stir water into the contents of a package, open a can, heat up a frozen dinner, or "nuke" a prepackaged serving in the microwave.
Highly processed junk food is a billion-dollar-a-year industry. The shelves of American supermarket are weighted down with candy, cookies, and all kinds of packaged baked goods; snacks loaded with sugar, fat, and salt; sodas, colas, "juices," and punches made with more chemicals and additives than fruit; and artificially flavored and colored cereals.
The typical American diet is in need of an overhaul Most of us eat too much fat, too few complex carbohydrates, and too many empty calories, and are deficient in trace minerals and vitamins. The typical American gets about 42 percent of total calories from fat, with 16 percent coming from saturated fats and 26 percent from unsaturated fats. Compare this to the recommended amounts: a maximum of 30 percent of total daily calories from fat, with 10 percent from saturated fats (such as meat and dairy products), 10 percent from monounsaturated fats (such as olive oil), and 10 percent from polyunsaturated fats (such as corn, safflower, and soybean oils).
The typical American gets about 22 percent of total calories from complex carbohydrates (such as those in grains and legumes), 6 percent of calories from naturally occurring sugars (such as those found in fruits and honey), and 18 percent of calories from refined and processed sugars (such as those found in sodas, candy bars, and many processed foods). Yet it is recommended that at least 48 percent of the calories we consume should come from complex carbohydrates and naturally occurring sugars, and no more than 10 percent from refined and processed sugars.
You can make a good start toward a better diet by focusing on five of the dietary goals determined by the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Services to optimize the health of Americans through improved nutrition:
1. Increase your intake of complex carbohydrates.
2. Decrease your intake of refined and processed sugars.
3. Decrease fat consumption.
4. Decrease cholesterol consumption.
5. Limit salt intake.
In addition, encourage your child to avoid the routine consumption of products containing refined and processed sugars, saving them instead for occasional treats. Base your family's diet on grains, vegetables, fruits, clean, lean proteins, and legumes. Don't depend on processed, packaged foods for your nutrition-it is a disservice to your family's health.
Food Additives and Other Chemicals
Too much of what passes for food in the United States contains chemicals such as manufactured sweeteners, processed fats and/or fat substitutes, artificial flavorings and colorings, plus vast quantities of preservatives. Preservatives are nothing new. Salting down and pickling meat and vegetables were common practices centuries ago, as was the drying (dehydrating) of various foodstuffs. Foods preserved this way lasted a very long time, which was important in an era before refrigeration and efficient transport of fresh foods. But these natural methods took so much time and care that they were not easily adaptable to mass production. As the prepared-food industry grew by leaps and bounds, other timesaving and more cost-effective-if less healthy- methods of preserving foods were developed by the major food manufacturers.
Food additives and preservatives undergo exhaustive testing, on an individual basis. During the testing phase, laboratory animals are given megadoses of a single additive at a time. It's easy enough for manufacturers to explain away any adverse reactions by pointing out that a human will ingest only a tiny bit of a particular additive per serving. But few studies have been conducted on how different food additives interact with each other or what they do to the human body, even
though it's impossible to find a manufactured food product that contains only one additive. A small-scale study reported in the Journal of Food Science in 1976 tested three common food additives, with alarming results. When laboratory rats were given a single additive in their food, no adverse effects were noted. When two additives were combined, the rats sickened. When all three additives were given, all of the animals died within two weeks.
And what about the effects over the long term? Current scientific research can't tell us what the cumulative effects of ingesting a single food additive will be-let alone what the ever-present chemical combinations of multiple additives may do over a period of many years.
Today's food products often contain more chemical additives than basic food ingredients. Always read the labels! Trying to find additive-free products can be an exercise in frustration. Preparing fresh, whole foods is a good beginning and a way to avoid the frustration. Even so, farmers often use pesticides and chemicals in their fields that contaminate even what look like healthy fresh foods. Since the 1940s, the use of chemicals by the food growers of America has increased tenfold. In the last twenty years alone, the number of pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, rodenticides, chemical fertilizers, and soil conditioners has doubled. These toxic chemicals do not disperse and decay harmlessly. They contaminate the food we eat, pollute the air we breathe, and seep into the water we drink. And these chemicals are all pervasive, often mysteriously traveling far from the areas where they were actually used.
DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) is a case in point. It was banned in 1972, yet nearly every American still carries traces of DDT in his or her body. DDT has even been detected in wild animals roaming free in the Antarctic, a place once thought free of man-made chemical contamination.
Each year more than 2.5 billion pounds of chemicals are sprayed or dumped on agricultural crops, spread in forests, and used to treat ponds and lakes or "green" lawns and parks. In the mid-1980s, farmers, pest-control companies, and homeowners spent over $6.5 billion on chemicals.
A 1987 study released by the National Cancer Institute showed that children living in homes where pesticides are routinely used are seven times more likely to develop childhood leukemia than are children who live in chemical-free households. In 1989, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reported on a comprehensive two-year study of the impact on children of pesticide residues in food. It showed that, compared to adults, the average child receives four times more exposure to eight cancer-causing pesticides in food. Apples, apple products, peanut butter, and processed cherries that have been treated with the chemical growth regulator daminozide (better known as Alar) were named as foods posing the greatest potential risk to children. The average exposure of a child under six to daminozide and to UMDH, the carcinogenic compound it forms in the body, is 240 times the cancer risk that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calls "acceptable" after a lifetime of exposure to this toxic chemical.
The study determined that children consume proportionally more fruits and vegetables-and thus more pesticides-than adults. Fruits are especially susceptible to pesticide contamination. On average, produce accounts for about one-third of a child's diet, with fruits predominating. The average preschool child consumes six times more fruit and fruit products, and drinks eighteen times more apple juice, than his parents do. During infancy, the average baby consumes thirty-one times more apple juice than adults in the household.
The NRDC study targeted only eight widely used chemicals. But you should be aware that the EPA has identified sixty-six different carcinogenic pesticides that turn up in the average child's diet. To date, the EPA has not acted to restrict the use of these chemicals.
Only about 1 percent of the produce, domestic or imported, in your supermarket has been tested for pesticide residues, and tests currently used can detect only around 40 percent of the possible chemical contaminants. Many dangerous metabolises (chemical compounds that form as the source chemicals break down in the body) cannot be detected at all.
The General Accounting Office (GAO) reports that it takes the FDA close to a month, on average, to complete a laboratory analysis of a food sample. During that time, a suspect food stays on the market. In more than 50 percent of the instances where the FDA has found violations, the GAO says, the contaminated food was not recovered. By the time the FDA had completed lab testing, unsuspecting families had eaten the "evidence."
Choosing Food and Water for Your Child
As a parent, you have an important and powerful influence on your child's eating habits. Children will learn to eat what a parent eats and serves. Children will eat what you stock in the refrigerator and cupboards. Children will learn to eat the way their parents do, whether that is slowly or quickly, to satisfy hunger or to ease or avoid feelings, at mealtimes or while sitting in front of the television. We need to be conscious of what we are passing on to our children.
Following are some guidelines to help you provide a healthy, balanced, nutrient-rich diet for your child (and for yourself!).
Whenever possible, buy organically grown produce and grains. Buy meat from animals raised without hormones or antibiotics. Buying organically grown foods is the one way to avoid the danger of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Organic foods are grown without the use of synthetic chemicals. They are absolutely the healthiest choice for our children, our families, and the earth and air.
Contaminants in the air, food, and drinking water c the nation are a major concern. By testing rainwater samples from twenty-three states, a recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey found that agricultural chemical end up in the atmosphere. Along with eliminating the pesticide residues that linger on commercially farmed foods, organic farming spares the earth from these unnecessary and destructive toxins. If you have difficulty finding a source of organic foods, ask your local grocery to carry certified organic produce and grains. Certified organic farms are periodically inspected by state agencies (at present, there is no federal law or organization that oversees organic farming practices). The California law has set the standard for regulating and certifying organic farming methods. It states that in order for a farm to be certified organic, the ground must have been worked without the use of chemical sprays or fertilizers for at leas four years. The soil of a farm is tested each year to deter mine compliance. You may also see produce marked a coming from transitional farms, meaning that the farm has not yet made the four-year mark, but is in the process of transition into farming without sprays or fertilizers.