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Healthy Guts, Healthy Kids

A special post by Robin Strathdee, Whole9 Director of Communications

My Kids Are What?

It appears that heck has frozen over. Yes, friends, it’s happened – my kids have gotten colds (I think… the jury is still out on that one, as there’s an overwhelming lack of mucus). Coming off our Whole30 and running head first into my favorite holiday, Valentine’s Day*, has resulted in a little more indulgence than is usually present in my household. And, said indulgence has led to a couple of days of on and off fevers and general coughiness. At this point, my usually effervescent preschoolers have no idea what to do with themselves. It wasn’t until my four year-old, S., looked at me (wholly pathetic) and asked, “Why do my eyes feel hot?”  that I realized – my kids are just not used to getting sick!

*Seriously, most people go buck-wild at Thanksgiving or Christmas. Not me, man. I can keep it together while most people tremble in fear of those holiday pounds. But once we get to Valentine’s Day…the gloves come off! Cheap red and pink decorations, everything under the sun covered in chocolate and packaged in frilly boxes… I come unhinged.

Looking at Facebook makes me sad these days. Many of my friends have kids, and those kids seem to be stuck in an endless cycle of ear infections, flu, head colds… Now, don’t get me wrong – my kids are not necessarily impervious to the sniffles and sneezes of childhood – but if and when they do get sick, their illnesses tend to be shorter in duration and much less severe than other kiddos we know.

I truly believe that the difference between my munchkins and their friends is that my kids eat real food. 

Let me stop here and offer this disclaimer: I’m in no way trying to imply that my friends are “making their kids sick.”  (And if anyone pulls out the old “correlation isn’t causation” line, I might kick ‘em in the shin.) This is just a post from a Mom who has noticed real health changes in her kids after changing their diets. I’m just relaying my experience with my kiddos and trying to draw logical inferences on the proliferation of common illnesses in other kids I know. That’s all. Okay?

First, Some Background

My littlest, E., has no food-fear.

My girls used to get sick. Not as often as some kids, but they’ve each had an ear infection and a couple of colds in their lives. More importantly, E. (the youngest) had a nasty case of recurring bronchiolitis  - beginning at three months old – which led to severe asthma spells. She spent almost 2 months enduring nebulizer treatments 3 times daily.  After that, the asthma came and went with every allergy attack or cold bug she encountered.  Eventually, we just bought the nebulizer because we had to rent it so often. S. (the oldest) had, at two, begun to show signs that foreshadowed ADD, even Oppositional Defiant Disorder. We were at a loss for what to do, feeling helpless.

At this point breakfast was usually Quaker instant oatmeal. Peanut butter sandwiches and goldfish crackers were staples of their daily diet, and we considered pretzels am ideal snack.  None of these foods are considered unhealthy by standard diet recommendations – in fact, they’re all considered healthy options!

When the CrossFit Springfield Paleo Challenge rolled around, the hubs and I decided we’d try it first and then give it a shot with the girls. How bad could it be, right? We never dreamed it would change their lives. After 2 weeks, we loved the diet enough to test it out on the chicklets. At this point we had done very minimal research* about the Paleo lifestyle, so we had no idea what to expect.

*I know what you’re thinking… “You tested this crazy diet on your kids without reading every book ever written on the subject?!”  YES. Even then I believed that eating meat, fruits and vegetables was a healthy choice for my kids. I think it’s kind of common sense.

The Results

E. was in the middle of a particularly bad spell (it was allergy season), so we figured it couldn’t get much worse than that. But within 24 hours, E.’s asthma was gone. Gone. And S.’s behavior had gone from erratic and manic to positively pleasant.  Suffice it to say we were hooked.

Here’s where the logical inferences come in: Logic would dictate that the change in my girls’ health and behavior immediately following the diet change implies that some (changed) part of their diet was the cause of their problems.  Now, I don’ have doctor’s test results to prove my conclusions. For some, that may discount my experiences. I understand that. What I do have is anecdotal evidence.

