A young mother of my acquaintance listened offhandedly as her elementary school age daughter played with a friend in the next room. She heard them talking to some toys until the guest announced she was ready for a snack and suggested they go to the kitchen for chips and sodas. Without missing a beat, the young host replied, “I’m sorry. We don’t have that. My mother is a health food nut,” as if it were a career choice like teaching school or accounting for a living. The girls eventually settled on some other snack, but the guest did not return for several weeks.
I remembered that story recently when I read that the number one vegetable eaten by American toddlers is – guess what? – the French fry. I have even seen babies drinking soda from baby bottles and once heard of a 6-month-old child given a fast food kid’s meal as her first solid food.
We have all seen the desperate television pleas for money to feed starving children in developing nations around the world. But the cold, hard truth is that while most American children are not starving, far too many are indeed malnourished. Malnutrition includes obesity, which means too many calories are consumed at the expense of critical nutrition. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics in a groundbreaking policy statement last month, this is not just unfortunate in a nation of such plenty. It is, in fact, damaging children in ways from which they cannot and will not recover.
If you do not remember anything else about the details, remember this. Our nation’s pediatricians say the first 1,000 days, just over the first two years of a baby’s life, are critical to brain development and can lay the foundation for good health or a lifetime of chronic health problems. Adequate nutrition leads to positive outcomes, and poor nutrition leads to lesser outcomes. The pediatricians say no amount of catch-up later in life can reverse what has not been done during the earliest days of life. Says Lucy Sullivan, head of the nonprofit program 1,000 Days, “The first 1,000 days matter for all that follow.” Roger Thurow, who wrote a book on the importance of the first 1,000 days, goes even further. He says the challenge is not just to help parents understand that good nutrition is important but that poor nutrition can – and does – do quantifiable damage to developing minds and bodies.
If that is not enough to get parents’ attention, I don’t know what will.
No one says infant and toddler nutrition is easy, and many of us have experienced the pureed green beans and carrots that ooze out of the sides of baby mouths. Beyond baby behavior, issues of poverty and food insecurity, parents working long hours, food deserts, busy family schedules, and more, roadmaps exist about what we should be feeding the littlest and most vulnerable among us.
Pediatricians acknowledge the challenges of quality nutrition for babies in our fastpaced and highly packaged culture. Breastfeeding, they say, can be a powerful protector of young children, supplying both nutrition designed by nature just for babies and moms’ antibodies as protection from disease. They recommend nursing for at least six months before starting solid foods and liquids, even though nursing is a cultural and logistical challenge for many mothers. And, the docs say, it is helpful if mom does not gain too much weight during pregnancy, as that ups the ante for conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure in the future.
The mother whose daughter labeled her a health food nut tried hard to put healthy, unprocessed foods on the family table, and sometimes that worked. Sometimes the family had take-out pizza, and chips and sodas were known to sneak into the house on occasion. They even ate the occasional MRE, meals designed for young, physically active military members, not children in elementary school.
She did not like to think about what her family consumed when she was not in charge. She jokes that her tombstone will read, “She did the best she could.”
That said, all we – parents, grandparents and anyone caring for young children – can do is educate ourselves to provide the freshest, most nutritious fare available to us for them.