So you’ve started cleaning up your diet. Maybe you’ve moved more towards a real, unprocessed food kind of a deal and are starting to feel the benefits. And just maybe, you’ve managed to convince your spouse/partner to do the same. But the interesting thing is that, whilst many people would consider doing this for themselves, they will completely overlook their children when it comes to changing how they eat.

For some people, cleaning up their diet is primarily about weight-loss, and so getting their kids onto the same sort of plan would seem ludicrous.

But I think the main reason is this: it’s usually hard enough to get your kids through mealtimes feeding them standard-western-diet foods that they’re used to. Imagine how tough it would be to change up their foods completely?! Ugh… the hassle and pain… the tantrums and fits that will cause. Just. Not. Worth. It.

And, despite not yet having kids myself, I totally get it. Being a parent is exhausting, and why would you create more exhaustion for yourself – especially if you have JUST gotten little Alfred to finally eat through a whole plate of pasta without having to bribe/coerce/wrestle him into it.

Obviously, if you start kids off eating this way from day 1 things are a whole lot easier – they just won’t know any different. I know my parents successfully had us believing that “dessert” was a serving of about 8 raisins, and we were totally fine with that.

Changing the way children eat when they’re still super young is always easier than when they get older, but no matter where your kids are at, I personally think it is better late than never when it comes to nutrition. AND, I believe that they will thank you one day, no matter how much they rant and rave now.

“But WHY would I put my kids (or me) through this?!” I hear you ask? “I mean, I ate a standard western diet as a child, and I’m just fine!” you add. Well fair enough, but imagine if you could be even healthier now. If you didn’t have that niggling struggle with your weight, if you didn’t suffer from those headaches, if you had straighter teeth, or if you hadn’t developed that autoimmune condition?
I would say I’m a pretty healthy person. Since cleaning up my diet, I am full of energy, I never get sick, I am happy with my body composition and generally feel great. BUT, it’s taken me a while to get here. I went through a long period where I was struggling with my energy levels, where I constantly felt the need to do crazy detox diets to get my body back “in shape”, I slept badly and, far more seriously, I developed an autoimmune condition called Hashimotos Hypothyroidism, which is NOT fun to live with. I believe if I had eaten the way I eat now from day 1, I could have avoided all of that and would be in a much better place, health-wise, now. Heck I may even have turned out smarter! And so, when I look at kids, I see how much potential they have to grow up truly healthy and to miss out on a lot of the issues most of us have to deal with as we get older, and I know, when I have kids, I will absolutely do everything I can to give them the best start in life when it comes to nutrition.

How would it make sense for me to realize that that breakfast cereal or those pretzels are far from optimum food choices for myself, but then happily allow my little one to snack on them? Seems crazy, but yet it is often the easiest option for parents. After all, little Alfred is refusing to eat EVERYTHING else – at least this will get some calories into him, right? It’ll fill his little tummy for a while and give him some energy. And he seems fine! He has no obvious GI distress, no rashes – he’s perfectly ok. Plus he burns of everything he eats – actually he could even use a little fattening up. As for the bloated tummy – that’s normal isn’t it? And the hyper-activity and inability to sit still – hey all kids are that way!? And it’s normal for kids to not sleep well and periodically get up after they’ve been put down and ask for crackers, right? oh, and ALL kids get sick every few months, right?! Not so much.

Whilst I completely understand all these rationalizations and excuses, (and I’m sure I’ll have some of my own some day), science is less understanding.

We know that what we eat when we’re pregnant can have a profound effect on the health of a baby THROUGHOUT his or her life (not just as a child). In her book Beautiful Babies
, Kristen Michaelis discusses why getting enough of the right nutrients in the womb can, not only impact our health, intelligence, as well as affect which genes are expressed throughout our lives, but how it can even determine how beautiful a person turns out to be. And, as superficial as physical beauty may seem, it is actually very often a significant factor of health. Vit K2 deficiencies in pregnant women, for example, lead to narrowing of the jaw and premature calcification of the nasal cavities in babies, which can have major consequences later in life, leading to frequent sinus/ear infections, crooked teeth etc. Not to mention less than proportionate facial features. So we know that proper nutrition at this stage in our development is vital. Read more here.

But what about after birth? It is becoming more and more widely accepted that early nutrition impacts cognitive function in adults – and that food can affect a child’s IQ even when they’re as young as 8. We are also learning how nutrition sets us up for gene expression. Just because you carry a gene for, say, obesity, doesn’t mean that this gene has to manifest – we can avoid this in many cases. Conditions like diabetes, heart disease and obesity very often begin in childhood.