Since we changed their diets in August 2010, the nebulizer has not come out of the closet. E. has had an ear infection and a couple of wheezing spells, but they are all less than 24 hours in duration and usually follow closely on the heels of some indulgent occasion (like Christmas or Easter, when “sometimes” foods abound). S. has had one episode of viral throat gunk, following a cupcake indulgence, and a go-round with pink eye. My kids don’t get every cold that comes around, they don’t fall prey to the mysterious “stomach bug” that makes its way around preschool 4 times a year, they don’t cough, hack or otherwise discharge copious amounts of mucous.

Again, disclaimer: My children do occasionally get sick. All children do. But seriously, 3 trips to the doctor in a year and a half? That’s pretty darn good for two preschoolers. Is it because I’m an awesome mother? No. Are they superhuman? Not exactly. (But they are super!) I truly believe that their good health comes from strong immune system, and a strong immune system starts in the gut.

The Science

S. loves her meat candy.

Problematic compounds found in grains (and other foods like legumes and dairy, too) can create disruption in the gut, and either directly or indirectly fire up your kids’ immune system. When your immune system is overworked and unbalanced, it’s not as good at doing other important jobs, like fighting off common invaders like the cold and the flu. This not only means your kiddos catch everything that goes around, but can also lead to inflammation in other parts of their little bodies, like the lungs (E.’s asthma, for example), and even chronic autoimmune disease (like my Crohn’s).

Bottom line: Less healthy foods = Weak immune system  = Sick kiddos. 

On the other hand, feeding your children nutrient-dense whole foods gives them the best foundation for growing up healthy and strong The vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals found in fresh fruits and veggies help kids’ bodies process and absorb nutrients and bolster their immune system function.  Healthy fats (like coconut oil and avocados) encourage brain growth and development.  Proteins, especially those from happy, healthy animals, facilitate muscle and bone growth (and repair, for those little athletes).

Bottom line: Nutrient dense fruits and vegetables + Animal proteins + Healthy fats = A healthy gut + A strong, balanced immune system.

Healthy, Happy Kiddos

Looking back, I know changing my kids’ diet wasn’t as easy as changing my own.  They had already (at 1 and 2 ½) established food preferences and habits that were difficult to change. It was hard to break my kids of the grain-filled happiness of the snack that smiles back (Goldfish crackers), but I am convinced that the effort has resulted in healthy, happy children and lower medical bills.  And so, I would challenge anyone reading this to do the same.  Take away these less healthy foods – the sugar, grains, dairy and legumes – for just one month, and see if your kids aren’t healthier and happier.


Robin Strathdee, our Whole9 Director of Communications, has a B.S. in Print Journalism from Missouri State University. She has used her education and training everywhere from corporate conference rooms to her own kitchen table – where she authors the blog Confessions of a Paleolithic Drama Queen – and is currently pursuing her entrepreneurial dreams as owner of a freelance communications company.

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Comments

  1. says

    Great post Robin. I’ve been loving making all of the baby food for our 7 month old daughter. Nothing but pureed meats, fruits, and vegetables and she loves to eat it all.

  2. Jeannie says

    Thank you for this article! We have 5 children, 2 suffer from dairy allergies, 1 suffers from gluten allergies, 1 has eczema and our youngest son has been in and out of the dr office for the last 13 months. He is on and off of the nebulizer. We will be making changes immediately!! Again Thank You :)

  3. Jodi says

    Great topic! My husband and I decided at xmas that Jan 1st we were doing the Whole 30…and so were our boys. (ages 7 & 9). The first week was difficult, for all of us, as we were detoxing off all the bad stuff that had crept into our diets through the holidays. BUT my husband kept saying “don’t underestimate what these kids can do”….and he was right!

    We saw incredible changes in just the first 10 days, but after 30 we had made major progress, and changed our lives. One of our son’s no longer takes ADD medication…the “symptoms” are no longer present. Hmmm. The tummy aches, head aches, stuffy heads, etc that they were experiencing the month before – GONE!

