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By Jane Sheppard
Kids need whole foods to be healthy. As parents responsible for our kids’ nutrition, we need to provide them with a variety of the freshest, organic, whole foods so their bodies can be healthy and develop fully. Whole foods are unrefined grains, beans, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables. Your child’s body relies on the nutrients from these foods for proper growth as well as mental and physical vitality. A deficiency of even one important nutrient can cause imbalances that can lead to serious disease. Whole foods also provide a wealth of protective compounds that can help prevent disease.
Whole grains are much more nutritious than refined (white flour) grains. A grain is whole and unrefined if the entire kernel is left unaltered and intact. There are three parts to a whole grain – the endosperm, germ and bran. The endosperm contains mostly starch and protein. The germ is rich in unsaturated fats, protein, carbohydrates, vitamin E, B-complex vitamins and minerals. The bran provides a large concentration of fiber and also contains minerals and B vitamins.
Through the process of refining, the germ and bran are both removed, leaving only the endosperm. This process strips the grain of most of its nutritional value, including precious compounds and plant sterols that are important in preventing disease.
Many grains are now refined for commercial purposes. Refined products are white flour breads, rolls, baked goods and most crackers and cereals. Enriching refined products by adding back some vitamins and minerals (as some white breads and most children’s cereals do), does not make the grain whole again. Many other elements have been removed and lost through refinement. Nature created whole grains with nutrients and protective compounds that work together synergistically to provide all our body needs. Enriched grain products rob your child’s body of essential nutrition.
Fresh, organic fruits and vegetables are essential to a healthy diet. The USDA Food Guide Pyramid says that we should eat 3-5 servings of vegetables and 2-4 servings of fruit each day. A serving is:
Age one to three years – one tablespoon per year of life
Age four to eight years – 1/4 cup fruit or vegetables or 1/2 cup salad
Age nine to adult – 1/2 cup fruit or vegetables or 1 cup salad
These wonderful whole foods provide important vitamins, minerals and enzymes as well as fiber to your child’s diet. In addition, there have been many studies done which show that fruits and vegetables are loaded with active compounds such as antioxidants and phytochemicals that can
prevent cancer and other serious diseases.
Fruit juice, which is consumed heavily by children, is not a whole food and adds little nutritional value. Juicing removes the fiber, and unless the juice is freshly squeezed and consumed immediately, most of the nutrients are lost. Commercial canned or bottled juices are mostly sugar (even if you buy unsweetened) and could contain pesticides. Excess sugar can cause health problems and make your child more susceptible to illness.
Many researchers and health care providers are now saying that a lot of fruit juice consumed every day can be harmful to a child’s health. This is due to the large, concentrated amounts of sugar (even though it’s natural) contained in the juices. In addition, fruit juices contain sorbitol, which isn’t absorbed well and can create gas and bloating or even chronic diarrhea. Apple juice has high sorbitol levels. White grape juice doesn’t contain sorbitol and may be tolerated better than other juices, although you still have the problem with sugar and pesticides. Drinking large amounts of juice can also decrease the appetite. If your children drink a lot of juice, they may not have an appetite for the food they really need.
A child who drinks a lot of fruit juices may be susceptible to yeast overgrowth. This can lead to chronic nasal congestion, eczema, or throat and ear infections. If your children are drinking too much fruit juice, you can wean them by diluting one-third white grape juice with two-thirds water. You can slowly cut the juice out altogether. Pure water is the best drink for children.
A typical child’s diet contains high amounts of refined grains, processed foods, sugar and fats. It is not a major catastrophe to sometimes let your children eat these foods. Children love a special treat and it is often hard to avoid it at birthday parties and other events. But if these foods are the majority of your children’s everyday diet, their health will suffer. Filling up on foods that provide little nutritional benefit can cause serious nutritional deficiencies. Before giving your children processed food or sugary snacks, a good question to ask yourself is what whole foods have your children eaten that day that can provide the nutrients they need. The majority of your children’s diet should be whole foods.
An organic, whole foods diet may seem a little overwhelming at first, if this is completely new to you. Relax, go slowly, and have fun with it. You don’t have to make major changes overnight. Start by making small changes to your family’s diet. If your children have been exposed to a lot of unhealthy foods and do not have very good eating habits; that’s okay. It’s never too late to start healthy eating. It’s amazing how quickly poor health disappears when good nutrition is established.
