Guest post written by: Kathryn Kos
We have moved far away from having the instinctual ability to know exactly how to feed our children. There are hundreds of books trying to teach us the right things to do. The media tries to shout out at us! The norm in our ‘rush rush’ culture is quick and easy. We see the word ‘healthy’ and we take it and run with it. There is this parent guilt we experience, associated with anything cheap and fast. Flashy advertisements labeling everything from breakfast cereals, to power bars, to chicken nuggets as ‘healthy’ ‘all natural’ and a must have part of our child’s nutrition. My point here is that feeding children is no easy feat! But we do it. We feed our children as close to a paleo paradigm as we can, within the context of our modern culture. We feed them within the realm of soccer practices, late meetings, playdates, carpools, and needing to be 20 places at once. Are you that parent who doesn’t buy cereal or boxed foods? The parent who spends quite a bit of money every week on groceries, and time to prep kid-friendly meals, in order to feed your child your best version of healthy that you can possibly muster? Are you that parent who, despite your attempts, your child still struggles with his/her weight, food allergies, autoimmune issues, frequent colds or even chronic ear infections?
Modern children are the cultivation of generations of consumerism. The emerging science of epigenetics is showing that not only are genes inherited from parents, the diet and lifestyle of your parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents has a profound impact on your health, your children’s health, and even their children’s health. You may have the most perfect diet, and yet still have a child with food allergies, autoimmune issues, and metabolic struggles. With the onset of the agricultural revolution, and the slow rise in processed foods becoming the standard, came about a dramatic increase in inflammatory related illnesses and metabolic issues. It becomes more and more difficult to undo generations of misguided nutritional advice. With commercialism and media telling us what we should be eating, we are in a sense, set up to fail. It takes a great deal of effort, and yet sometimes our best attempts may not be working for us. Processed foods are the norm for most families now. Even the most well advised parents are seeing their children put in situations where processed foods are the only option.
Modern children are different, and we have to look at the bigger picture. It’s not only about nutrition. They are exposed to more environmental toxins, there is less movement throughout the day, with a higher emphasis on achievement in school, stress is higher, life is faster. Mode of birth and breastfeeding, as well as hospital practices that undermine the birth process are affecting our children’s microbiome. My point is that there are a great many factors that can contribute to childhood obesity. Although diet plays a major role, it’s not only about food here. In this piece we will discuss the impact of nutrition, movement, and microbiome on childhood obesity.
In their book Pottenger’s Prophecy, How Food Resets Genes for Wellness or Illness, Gray Graham, Deborah Kesten, and Larry Scherwitz discuss the concept of epigenetics. Epigenetics is the relationship between our genome and the environment with regards to aging and disease. It’s a very new science, however quite promising in helping the medical community understand the impact our inherited genes, diet, lifestyle, and environment have on both our own health and the health of our offspring. Graham discusses Dr Francis Pottenger, a pediatrician and research scientist in the 1930’s. His research on cats lays down a foundation for understanding how nutritional deficiencies from a modern diet can be passed down to the next generation, as well as generations to follow! Pottenger studied generations of cats by giving some of the cats a raw and natural diet, and some of them a cooked and processed diet. He studied their births, pregnancies, and conditions that humans are prone to such as illnesses, heart conditions, thyroid disease, and inflammatory processes.
According to Graham, there were two fairly remarkable conclusions drawn from Pottenger’s study on cats. The first being ‘physical degeneration caused by a poor diet in the mother is inherited in the offspring and passed on through the third generation.’ and the second being, ‘When a mother’s diet is nutritious, not only does she benefit with good health, so, too do her offspring…and their offspring, and so on.’
What does this mean for us? It’s imperative that our generation stop making excuses for poor nutrition, and start making some big changes. It may take a few generations for the health of our future generations to return, and for disease processes like autoimmune conditions, metabolic issues, and asthma to start reversing. We may still have children that struggle, but we have to look at the bigger picture and start incorporating major changes.
There is this fear that our children will have a disordered view of food, if we are ‘overly healthy’ with them. In my opinion, this fear of disordered eating is pulling us too far in the opposite direction. The real disorder, is what we now consider normal. The food industry perpetuates this fear, by leading us to believe that moderate amounts of processed foods labeled as ‘healthy’ are okay for children to consume. Avoiding giving our children packaged foods, is viewed as dysfunctional by many who follow mainstream nutrition paradigms. However, The best thing we can do is make real, healthy home cooked food a priority at home. Make it normal. Everyday. There are many amazing kid-friendly blogs and cookbooks. There are crockpot recipes and meal plans. We can get our children involved with meal prep, and get them excited about real food. Keep in mind that what they are consuming now will have a profound effect on their offspring, and the subsequent generations to follow! We are in a sense changing their genes for the better, through real food. One bite at a time, one meal at time.
With the onset of modern technology and increased screen time, modern children are not moving nearly as much as they should be throughout the day. On top of this, our educational culture has moved in the direction of achievement at all cost. Children are spending 6+ hours a day sitting in the classroom. Recess time is becoming less and less. Movement throughout the day (not just during structured sport settings) is essential for a child’s physical and emotional well-being. A recent study published in Applied Kinesiology, Fitness and Metabolism (2016) looked at why children are more sedentary now. The biggest factor was increased screen time at home. These researchers concluded,
‘The most common correlates included weight status and access to electronics in the house’.
We need to have our children step.away.from.the.screen. Literally. Free play is a lost art, yet necessary for our children’s mental and physical wellbeing. As parents we need to speak up about the importance of movement throughout the day at school. Speak up about more recess. Speak up about stretch breaks throughout the day. Sitting all day is extremely counterproductive for children. Play and movement are so imperative for instilling in our children!
According to my friend and colleague Darryl Edwards from www.primalplay.com,
‘Our children are the most sedentary in human history with physical activity becoming increasingly optional and our kids suffering the health consequences of this inactive lifestyle. Movement should be mandatory – you can’t outrun a poor diet, but you can’t ‘healthy eat’ your way out of a sedentary lifestyle either. Create the environment to ensure kids have fun with movement.’
When at home, limit screens, and focus on outdoor free play and movement as often as possible throughout the day. We need to get our children back outside, and back to using their bodies throughout the day.
Within the past few years there has been a great deal of microbiome research, with regards to obesity. One major factor is mode of delivery at birth and breastfeeding! Children born vaginally are at a decreased risk of obesity, and this is because of the beneficial bacteria the infant is bathed in when passing through the birthing canal. One very recent study by Yuan, Gaskins, & Blaine, et al. (2016) concluded that cesarean birth was associated with offspring obesity after accounting for major confounding factors. In within-family analysis, individuals born by cesarean delivery had 64% (8%-148%) higher odds of obesity than did their siblings born via vaginal delivery. There are, however, ways we can incorporate microbiome into our birth plans.
A review of research in Nature Reviews Microbiology, suggests that microbiome should now be a part of our birthing plans.
‘Delivery by C-section has been associated with an increased risk of immune and metabolic disorders, which are thought to arise owing to changes in microbiota’
Researchers exposed babies to vaginal fluid from their mothers within the first two minutes after cesarian. They observed that their microbiome composition resembled the microbiome of vaginally delivered infants throughout the first month of life. Other important ways to increase an infant’s healthy microbiome at birth, are skin to skin contact with parents immediately after birth, not bathing the infant, and breastfeeding.
Another huge impact on children’s microbiome is associated with germ theory, and the overuse of antibiotics, antibacterial hygiene products, and general societal fear of children getting dirty. This is in of itself a whole new topic that can fill a book. In a nutshell, we are essentially killing off beneficial bacteria, and not exposing our children to microbes necessary to build up their immune system. My biggest suggestion is to not fear dirt! Let your children play in the dirt. Let infants explore their world with their hands and mouth. Stop over-sanitizing everything, and fearing all bacteria. It’s time we realize just how important a little dirt is, in terms of shaping our child’s collective microbiome.
What are some simple steps you can take now with your child?
We are bombarded with media telling us what we should be buying, and doing to better our children. We need to step away from all of this. Let’s instead make small and concrete steps towards bettering our children’s health, such as:
- Meal plan, and focus the majority of meals around real food.
- Limit screens, get your children outside playing, even on very cold days. Stop fearing the elements. Get them outside.
- Have a microbiome plan in your birthing plan.
- Allow your children to explore the world, get outside, and get dirty!
First and foremost, understand that your child’s health struggles may be due to a variety of compounding factors, including how his/her great grandparent’s lived. Keep in mind modern children are not the same as even the last generation.
Graham G., Keston D., & Scherwitz L. (2011). Pottenger’s Prophecy. How Food Resets Genes for Wellness or Illness. Amherst, Massachusetts: White River Press
LeBlanc, A (2016). Why are children sedentary: an examination using the International Study of Childhood Obesity, Lifestyle and the Environment. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 41(7): 790, 10.1139/apnm-2015-0555.
Nunes-Alves, C (2016). Add the microbiota to your birth plan. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 14 (131). doi:10.1038/nrmicro.2016.23
Yuan C, Gaskins AJ, Blaine AI, et al. (2016). Association Between Cesarean Birth and Risk of Obesity in Offspring in Childhood, Adolescence, and Early Adulthood. JAMA Pediatr. Published online September 6, 2016. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2016.2385