    I am so proud of them for taking the challenge right along with their mom and dad. We talked to them about making better food choices, and although we had a few fits for mac & cheese, they “got it” at such a young age, and they made it through. People can’t believe it but I haven’t bought milk since Xmas….don’t need it.

    I highly recommend for all parents with children, of any age, to do this. Encourage your kiddos to eat fresh healthy veggies, fruits, meat, nuts, etc.

    It could truly be the most important thing you do in your child’s life….to give them the foundation to grow up strong & healthy, and to help everyone they encounter to do the same.

    Thanks Whole 9!

  4. says

    Jodi – That’s fantastic! It’s amazing how much what kids eat affects their behavior. Through some (spontaneous) reintroduction experiments, we quickly learned that my 4 year old’s behavioral “Trigger” is corn syrup. Even a small amount from a piece of candy can turn her into an unrecognizable beast for 20 minutes. Thankfully, she’s happy being the kid who hangs out at the veggie tray at most parties (and I’m happy to be the mom who gets the disbelieving stares). My kids have even turned down treats from the sample folks at the store because they understand that “wheat isn’t good for their bellies.” Big props to you for deciding to take the chance and make the change.

    Jeannie – Just do it! I promise, you will not be disappointed. Can’t wait to hear how the changes work out for your family!

  5. Bonnie says

    This is great Robin! I feel encouraged to try this with my kids. I have 3 little boys and they rarely get sick as it is (I think mostly because we have always avoided sugar and processed foods). I’m curious to see the difference if we cut out grains and legumes.

    I did my first Whole30 a couple weeks ago and it was great, in fact I’m starting it again Friday because there are some things I still need to work on.

    I’ve haven’t bought bread for my boys in 3 weeks! PB sandwiches are a staple around here, so this has been huge. I’m struggling though – it’s really hard for me to think of snacks they will eat and my two youngest complain about meat. They love eggs, but getting them to eat meat is such a chore. I feel discouraged and could really use some ideas. Do you have some suggestions for snacks and lunches you can share?

    My 2 year almost cries if I say it’s time for dinner. (this is always their 100% Paleo meal) I try so hard to make it good.

    Bonnie

  6. lydia says

    thanks for the great article! i would love to see more posts about paleo and kids. i have two kids, ages 5 and 2. since starting my whole30 two weeks ago (yay me!), i have been weaning them from grains. we eat really well and they have been off of gluten and dairy practically since birth. however, they are big on grains! mostly rice and brown rice bread, quinoa, and millet. i have been cutting down their servings of grains (for example, just a half piece of toast with a meal instead of a full one) and the balance goes to protein and veggies. but like bonnie, i could use some advice. my five year old will eat just about anything and could easily go paleo (he practically is). he is older, too, and really likes to make choices that are good for him. but my two year old is cut from a very different cloth. she is very very strong-willed and carb-loving. the veggies she likes are, basically, carrots, broccoli (which she LOVES), and potatoes. she won’t eat cooked greens or salad. any tips?

    thanks, lydia

  7. says

    Bonnie and Lydia -

    You know, my rule with lunches (and quick kid dinners) is simple is better. I keep to about 5 lunches I know my kiddos enjoy (I pack lunch every.single.schoolday. since they are in private school) and rotate them through every week. They never complain about being bored and I always know what to make for lunch. We usually do:
    Tuna and (Well-Fed) Mayo with cherry tomatoes and fruit
    Cold chicken (S, obviously, prefers legs) with a veggie and fruit
    Ants on a log with almond or cashew butter and raisins (I send the pieces so they can build it themselves)
    Cold hamburgers or meatballs (they love these, too, and don’t seem to mind that they’re cold)
    Lettuce wraps with clean lunch meat.

    If there are veggies they love, keep making them. Just keep encouraging them to try more variety.

    Hope that helps!