By now you should be realizing that nutrition is even more important to children’s young, developing bodies and brains than it is to ours, and you’re right. Our kids have the ability to fully reach their physical and mental potential if they start young – and the younger the better. As we age, our brains and bodies become more “cemented” in their development and it becomes increasingly difficult to make certain changes. As much as many of us would like, for example, we are not going to be able to make our facial features more proportionate (except through surgery), whereas when we were developing as embryos, this was well within the realms of possibility.

So what does this mean in practice?

Nutrition for little people is not just about getting enough calories through macronutrient intake (protein, fats and carbohydrates). It is about far more than just this. We need to make sure they are getting the right MICRONUTRIENTS required for optimum development. This requires feeding them the most nutrient-dense, easily digestible foods possible, so that they are given the best possible chance of growing and developing into healthy adults. As much as we need all these nutrients, children need them even more profoundly. Unfortunately, most foods that comprise the standard western diet are low in nutrients, high in calories and end up displacing (and hindering the absorption of) other essential nutrients. These refined, processed foods also fill the space a child might have in his tummy for any other more nutritious foods, and whilst temporarily stemming their hunger, these empty calories do little more than act as a filler and a quick source of energy.

And actually it is worse than just a “filler” or “displacer” of other foods. Foods like grains, sugar, legumes, etc are extremely damaging to the delicate gut-lining of a child, assaulting their immature immune systems with harmful substances, and potentially leading to systemic inflammation, the development of auto-immune conditions and aberrations in mental development, etc. Some of these conditions do not manifest immediately, but rather, gradually, after years of slowly wearing down the body from the inside out. Imagine it like a piece of sandpaper slowly being scraped across your gut. It might take a while, but eventually the damage will be irreparable.

So when you feed your kids a plate of pasta, for example, here’s what happens:

– Firstly, the pasta will fill up valuable space that could be filled with real, nutrient-dense foods (like broccoli, meat, avocado, sweet potato etc). It’s hard enough to get kids to eat all these things, nevermind if they’re already full of nutrient-poor pasta.

– Secondly, pasta is a refined carbohydrate (yes, even whole-wheat pasta) which acts like sugar in the body. This stimulates a surge in insulin and promotes a cycle of high to low blood sugar which, at best, leads to hyperactivity and an inability to concentrate (ADD anyone?), but can also lead to diabetes and obesity.

– Thirdly, the anti-nutrients found in wheat (which is already low in nutrients), further exacerbate nutrient deficiency by hindering the absorption of other nutrients the child might be eating. So, even if there was a nutritious sauce on the pasta, chances are these nutrients are not being absorbed.

– Fourthly, the wheat in pasta contains harmful proteins, such as gluten, which are impossible for the gut to digest and so end up damaging and passing through the gut-lining into the child’s blood stream, leading to immune-system dysfunction, susceptibility to illness, and ultimately, auto-immune conditions. Gluten is also linked to autism, neurological disorders, impaired learning ability, behavioral problems etc, to name a few.

– And lastly, pasta (specifically wheat) acts like a drug in the body – leading to addictive-like responses to the food. This is similar to the way sugar acts on the body. Ever wonder why kids will whine and shriek for crackers/pretzels/spaghetti/muffins etc, but not for steak/broccoli or sweet potato?

Enough said I think.

More on the specific problems with wheat.

Even if you just compare the nutrient quantities on a plate of real unprocessed foods vs standard western diet foods, there is no contest. Check out these comparisons. Would you rather your kids get more or less nutrients for their developing brains and bodies?

But little Alfred doesn’t like vegetables and will ONLY eat pasta!

Umm, does Alfred drive himself to the grocery store and buy his own food? Admittedly, I don’t know how hard it is to take away a beloved (and usually highly addictive) food from a child. I can only imagine the tantrums and shrieking that might occur. But until your little ones are capable of driving and of paying for their own food, you have a lot of say in what they put into their bodies. No child is actually going to let themselves starve – that goes against nature, so although this might be a struggle for a while, they will eventually learn to eat the food on offer. And, that is not to say I advocate forcing them to eat foods they can’t stand, but there is an extremely wide array of delicious whole food out there to choose from, and there will always be some things that your child will eventually learn to like.

Trust me, your children will thank you one day when they are excelling in college, crushing CrossFit PRs, don’t remember what a cold/flu feels like and are enjoying life-long vibrant energy and health.

Further resources:

– This is a pretty good podcast with a new mom who describes some of the challenges and ways she feeds her little one

How to get your family involved with healthy food

Foods that will nourish a growing baby