Changing My Family’s Eating Habits, One Step at a Time
by Diana Rodgers
Health issues for children have come to the forefront of the local food movement. While we do not profess to be health experts, we do want to share with our readers different viewpoints. Below is the first of such articles, written by a woman who is a farmer, a mother and a student of nutrition.
Living on an organic farm north of Boston with my farmer-husband and two children ages 5 and 7, I’ve finally found peace with food and my eating habits.
As a very thin child, I was frequently hospitalized for dehydration. I suffered from digestive distress, lack of energy, low muscle tone and difficulty focusing on academics. My pediatrician told my mother it was a lactose intolerance and suggested soy milk, which I drank daily through my childhood. In addition to soy milk, I ate the standard American diet of Pop-Tarts, cookies, sugary cereal and frozen dinners. My celiac disease (an autoimmune disease where the body reacts to proteins in many grains) went undiagnosed until my mid-20s.
After my diagnosis, I lived on a gluten-free diet (no wheat, rye or barley) for about 10 years. When I originally cut out gluten, I wanted any and all gluten-free substitutes for all of the foods that I missed. I couldn’t imagine a life without cookies, pasta, pizza and beer. At the time, I thought it was the most restrictive diet possible. Luckily, I could find pretty good gluten-free alternatives and more products were constantly coming out. I packed the kitchen with gluten-free cereal, pasta, boxed dinners and frozen pizza. My stomach was much better but I still experienced some digestive distress. The bigger problem was, I was always hungry and carried around snack bars, pretzels, sandwiches and fruit at all times to avoid the shaky feeling of low blood sugar. Even though I was always thin, I knew I was on the verge of Type 2 diabetes. Frequent requests for blood tests would confirm me in the “normal” range, but I was sure there was something wrong.
A few years ago, I decided to learn more about nutrition to understand what was going on with my health and to learn how to raise my children without the food issues I had grown up with. The Nutritional Therapy Association’s program is an alternative to the mainstream Master of Science in Nutrition degrees because of their nutritional philosophy of avoiding calorie counting and instead focusing on nutrient-dense foods including omega-3 fats, lacto-fermented vegetables and grass-fed meats.
During this program, I took my personal diet a step further. After reading The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf, everything finally clicked for me. The book’s general angle is that we lived successfully as huntergatherers for thousands of years on mostly meat and vegetables until about 10,000 years ago (the advent of agriculture) and that many of the diseases plaguing modern society can be attributed to the Standard American Diet (SAD), which is based on processed foods including grains and vegetable oils.
I decided to eliminate “modern” foods like grains and legumes to see if this would make a difference in my digestion and blood sugar fluctuations. I focused on eating meat, seafood, coconut oil and other natural saturated fats, lots of vegetables and a little fruit. After three weeks on this diet I turned into a new person. I no longer needed constant snacks to manage between-meal shakiness and my digestive problems vanished. I was finally free from my food cravings and have discovered a way of eating that has changed my life. It was completely liberating!
All of the constant media and social pressures to eat processed foods can make it hard to encourage healthy eating. It’s simply cheaper and easier to open a box of “insta-dinner” and have no arguments from the kids. When our family sits down to eat, we always talk about the nutritional benefits of the food we’re eating. For example: carrots for super night vision. We also play on pop culture. I made a dish that had extra “Midichlorians” in it. According to Star Wars, Midichlorians are intelligent microscopic life forms that live symbiotically inside the cells of all living things. When present in sufficient numbers, they can allow their symbiont to detect the pervasive energy field known as The Force. (Anakan Skywalker had the largest population of Midichorians of all the Jedi). My kids literally eat this up!
This “food as medicine” philosophy also works with any age group. Teens are much more willing to give up their soda and popcorn if this means it will help them avoid acne and weight gain. Adults looking to conceive, lose weight or simply feel better are usually willing to change their diet for 30 days just to see if it will help. The worst thing that can happen is they go without some food they like for 30 days, and the best thing is that this changes their lives. It always works.