  8. lydia says

    thanks, robin. that does help.

    i think, too, that minimizing snacks and not catering to their pickiness helps. they should be hungry when they come to the table!

    bonnie, keeping a small amount of the beloved grain product and slowly making it smaller and smaller has made it easier for my two year old. for example, breakfast this morning was a slice of organic turkey bacon, half an avocado, a steamed carrot, and a small piece of the brown rice bread (about a third of a slice). boy does she love that toast! of course it is the first thing she gobbles up. but because it is a small piece, she then moves on to the rest of the food, but doesn’t feel deprived. i plan on continuing with the token small piece (i will probably have to cut it into squares or strips soon so that it doesn’t seem ridiculously small to her) until one day it’s just, “oops! we ran out!” and because we live in the mountains, far from the grocery store where we get the bread, she accepts when things run out. and then, maybe, we can go to just occasional, and so on. i know how hard it can be to get a strong-willed two year old to eat in a way contrary to their preference, though! it is a harrowing endeavor! good luck and keep me updated, please. i could use the tips too.

    one last thing, i would like to purchase one or two paleo cookbooks, but specifically one that addresses feeding kids paleo. i could use the ideas and tips. but i rarely purchase books, preferring to check them out from the library. but our library doesn’t have any. does anyone have any recommendations for good books on paleo nutrition and recipes for the whole family, and especially kids?

    thanks, lydia

  9. says

    Lydia,

    Paleo Pals and Eat Like a Dinosaur are good ones.
    http://www.amazon.com/Paleo-Pals-Jimmy-Carrot-Rocket/dp/193660888X

    My daughter really enjoyed Paleo Pals and even though we don’t eat strictly paleo the healthy food first message comes through. There are also recipes with suggestions on what the kids can do to help which is great. Our 6-yr old now wants to help make dinner without us even suggesting it and talks about eating the rainbow and nutritious is delicious.

    -C

  10. Mae mae's mama says

    This was a great post! I have two kids in daycare and it seems like my 18 month old has been catching everything…including a case of pneumonia a few weeks ago! We are very health conscious, but could do better! I’ve been wanting to incorporate something like this, but was curious if there’s anyway to modify it to fit a more vegetarian lifestyle. My family loves meat, but I don’t do as well with it. Is this even possible with limited amounts of meat? Also, since dairy is not allowed, is there an acceptable alternative? Perhaps almond milk or soy milk?

  11. Bonnie says

    Robin, I like your idea of rotating some basics for lunches. We home school our boys, so lunches are easier than I imagine packing them would be. Today I made the tuna you mentioned (sans mayo – I am afraid of the raw eggs. I need to get over that!) They had it on top of English cucumber slices.

    Lydia, we have some similarities in the way we’re approaching this. I’ve not gone “cold turkey” with my boys, but I have pretty much omitted grain based snacks and am working at removing bread, quinoa, rice, etc. from our lunch routine.

    I love hearing what is working for others, so I thought I could share and perhaps others could chime in with what they are doing that works for them.

    This week I’ve been whipping up some quick breakfast muffins for my boys. They really seem to miss bread-type foods in the morning – to the point of asking me if we can PLEASE have bread again someday. I found a great recipe from Wellness Mama (love her site!):

    http://wellnessmama.com/2637/grain-free-banana-bread-and-muffins/

    We’ve been doing a variation of them most mornings – banana, pumpkin or apple spice. They’re very quick to make and have simple ingredients: eggs, coconut oil, coconut flour (1/2 cup per batch), banana, baking soda, vanilla. I get 12 muffins in a batch. I would like to make some cinnamon coconut butter to try on these as well. Yummo.

    Along with this the boys will have berries, avocado and eggs. This seems to be a winning combination so far.

    For lunches I’ve been doing a “snacky lunch” – this is usually small amounts of this and that: 1/2 hard boiled egg with a Penzey’s seasoning on it, avocado, tomato, cucumber, fruit and a few pieces of leftover protein from dinner (the meat usually goes untouched by my two year old).

    Snacks are usually fruit (they love to make fruit kabobs and dip them in fruit dip – pureed frozen banana, coconut milk and cinnamon) or a smoothie made with coconut milk, banana, berries and spinach along with some carrots and almond or sunbutter.

