Grandma’s brownies, chips, family-recipe chocolate chip cookies and pouches of fruit punch Capri-Sun were the high, yummy points of my childhood. Add in a side of Derby pie and a homemade southern biscuit and I was living a pretty solid life. Which...made my recent health crisis and the subsequent changes in health our family needed to make for - mental health, ASD, ADHD and a host of anxiety and depression sides to thyroid, gut and skin health - more than a bummer. Working through our healing was an easy path into nutrition for me as I had severe nutrient depletions and my boys’ issues presented long term outlooks in either medication or nutrition. There was little choice if I wanted to heal up, get to walking around and continue living a full life.
Maybe you don’t have any pressing health issues - just a quiet desire to feed your children well. But what does that mean? To NOURISH our children? First, we must take a look at how we got here.
If you’re like me, you may have been raised on some or all components of the Standard American Diet (SAD). I was blessed with a farm family who ate salad with every meal and always a veggie or three, but I was not immune from the food triangle of our youth.
Did you know that our American food system has been designed around the center in our brain that derives pleasure from certain flavors - sugar, salt and fat - called the hedonistic center. When I watched my boys’ eating, I saw quickly how this region of their brain propelled them to foods that lit up this pleasure seeking center. It is here in the brain that dopamine production is stimulated, which fuels our deep sense of wanting - not satiation or liking, but a desire for more. More sugar. More salt. More fat. Anyone identify when thinking of a hangry 2-year-old or even a hangry me?
There are biochemical reasons behind our cravings.
Historically, the introduction of refined sugar took our consumption from a few pounds of sugar per person, per year to 160 pounds per person annually in the United States. Wait, what? My toddler is eating 160 pounds of sugar annually? Maybe. But maybe it’s you or I having a bit more than that average - many people upwards of 200 pounds of sugar annually - that balances out that measure for our children. And it’s not in our grapes and apples, folks.
Processed food, I’m looking at you.
As our world industrialized, we looked for quicker meals. We needed to eat in a jiffy so we could get back to working or resting from working. Sugar, white flour and processed oil began to make up much of our food as Americans simultaneously transitioned from physical labor to sedentary labor. It was cheap, lots could be made from it and it lit up those pleasure centers. More machinery now meant we could take those machines and get really good at mass producing all sorts of foods. Producing foods? Didn’t we used to grow and enjoy food that grew? Of course we did.
The rise of big food and corporate food producers meant a shift toward hyperpalatable foods that focused on that hedonistic center of the brain. Add in a side of branding with a sprinkle of sugar and so many of us and our children were hooked on processed food, much thanks to shiny marketing. Brands even have vast influence over public policy and research. Who cares? Remember that food pyramid? Big food played a key hand in swaying the design of a heavily weighted main food group focused on processed grains. Big food designs processed foods for our desires - adding in chemical components to foods (MSG anyone?) that can increase our hunger levels and even turn off our hormonal cues for satiety. No wonder our babies want “one more...cookie, cracker, biscuit, popsicle….”. They’re simply responding with their biology to the way food is designed.
Eating these nutrient-poor, calorie-rich processed foods leaves us with increasing appetite as we continue to crave sufficient nutrients. Packaged foods are also so much prettier than whole foods which often have dirt attached and the occasional bug or two - not to mention how much longer it may take to prepare these foods once they’re clean. Cravings also begin in our gut microbiome, where the microbial populations present can generate desires for foods that their hosts - us - don’t necessarily desire. Toss in the rapid rise in food reactions adults and children alike experience and we’re often raising picky eaters who can have some forms of disordered eating. Much easier to toss over a pack of crackers to quiet the squeaky wheel...ahem...whiny child...then fight the battle over peas and carrots. I feel ya.
I used to really like my crackers, cookies and cereal, too. That is until I linked behavior issues in our home, my neurological decline, arthritis, deep nutritional deficiencies, mental health struggles and triggering ADHD/ASD behaviors - directly to various foods we were consuming. Simple food journals showed me that the foods we were consuming linked directly to many of the struggles we were having.
So what did we do about it?
For our host of issues, some of us spent a long season on the Autoimmune Paleo Protocol, eliminating immunosuppressant groups of foods (grains, legumes, soy, dairy, processed food, refined sugars, seed oils, eggs, nightshades, nuts, seeds) supporting healing and then reintroducing offenders to see what the response looked like. Others cut gluten and dairy, strictly and still some can handle bits of both of these groups, in more whole forms. That’s the detailed version. We each moved toward eating in a bio-individual way, because we’re individuals. Over time, through nutritional therapy - a form of holistic nutrition - healing has occurred and we’re mostly free from steep parameters.
On the whole, we moved toward eating more whole, nutrient-dense foods and have stuck with no-gluten and no-dairy.
The biggest question I get asked is “How in the world did you do that with children?” and my best answer is “it’s our new normal”. My second is, “the boys don’t run the household food show.” Sounds harsh? Sure. But I want them to have as much access to their whole mind and body for as long as they can, to develop habits that will serve them and to one day send them into the world with the know-how to care for themselves in the best way, even if it bucks the system. And I’m the Mom. So I lead up the food attitudes since I’m preparing it all!
This article begins a series that will highlight two of the groups that we cut out and the various reasons for doing so.
One, so that you may identify understanding for others who have these food needs. Two, so that you can learn more about the ways in which gluten and dairy work for or against our bodies. I’ll end with a blitz over my methodology for switching the boys from processed foods to more whole foods and no gluten/dairy.
To wrap the whole thing up, I’ll make available a massive list of gluten and dairy-free snacks that you can run to when you’re looking for a whole-foods option. It’ll feature an easy purchased snack list, too - because let’s be honest - we are all working with limited time at some point or another.
My biggest goal is to free you up to explore eating FOR your health and preparing food to NOURISH our children so they can grow up to do what they were made to do! I would love to hear your food struggles, concerns and questions!
Goodman, A. (2013, March 1). The Weaponizing of Salt, Sugar and Fat: The Secrets of How Big Food Got Us Hooked on Junk. Retrieved from Alternet: https://www.alternet.org/food/weaponizing-salt-sugar-and-fat-secrets-how-bigfood-got-us-hooked-junk
Kresser, C. (2018, May 30). The Power of an Ancestral Perspective on Diet. Retrieved from Nutritional Therapy Association: https://nutritionaltherapy.com/the-power-of-an-ancestral-perspecive-on-diet/
Nutritional Therapy Association, Inc. (2019, June 2). Basics of Nutrition.
Nutritional Therapy Association, Inc. (2019, June 2). The Evolution of the Modern Diet.
Wolf, R. (2017). Wired To Eat. In R. Wolf, Wired To Eat. Harmony.