For most families, the following staged transition is usually the best: Switch to better fats, remove wheat and sugar, then grains, then legumes, then pasteurized milk. Focus on what you can eat, not what you can’t.
After years of being fat phobic, it’s really a hard thing to suddenly embrace butter, coconut oil and (gasp) bacon fat and lard for cooking. But the truth is, once I switched to these fats, I actually lost weight and felt better. Cooking with omega-3-rich fats, plus eating those from egg yolks and avocados, helps you feel satiated much longer than eating a diet low in saturated fats. Food tastes so much better, and act ally has weight-loss effects on your body. Omega-3-rich fats are anti inflammatory, as opposed to inflammatory omega-6 or rancid fats found in most vegetable and seed oils (like canola, peanut and corn) plus in high amounts in nuts, grains and factory-farmed meats.
One of the harder parts of changing your family’s diet is the emotional attachment to food as a comfort memory. We’ve all seen the ads on television of the good mother having extra time to spend with her kids as she pops ready-to-bake cookies into the oven or making a prepared cake mix with her daughter. It seems that the traditional food preparation of cooking nourishing foods and preserving foods as a household bond has been taken over by the food giants.
Instead of bonding over baking sweet treats, my kids and I sit down at the kitchen table and snap string beans, snack on berries, or pick some cherry tomatoes together. The same holds true for sugary foods as a reward or punishment. We just avoid the entire sugar argument in our house. If we happen to be driving by an ice cream stand and we’d like some, we get it. Generally, we prefer how our kids act, how our energy levels and moods are and how our clothes fit when we don’t have sugary foods in the house. For most people, keeping to an 80/20 rule seems to lead to great results. This means 80% of the diet is optimal nutrients, and 20% indulgences. (Because of my autoimmune condition, I am much stricter with my personal diet than I am with my kids’).
With all of the energy I was putting into my children’s nutrition in our home and taking great care with their lunches, I was pretty disturbed to find out what other kids were eating at school. I can’t really fathom why a child at age 7 is given the choice between drinking water or low-fat chocolate milk with corn syrup at school. I see it as the same as letting them choose between watching a cartoon or having a science class.
I’m not going to take on the school lunch program (right now), but I didn’t want the constant Gummy Bear rewards for writing their alphabet properly, or the birthday parties with cupcakes, ice cream and juice filling my kids’ bellies right before lunch. This was happening more than once a week.
I spoke about my concerns with the principal and she suggested I contact the Wellness Committee. Each school in Massachusetts has one of these. We held a meeting and discussed the policy of food in the classroom and its relation to food allergies and the growing rate of Type 2 diabetes among children. We took a look at what other schools were doing and all decided that the best policy would be to have no food celebrations in the classroom unless it was approved by the principal and was academically relevant. Also, there was to be no sharing or trading of food. This was a huge relief to me.
Back at home I decided to change the weekly four-plus gallons of milk that my two kids were drinking from organic pasteurized milk to raw milk. I did my research and found an excellent source of grass-fed organic raw milk that I was comfortable with. I met the farmers, saw the small herd of cows and talked to families who have been drinking their milk for years. In the winter when the cows dry up, we simply don’t have milk in the house. The kids do notice the difference and don’t like the taste of pasteurized milk when given to them.
My next step was to transition my children and husband to gluten free by removing all wheat, oat and barley products from the house. In the past, I would cook my gluten-free pasta separately and wheat pasta for everyone else. After reading so many studies about the negative effects gluten have on the body (even for people who can “tolerate” it), I just couldn’t feed gluten to my family any longer. After a short while, most other grains had faded out of our cabinets. I see this transition with most people who go gluten free. In the beginning, they go for every gluten-free substitute they can find but then soon realize it’s just not worth the cost and highly glycemic effects of these substitutes. For “starchy” carbohydrates, we mostly eat sweet potatoes and sometimes a little white rice as a side dish to our meals. (Brown rice actually has more anti-nutrient components than white). If we’re out at a restaurant and there are corn chips at the table, we have some, but most of our meals are at home and we do just fine without the grains.