    Ideally I would like to see them all eat more meat/fish, hopefully over time they will acquire a desire and taste for it.

    I have to give a shout out to Melissa Joulwan. I have her Well Fed cookbook and it is fantastic. Her recipes really contributed to my dinner time success during my Whole30 and now moving forward. Last night I made the Best Chicken You Will Ever Eat and it was SO good. All of my boys ate it and two of them had seconds. Whoot!

    Mae Mae’s Mama:
    Do you do eggs? My boys don’t do a lot of meat, but thankfully they love eggs.

    For milk, we’ve used almond milk for quiet awhile but I’m in the process of switching my boys to coconut milk as it”s my understanding that too many nuts can cause inflammation. So far they’re not wild about it (my oldest son said it was “water with white food coloring in it ;)

    Bonnie

  12. says

    Mae Mae’s Mama -

    You can definitely do this from a “less meat” perspective. It may require you to be a bit more creative, but the basic principles are the same.

    Check out this post for more details: http://whole9life.com/2012/03/paleo-nutrition-for-vegetarians/

    If you are going to do a Whole30 soy is out, out, out (as is most processed almond milk because of additives and sugar), but coconut milk is a great alternative for the kiddos. You may have to do some experimenting before you find a brand that they like, but I’m confident you’ll find one. E. has been drinking it as her main beverage for over a year.

  13. Kaitlyn says

    My husband and I started eating Paleo about a month ago. One week into it, we put our two boys (3.5 yrs and 18 mos) on it too. Neither one has any noticeable health problems, but they are both on the small side. Neither one is eating well, and I’m about to cave! The 3.5 year old won’t touch vegetables. I have to spoon feed him in order to get him to eat, and even then it’s not without a huge fight. The 18 mo old is better, he at least tries things before he decides he hates it, but still doesn’t eat much. They thrive on fruit and milk at the moment, and the occasional nut! We also still allow greek yogurt every now and then, and we aren’t strict about the diet when we are with friends and family. Should I be doing something different? I’m feeling rather discouraged by it all, and they complain all day that they are starving! We don’t do snacks in between meals, we only offer food at meal times. I’m worried that they are both going to become malnourished. They are both so small already, I’m not sure if this was the right move! Thoughts? encouragement? advice? Thanks!

  14. Bonnie says

    Hi Kaitlyn,

    I just want to encourage you. I’m new to this too, the grain free part, and I’m always looking for ideas that will make this a good experience for my family. I don’t want my efforts to model healthy eating habits and choices to become an issue of negative focus for my kids. It feels terribly counterproductive when they complain all day!

    I was curious as to why your kids don’t snack between meals? I know as adults we don’t need to, but I’ve always understood children’s nutrition needs to be different than ours. They eat smaller amounts and are so active all.the.time. it always made sense to me that they would need snacks. We do 3 square meals each day, but my boys also have a small mid morning snack and an afternoon snack as well.

    I posted a link to a muffin recipe in a comment above that my boys just love. I’ve been making them for breakfast for the past week or so and it’s been a game changer around here.

    I also made a list of things I know my boys love and I try to include at least one of those items for each meal (still adhering to our goals of grain and no sugar). I talked to them about this list and asked for their suggestions. My boys are 7, 5 and 2.

    Do you do smoothies? If you have a good blender I think smoothies are a great option for kids. I put frozen banana, spinach, coconut milk and sometimes nut butters in them.

    Melissa at http://www.theclothesmakethegirl.com/ has a great butternut squash recipe (Velvety Butternut Squash) that we love. You may want to tone down the spice a bit depending on your family preference, but perhaps give it a try! I often make a double batch for dinner so we can have leftovers for lunch.