You may be pleasantly surprised at how delicious and readily available whole foods can be. Brown rice is a delicious whole grain that can be added to many recipes. You may want to introduce brown rice to your family slowly, at first, by mixing it with the white rice they are used to. You can also try brown basmati rice, buckwheat groats or whole grain bulgur if you feel adventurous.
Quinoa is a whole grain that has tremendous nutritional value. My daughter started eating and loving it when she was only about a year old. Mixed with mashed sweet potatoes and breastmilk, it makes a high-powered nutritional meal for babies and toddlers.
Fortunately, whole, organic foods are becoming more readily available, since there is a growing awareness of the necessity of these foods. I live in a small city that has at least three large health food stores with an abundance of bulk, organic, whole foods. Bulk foods are cheaper and better for the environment than buying the already packaged foods. I find a huge variety of beans, nuts, seeds and grains as well as excellent organic produce at these stores. Delicious whole grain breads, cookies and crackers are also available. Try to find a natural foods store in your community.
You may also be able to join a food buying coop. Coops are great because you can get excellent whole foods at wholesale prices and share the cost with other families. In addition, there are a growing number of organic farmers who sell their produce at Farmers’ markets. Unfortunately, you may live in an area that does not have such an abundance of healthy foods. If so, there are some things to keep in mind when shopping at a typical grocery store.
It may be difficult to determine what is whole grain and what is refined. Some food companies will try to make you think you are buying something that is whole grain when, in fact, it is refined. If a whole grain is listed first, the bread is mostly whole grain. Whole wheat, oats, amaranth, barley, buckwheat, millet and popcorn are whole grains. Wheat flour, unbleached wheat flour or enriched flour are refined. If the label says “made with whole wheat”, the product is often refined. If you find labels that say cracked wheat, multi-grain, oat bran, seven or nine-grain, stoned wheat, wheat, rye bread, wheatberry or whole bran, you are looking at mostly refined grains.
The pasta you find in most grocery stores is usually not whole grain, although this is beginning to change. Ask your grocery manager to stock whole-wheat pasta. There are several companies that sell whole grain pastas, but usually these are found in natural foods stores. There are pastas made from spelt, amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa and other grains that can be delicious. If your children dislike the texture of whole wheat pasta, some companies make half whole wheat and half refined pastas.
There are some cereals found in a typical grocery store that are made from whole grains. These include oatmeal, granola, muesli, Grape-Nuts, Shredded Wheat and Wheatena. Barbara’s Bakery and many other companies are making whole grain cereals sweetened with honey or molasses that most kids love to eat. You can ask your grocery store manager to order whole grain cereals.
I’ve been emphasizing organic throughout this article since it is important to buy organically grown instead of the conventionally grown foods found in most grocery stores. Conventionally grown produce contains pesticides and other dangerous chemicals. It is usually grown in depleted soils, which may make it mineral deficient. Organic produce is grown with no pesticides or other harsh chemicals. This is especially important for children since what are considered “safe” pesticide levels for adults can be harmful to a child’s small, developing body.
Organic produce is usually grown in soil that has been replenished with organic materials rich in the full spectrum of minerals your child’s body needs. There is a recent study reported in The Journal of Applied Nutrition that compared organic fruits and vegetables with conventional. It shows that organics are twice as rich in some nutrients. Organic produce usually has more trace minerals and micronutrients than conventional.
Buying organic ensures a healthier planet for our kids since organic farming promotes sustainability of the land and is less polluting to the air and water than conventional farming. In addition to being more nutritious, organic produce is also more delicious. You can actually taste the difference! Try to buy organic products for most of your foods, if not all. Ask the store manager for organic produce, even if you know they don’t have it. The more people that ask for it, the sooner the demand will be met. You can also start your own organic garden, even if all you can do is a window garden for herbs and lettuce. You and your child can make your own sprouts from beans and seeds. This can be a great learning experience for kids.
Phytochemicals are substances in plants that prevent cancers and other diseases. These beneficial chemicals are formed as the fruits and vegetables ripen on the vine. Produce picked before it is ripe may be deficient in these important phytochemicals. Produce grown locally is usually healthier than produce shipped from other areas. Produce that has to be shipped is picked before it is ripe and artificially ripened with chemicals. It is also more likely to contain pesticide residues.
Serving organic whole foods does not have to be difficult. What can be easier than giving your children a carrot, banana, apple or slice of whole-grain bread? See the related articles for tips on how to encourage your child to eat and love these wonderful foods. There are also many quick and easy, as well as delicious recipes for preparing wholesome, healthy meals. Eating whole foods can be a very rewarding and satisfying experience for your entire family!