Again, I try to go for an 80/20 rule with my kids. One day my 5-year-old daughter told me that her big brother was using his allowance to buy snacks at the school. At first, I was upset that he was hiding this from me and feeling that all of the work I was putting into his diet was in vain. I talked about it with my husband to figure out what to do. I was worried that he was holding this back and feeling bad about wanting a cookie. The last thing I wanted was for him to have some sort of complex around cookies or food in general. The next morning I handed him 50 cents and told him that he’s a good kid, and that it was OK to buy a cookie once in a while. He proceeded to give me a huge hug and admitted that he was already getting cookies at school, and thanked me. The funny thing is, he hasn’t purchased a cookie since. Once it wasn’t forbidden, it was no big deal.
Since I’ve converted my family to living this way, I’ve noticed a big difference in my children. They have more focus on school and sports, fewer runny noses and colds, and are both very strong and lean. I try not to make diet the focus of our lives, though. When we go to a party, I allow my kids to indulge in pizza or a cookie, but I make sure they have bellies full of good food before we go. On Halloween we go trickor-treating, then the kids get to pick out three pieces of candy before the “Switch Witch” comes. The witch comes during the night and takes the rest of their candy in exchange for a toy. By limiting their exposure to sugar, artificial sweeteners, rancid inflammatory oils and grains, I believe my kids are receiving optimal nutrition to reach their genetic potential. My husband has noticed changes in his health too. His body has completely leaned out, his digestion is better and his skin is more clear. His seasonal allergies have vanished and his energy is consistently high because his blood sugar is much more regulated now that he is no longer consuming or craving so much sugar and wheat. No more afternoon energy slumps.
We eat meat, vegetables and a little fruit. We focus our fats on saturated omega-3 fatty acids like those found in coconut oil and butter. Lacto-fermented vegetables like sauerkraut and nutrient-rich bone broths are also important components of our diet. We aren’t hungry or overweight—we just eat until we’re full and we feel great. Breakfasts usually consist of our own bacon and pasture-raised eggs, and some organic berries. No toast, cereal with skim milk, waffles, oatmeal, or orange juice.
School lunches are void of juice boxes, 100-calorie packs of cookies, and Gummy Bears. I pack water, meat, fruit and vegetables. Dinners are variations of meat and vegetables. When we go out to eat, we go for burgers with no bun, salads and ethnic restaurants like Brazilian barbecue, which features delicious meats and lots of fresh vegetable sides.
I have to add that we also move. Instead of playing video games, we are constantly doing sports and exploring nature. Diet, however, is really the key to true health. You can’t “work off” an inflammatory diet at the gym.
Typical School Lunch Box (high in fat, highly processed)
Peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white or wheat bread
Snack: crackers, juice box, fruit roll up
Grain-Free/Low-Sugar Lunch Box
Roasted chicken wings / sliced ham / hard-boiled egg / meatballs Sliced cantaloupe/ strawberries / kiwi / grapes / apple slices sliced cucumber / celery / carrot sticks / red peppers / broccoli Water bottle Snack: fruit, raw milk cheese (if tolerated) / hard-boiled egg / Vermont Smoke and Cure beef stick For more information, Diana recommends the following books:
The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf
Primal Body, Primal Mind by Nora Gedgaudas
The Myth of Cholesterol by Paul Dugliss
The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith
Everyday Paleo by Sarah Fragoso
Diana Rodgers is the office manager at Green Meadows Farm in Hamilton, Massachusetts, and author of The Cultivator, the CSA newsletter, and the author of the introduction to Eat Well Feel Good: Practical Paleo Living
by Diane Frampton. She also runs a private nutrition practice called Radiance Nutritional Therapy (www.radiancenutrition.com) and is the nutritional consultant at North Shore CrossFit.