    What about “spaghetti” using spiralized zucchini or spaghetti squash as the noodles? This sauce recipe is fantastic. I make a double batch and freeze the extra in my canning jars for quick and easy future meals. I often make extra food at dinner time so we can have the leftovers for lunch.

    http://www.multiplydelicious.com/thefood/2011/09/paleo-spaghetti/

    We’ve been at this for about 7 weeks now. I tackled one meal at a time. First up was lunch because that is where we relied so heavily on bread. Snacks were pretty easy to change. Dinner was also easy because that was already pretty much grain free (my two youngest often complained about dinner, but it’s becoming less of an issue now thank goodness!) For the past two weeks I’v been working on breakfast and I can finally say I’m seeing the light. I think their tastes are starting to change!

    I will keep thinking about it and share other ideas that come to me. Hopefully some other mama’s will chime in as well. It can be so challenging feeding kids! I feel for you!

    Bonnie

  15. says

    Kaitlyn,

    I’m sorry you’re having such a rough time of it! At least you can take comfort in knowing that your boys are independent thinkers with strong wills – no one will push them around later in life :0)

    I’m sure you’ve tried every means of coercion there is, but have you tried just taking the pressure off? Sometimes my girls go through contrary phases where they don’t want to do or eat anything we ask them to. In those times, I just put the food on their plate and tell them to eat until they’re finished. There’s no food until the next meal/snack time in those cases, which they don’t love, but they get the idea that the choice is fully theirs to make.

    Another strategy I use is to put a plate or bowl of approved foods out on the table and just leave it there (obviously, you want to avoid foods that are really temperature sensitive). I try to do a mixture of fruits and veg (sometimes nuts). Then, the kiddos can just cruise by and grab something if they’re feeling hungry. It’s another no-pressure approach, and you’d be amazed what they’ll eat when they think no one’s looking ;0)

  16. says

    Great post, Robin! Lynette, I’ve been low oxalate Paleo for about six months and my twin three-year-olds are about 80% Paleo now. A few things that have really helped with my boys is to re-define what breakfast is. We just worked on that one meal until they were both willing to eat a high protein, high fat breakfast which kept them going easily until lunch – and even beyond. It’s often eggs, my homemade sausage, bacon — typical breakfast fare, but it could also be left-over meat from the night before. One of my boys just doesn’t like eggs – he like chopped steak and ground pork – so I always make extras at dinner and just let him eat this for breakfast. Another fabulous option is coconut milk fruit smoothies with a raw egg added in. My boys love these smoothies! Anyway, for us getting a great breakfast in helps us keep eating healthy all day.

    I also think Robin’s suggestion about backing off a little is a great one. It really helps in my house. Someone once told me, it’s my job to decide what to offer and when to offer it and the kids job to decide whether to eat it and how much. I offer veggies and fruit at almost every meal and snack. Sometimes they eat it. Sometimes they don’t. But I try hard to never push them to eat anything. One other thought — the no-snacking rule works great for adults and older kids but tiny guys don’t have as much room in their tummies and have much higher metabolisms than we do. Don’t hesitate to give them a healthy snack like a hard-boiled egg or some fruit at an appropriate snack time. This isn’t ruining their meal — just supplementing it!

  17. Laura says

    What do you know about using probiotics to combat unhealthy gut issues, rather than completely changing what they eat? I’ve read a lot of interesting stuff about the biology of behavior that has to do with systemic yeast overgrowth, and have seen various improvements in my kids when I give them probiotics 3x/day (both behavioral and physical). Dianne Craft also recommends cutting out dairy, and then wheat, too, if the probiotics don’t help on their own.

    Don’t get me wrong – I know the Whole30 plan is a healthy way to eat, and we are moving slowly in that direction! I’m just about ready to give it a try before I spring it on my family. But my kids and I love bread (and I make it myself from fresh-milled flour, so it has a few more nutrients than the store-bought kind, at least), so I’m trying to figure out if we can allow *some* small amount of grains in our diet if we are primarily eating real food and also supplementing with probiotics. And if so, how often? Do we just have to experiment with what works without triggering cravings or other negative side-effects?

    Or maybe I just have to try this thing and become a believer by the results, and go from there…. it’s going to take a significant mental shift for me!

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