Do you know what the perfect diet is? Is being vegetarian healthier? Will you have a lower chance of cancer if you don't eat meat? How much protein do you need? Is fish good for you because it has omega 3 fatty acids or will it poison you with mercury? What should you feed you babies for the best start in life? There is a huge amount of information available and even more mis-information. Opinions can be quite heated, particularly when you bring in the debate over the use of animals for human consumption.
One of the short courses that we are planning to run is on healthy eating and lifestyle. But for now, I will relate a few of my own experiences and you can decide it you would like to delve further into this topic with me. Despite a vagrant lifestyle growing up with my parents flitting from possum hunting to fishing to orchard work, small farming, forestry and even into laboratory research, I was fortunate to have been fed a balanced healthy diet (most of the time) and never left hungry. It is perhaps one of the only positive things that I have carried forward to my own parenting and I am convinced that it is the primary reason that my babies have barely ever had a day sick. I am sure it has been a contributing factor to why, when I fill in the myriad of permission forms for school I smile and tick 'no' to every question about allergies and illnesses. I am also certain that there is a lot of luck involved and that I have been very fortunate not to have to deal with serious health issues in any of my children. There have been minor issues of course. In her teens, one of my seven children has developed a moderate milk intolerance, and another suffers mild asthma. And one (though I hate to admit it) signs of liver cirrhosis due to alcohol consumption! But on the whole, they are all, without exception strong, fit, healthy, intelligent people. Now, I am in no way implying that if a child has an allergy, immune-mediated disease or learning difficulties it is because the parents have fed them a bad diet - no way! That's why I say, I have had a lot of luck. I realise how absolutely blessed I am to have 7 healthy babies! All I am saying is that things could have been different if they didn't have a healthy, balanced diet most of the time.
What do I mean by healthy, balanced diet?
I am not one of those nutters that bans sugar and all processed or non-organic food from the household. Nor do I insist that the children are not to leave the dinner table until they have eaten their vegetables. I remember my mother saying "All things in moderation" and while I believe this to an extent, it is not that simple either. I use a few general principles but no real hard and fast rules (well maybe one or two).
Starting with breastfeeding, wherever possible is an absolute blessing. More on this later.
Having meals. 3 meals a day if possible. Sitting at the table. Preferably, meals are had as a family and there is a sense of connection and understanding about the food that is being eaten. Food prepared from basic ingredients at home (meat, vegetables, flour, pasta, rice, herbs, spices, oils etc) We use some selected pre-made flavours such as Indian spice kits to save time. The more involvement the children can have with the creation of the food and knowing where it has come from and it's values the better. Minimal takeaways. We have takeaway pizza or fish and chips or a take-out curry about once a month. More often when we are really busy. Our daughter, Kaylee (2 1/2 years) has two eggs for breakfast every morning! Luckily we have our own hens so part of the morning breakfast ritual is collecting the eggs from their source and thanking the hens and providing them with their care needs.
Minimise junk: This can be really hard in a busy household when there is limited time for food preparation and 'Hangry' children driving you up the wall, that you just want to sit still and stop whining for a while. We don't have any shop bought biscuits or cakes in the cupboards but I am happy for children to bake their own. I have a rule of no soda, no fruit juice, no powered drink flavouring, except on special occasions. Drink water and eat fruit is the general principle. Access to fruit is great and all very well but when you are on a limited budget, fruit has often been rationed to 2 peices a day. Sorry "5+ a day", you don't have much idea about busy, low income households. We have a small selection of potato crisps for emergencies and muesli bars, which, as a general rule, the children don't like. There is usually yoghurt available. Cereals are plain cereals only (weet-bix, cornflakes, rice bubbles and oats). Not all sugar free but not the sugar coated types either.
There is no need to force good nutrition. That's about it as far as food rules go for us. We have many many mealtimes when children don't eat a thing. And that is fine! Or they only eat the meat! Or won't touch anything with fat on it. None of this really matters as long the general principles are adhered to: Meals as a family, mostly home made, mostly from plants involve children in the food experience and minimise access to junk food. So far all of my children that are more than 10 years old have decided on a healthy balanced diet by choice (except a little excessive alcohol consumption by one lad). There have been a few fads, but in pursuit of health.
On breastfeeding: I have been in the privileged position of being able to breastfeed my babies until they were at least 2 years old. Recently, I felt even more grateful for being able to do this when I learned that there are oligosaccharides (sugars) in breast milk that the baby cannot digest. It was found that these compounds actually feed microbes (specifically a bacterium, Bifidobacteria longum biovar infantis) in the babies gut and do not provide any direct nutrition to the baby. That goes to show how important our relationship is with microbes. Mothers go to all the effort and energy expense to produce large quantities of sugars in their milk to feed the microbes in their babies gut and for no other purpose. There is now a multitude of companies trying to make money out of this discovery (which nature developed over thousands of years) by selling formulations of Bifidobacteria longum biovar infantis with promises of all sorts of benefits including extended life expectancy! Do they also sell the oligosaccharides from mothers milk to feed to bugs?
This brings me back to another thing I am convinced about. (Note here: These factors only apply to immunocompetent individuals. I do not recommend babies with serious illness, allergy or immune-mediated diseases eat dirt!). We have evolved alongside bugs, animals, dirt, bacteria, viruses, protozoa and also the food we eat. While food hygiene is important, there is no need to wash fruit picked straight from the bush or tree if that plant has not been sprayed with toxic chemicals. We can be sure it will be covered in bacteria and dust but it will be quite safe. We should not get stressed about our babies eating dirt or sand. In fact, where do those gut microbes come from? They aren't born with them in their gut so they must pick them up from somewhere soon after birth!. Amazing, isn't it.
Food safety is a big and important topic. Our family has had one serious incident of food poisoning. We contracted Yersinia pseudotuberculosis from eating lettuces bought from the supermarket. These was grown at a market gardens and there were several other cases at the same time. The lettuces were pre-washed and bagged and had no sign of dirt on them. But how did the yersinia get there? Yersinia pseudotuberculosis is a commensal gut microbe in animals that can cause serious illness in a range of species under certain conditions. It is not generally found in the soil that has not been treated with animal manure, so there must have been some form of contamination where the lettuces were grown or in the water used for washing them. This has not put me off eating lettuce from my own garden but has made me question the practices on some market gardens. Most of the bugs that cause serious food-borne disease are derived from animal excreta or urine or human waste. They can be transferred by other animals too, such as rats or insects. So again, a sensible balance between good hygiene and natural inoculation of a body system that evolved to interact with the world around it to function fully should be the goal. We haven't touched on the safety of herbicides and pesticides on food. That is a discussion for another time.