The power of some foods to prevent and even heal childhood illnesses is nigh unto a miracle. If Americans ate better, it’s pretty likely that you wouldn’t find, as you do today, that one out of three American children suffers from a chronic illness –asthma, birth defects, cancer, lead poisoning and mental-behavioral disorders. Mostly those children are sick because of their exposure to the massive load of toxics while in their mothers’ womb or early in infancy. They lost the battle against these toxics, though of course some children are more genetically more susceptible than others (1).
So it’s a major problem that, in too many families, neither the children nor their pregnant mothers eat the food that defends against toxic assaults. Of course, there’s a toxic point in all people, no matter how well nourished they are, but the threshold for resistance will usually be lower in poorly-nourished children and children with specific nutritional weak spots.
This is more than just ‘eat an apple a day.’ Today a lot is known about which foods will protect against which specific illness, drawn from recent discoveries about how our body’s systems work. (2)
One field of battle takes place in our immune system, where, as in all mammals, we generally have the ability to generate an army of antioxidants whose mission is to fight the “oxidative stress.” Oxidative stress is the ordinary result of our body’s perpetual struggle to rid itself of the by-products of normal cellular metabolism. Normally, our bodies win these daily battles.
But then, along come manmade contaminants. Such as PCBs, found in trace amounts in all of us, though those chemicals (once widely used in electrical equipment) were banned decades ago. Many types of PCBs wreak this harm by causing a huge amount of oxidative stress, far more than many people’s bodies can cope with; the stress ends up inflaming the cells that line blood vessels and, in that way, damages the cardiovascular system as well as the brain and nervous system. A child exposed in the womb to a dose that’s the equivalent of one single drop of PCBs in a bathtub can suffer a lowered IQ and a rise in attention disorder, and cardiovascular diseases later in life.
Manmade contaminants especially threaten children because their bodies produce lower levels than an adult of the master detoxifying antioxidant, glutathione. And some children make even lower levels, probably because of inherited genetic variations (see my article www.care2.com/greenliving/to-vaccinate-your-child-or-not.html), These children are often the ones with learning and behavioral disorders.
So antioxidants, which you’ll find in many foods, are up there at the top of the list of nutrients we need to fight toxins.
Cancer, too, is influenced by antioxidants. The higher the mother’s diet in the 12 months prior to pregnancy of vegetables and fruit as well as protein sources (such as beans and lean beef), the lower the risk of having a child with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ACC). Again, what’s at work here includes the antioxidant glutathione, with its power to help make DNA and repair DNA damage. The study that found this connection also found that pregnant women who consumed cod liver oil and folate supplements similarly reduced the risk of their children suffering from ACC cancer. (3)
If a child during his early years consumes oranges and orange juice, which are packed with the antioxidant vitamin C, and eats potassium-rich bananas, again the likelihood of childhood leukemia falls. (4) A hearty consumption of fruits and vegetables high in beta carotene, another dietary antioxidant, and of foods with vitamin A (oranges, as well as yellow, orange and red vegetables) as well as the antioxidant vitamin E (sunflower and safflower oils, hazel nuts and almonds, wheat germ) also builds the body’s defenses against cancer. (5)
How about damage from lead and other heavy metals to your child’s brain and nervous system? It’s lessened if your child’s body has a good reserve of calcium, iron and zinc, all nutrients that found in a good diet.
Certain birth effects such as neural tube defects, cleft palates and cleft lips are linked to a deficiency of folate acid, a B vitamin found in abundance in leafy green vegetables, as well in lesser amounts in citrus fruits, beans and whole grains. Just to be sure, it’s usually recommended that pregnant women take 400 micrograms or more of folic acid supplements. (6)
Infertility, which is on the rise in the U. S., also reflects the influence of nutrition. Women are more likely to conceive if they follow a Mediterranean diet full of vegetables, vegetable oils, and fish. (Some fish, however, contain high mercury levels, so you have to avoid them. Consult www.ewg.org/safefishlist.) Fertility also requires enough iron and folic acid, and folic acid seems to bolster sperm quality in men. (7)
Endometriosis (where cells lining the uterus grow into other areas of the body), another illness on the rise, also responds to foods with anti-inflammatory powers and to foods with lignins, a type of fiber which helps remove toxic manmade hormones from the body. Lignin-rich vegetables include cabbage, broccoli and Brussels sprouts. (8)
The typical American diet contains too much omega 6, which mostly comes from processed foods and industrially-raised animals. Nursing mothers pass along the ‘wrong’ omega 6 to omega 3 ratio unless they seek out the right foods. The right foods, with their higher levels of omega 3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids. are fish and fish oil, flaxseed and walnuts, canola oil, soybeans, soybean oil, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts. For meat-eaters, some studies indicate that the omega 3 to omega 6 ratio is better in cows, pigs and chickens allowed to forage or fed on grass (which is one of the requirements for animals to be labeled organic).
The high-omega 3 foods are vegetables, especially green and orange vegetables, which are also high in vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and zinc. (By the way, the uptake of zinc is damaged by high fructose corn syrup and artificial colorings.). And let’s not forget garlic, one of the world’s perfect products.
Besides health-giving foods, there are foods that parents should do their best to keep out of their children’s mouths: chicken raised with arsenic, beef raised with antibiotics, milk produced with growth hormones, and non-organic strawberries (doused with a particularly carcinogenic pesticide). It’s wise to be cautious about foods high in saturated animal fat, which includes butter, cheese, meat and processed foods, because many persistent chemicals concentrate in this fat.
About meat – one final note: Whether meat-eating is “good” or “bad” for you and your child is, as far as I can tell, still debatable. While one study shows, for example, that the level of toxic chemicals plummet after a five-day vegetarian diet, the benefits of meat eating is championed by others – see the book Nourishing Traditions. If meat is your choice, buy only grass-fed, locally-raised meats, which are less polluting and polluted, more humane and better for animals and the planet; and they do not contain as much saturated fat because of the way they are raised.
Can our nutritional troubles be solved by popping a vitamin pill or eating the ‘superfoods,’ also known as “nutraceuticals,” that our food industry is beginning to manufacture? Will “fat-burning waffles” or tomatoes pumped full of beta-carotene take care of our children’s needs? Dr. Ellen Silbergeld of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Public Health says, “Eating nutrients in their natural state, in food, appears to have more positive effects than taking one chemical such as one specific vitamin and putting it in a pill.”
When your child is an adult and parent or grandparent, s/he will thank you for all this care. First, because s/he will have a lower likelihood of getting sick. Research has confirmed that disorders seeded in childhood set person’s cellular code for life and can cause illness at any time from conception until old age. So defending against these assaults can head off adult and old age diseases, too. And second, because disruptions to the way our genes normally work, whether disrupted by harmful foods or by toxins, can be inherited through several generations. So your child’s good or bad health will likely show up in your grandchildren and on . (9)
What It Means for You
Compared to 50 years ago, we Americans eat drastically fewer vegetables and whole foods. Yet we are bombarded by toxins in enormously increased amounts. In 1980, we manufactured or imported 200 billion pounds of manmade chemicals a year. Today that figure is 27 trillion pounds.
First and foremost, we as citizens should find ways to reduce the burden of toxins in our environment, and change the system that allows this assault on our children to continue.
As prospective parents, start eating healthy foods even before your child is conceived, at least twelve months before you plan a pregnancy. (One scientific article on the subject bears the title “You Are What Your Mother Ate.”) But that should include both partners. Some physicians recommend that pregnancy-planning women get tested for their nutritional levels; probably makes sense for the partner to be tested, too.
Reduce your child’s risk from all sources of pollution, including foods: consult the resource appendix in Poisoned for Profit: How Toxins Are Making Our Children Chronically Ill (www.poisonedforprofit.net)
True Food offers 8 simple, wise steps (in a visually appealing layout) for cooking, eating and cleaning in ways that are healthy for your family and the planet. Washington, DC: National Geographic, by Annie E. Bond, Melissa Breyer, and Wendy Gordon, 2010.
Anticancer: A New Way of Life, Viking Press, by David Servan-Schrieber, September 2008.
Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging, Ted Schettler et al, Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Science and Environmental Health Network, Boston, 2009. The same nutritional advice that applies as we age applies to children.
www.nuval.com Rates food, applying an algorithm developed at the Yale Prevention Research Center, looking at over 30 factors to determine the score, including the calorie density and Omega 3 content.
Foods that score 100 are broccoli, blueberries, okra, orange, and green beans.
www.feingold.org. Information on ingredients in manufactured foods, including a guide Healthier Food for Busy People.
Top Ten Foods and Drinks for Cancer Prevention, Melissa Breyer, August 3. 2010, www.care2.com/greenliving/10-cancer-fighting-foods.html#ixzz0zhuTJKPd; and 11 cancer fighting foods from Stanford University, http://lslw.standord.edu/11Foods.html.
Food Matters, a documentary, see www.foodmatters.tv for information on purchasing this film.
1. “The Developmental Basis of Health and Disease,” Jerrold J. Heindel, Reproductive Toxicology, May 2007.
2. “Using Nutrition for Intervention and Prevention against Environmental Chemical Toxicity and Associated Diseases,” Bernhard Hennig et al, Environmental Health Perspectives, April 2007.
3. “Maternal dietary risk factors in childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia,” Christopher D. Jensen, et al, Cancer Causes and Control, Northern California Childhood Leukemia Study, University of Berkeley Press, 2004.
4. “Food consumption by children and risk of childhood acute leukemia,” Marilyn L. Kwan et al, Northern California Childhood Leukemia Study, Berkeley 2004.
5. “Antioxidants and Cancer Prevention: Fact Sheet,” National Cancer Institute, undated; and “Modulation of the Effect of Prenatal PAH Exposure on PAH-DNA Adducts in Cord Blood by Plasma Antioxidants,” Frederica P. Perera, Cancer Epidemiology, August 2009.
6. “Acid May Prevent Clef Lip and Palate,” National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, January 2007.
7. “The Fertility Diet,” Jorge Chavarro, Harvard School of Public Health.
8. Prevention of Endometriosis and Related Diseases, M. L. Ballweg, Endometriosis Association, Milwaukee, WI, 2010.
9. Poisoned for Profit, Philip and Alice Shabecoff, 2010, pp 97 ff.
Here’s what I learned (unfortunately, too late for my own grandchildren) from a wise friend: