By Ashley Koff, RD
Today I read a lot of articles about all of the threats to children’s health, the exponential increases in levels of disease, allergies, intolerances, etc., and they paint a very bleak picture. Parents voice their concerns to me about this food or that, this nutrient or that, this environmental toxin or that one, the threats of cyber predators or school safety, and so on. It all seems so scary; yet I don’t do “Debbie Downer” very well. So I wanted to write this to say it’s okay, Mom and Dad (or Mom- and Dad-to-be, or Mom and Mom, or Dad and Dad, or Grandma, or . . . you get the point)—it’s so okay, at least when it comes to nutrition and environmental toxins. We actually know the issues, we have the solutions, we can make it easy to be healthier, and we even have the tools to heal when health crises arise. So take a deep breath and read on; this should be music to your ears.
Key Principles for Optimal Health for Kids (and Adults)
- Give a body what it recognizes. Organic food is just food. The body understands that and it responds beautifully to it. The bonus here is that this means that any food—in its high-quality, organic form—can be part of a nutrition plan for optimal health. Want something red? Nature gives us apples, beets, cherry tomatoes, red meat—there are lots of options, so you can choose. Want something smooth? Nature offers avocado, creamy cheeses, natto, and beans we can puree into a small dip. The body recognizes, anticipates and desires different textures, colors and tastes. And nature delivers.
- Avoid anything the body won’t completely recognize. Somehow ingredient panels became marketing space, and crafty names guided us into thinking what we were eating was just food or, in some instances, even better than just food (e.g., vitamin water). The truth is that nature doesn’t need a marketing campaign or creative names for its pieces and parts. Nature provides foods of varying sweetness, so why do we need artificial sweeteners or chemical hybrids? Nature provides some fats that are hard at room temperature and some that are liquid, so why do we need to eat chemically made ones that are liquid outside of the body but act as a solid inside? And why add vitamins to water when water is meant to hydrate us? Optimal hydration has more to do with minerals (electrolytes) than vitamins anyway.
- Be a “qualitarian.” A growing body is like the frame of a house: when we build, we want to use the highest-quality ingredients for the strongest foundation possible. This way, as the elements challenge the foundation over the years, it doesn’t mean nothing will break—accidents and natural disasters do occur (broken bones, disease, and so on)—but with a strong foundation the house (or body) is better able to overcome them. Teach your kids, and yourself, to make the highest-quality choices. This doesn’t mean salmon is always better than beef (wild salmon versus beef, yes; but grass-fed organic beef often trumps farmed salmon). And “Always eat your veggies” may require modification to “Eat your organic veggies most of the time—and always consume organic if they are on the `Dirty Dozen’ list;* avoid the GMO legumes (including soy); and eat these foods in their whole-food form versus isolating the protein from the highly desirable fiber, omega fatty acids and carbohydrates.”
- Define “supplementation”; don’t be defined by it. By definition, a supplement is supplemental to (a healthy) diet. Thinking your child needs a vitamin C supplement because he or she doesn’t eat enough vegetables? Giving your child a DHA fatty-acid supplement, but are they getting in all the other omegas? Taking care to feed your child organic food whenever possible but then giving them a non-organic, non-whole-food multivitamin/mineral? Watching their sugar intake but then providing 6–10 grams daily in a gummy vitamin? The proliferation of dietary supplements targeting children has made these food-supplement contradictions and others a reality that can leave the dietary supplement being part of the problem, not the solution. See below for some tips on how to pick a supplement that enhances your child’s nutrition.
A parent (hey, that’s you) knows best. You have the right, and responsibility, to say no—as in “No, I won’t have chemically made foods or supplements in my home.” You have the right, and responsibility, to say yes—as in “Yes, you will try the broccoli and beans that I made tonight.” You have the right, and the responsibility, to not be influenced by marketing claims that go counter to your intuition—and I aim to help, with Ashley Koff Approved listings, to make this easier for you (www.ashleykoffapproved.com).
How to Choose a Daily Supplement for Your Kids
Start with a wish list: strong bones, focus, calmness, intelligence, healthy digestion, strong muscles, healthy weight, no headaches—I realize the list could go on and on, but this will do as a beginning.
What a supplement can offer is a way to balance out the nutrition from the day. Think of Tom Cruise’s famous line from Jerry Maguire (no, not “Show me the money!”)—“You complete me”—and you will see how a daily supplement can enhance your child’s nutrition regime. While organic farming is wonderful and nutrient dense, it still represents a very small portion of fruits and vegetables grown today; and that means that the vast amount of our nation’s soil, which has been chemically farmed for years, has lost nutrient value compared with previous decades. Thus, for optimal health, we can “supplement” these nutrients regardless of our children’s fruit and vegetable intake.
So, back to the wish list. Can we deliver? Yes, here’s how:
- Minerals: Make sure that you are getting sufficient magnesium to counterbalance supplemental and food intake of calcium. Magnesium creates the calmness—whether it’s mental or physical; magnesium turns off our stress response, allows our muscles to relax (which means all muscles, especially our digestive tract muscles), and is critical for strong bones, along with its partner, calcium. Potassium is also key, to counterbalance sodium for optimal hydration. Since we get sodium in the diet, and often too much, the need for potassium, like magnesium, is often supplemental.
- Amino acids: We need all the essential ones to ensure hormone health (hormones are our messengers) as well as to build muscles and maintain a healthy weight. Sometimes a whole day can go by in which the protein-rich options were low quality or not liked by your child, or both. Thus, supplemental amino acids help prevent operating at a deficit with these important nutrients.
- Organic fruits and vegetables: While the availability of these organic foods continues to increase (as demand does too—yeah!), they are still hardly ubiquitous. Thus, a supplement that provides organic fruits and vegetables can be a great addition to a day’s nutrition plan. For Ashley Koff Approved, I don’t approve of supplements that contain fruits and vegetables that aren’t organic. It doesn’t make sense, as studies are confirming what we know to be true: the chemicals used in chemical farming challenge the normal operating functions of the body—especially the young growing body.
- Sugar: We definitely do not need to supplement (defined as “in addition to a healthy diet”) more sugar, even if it’s organic sugar. I am totally comfortable with modest consumption of nature’s organic sugar options: cane sugar, honey, molasses, stevia leaf, and nectars like agave and coconut. But these sugars should come primarily from the diet—not a supplement—to avoid confusing the body as well as a child’s mind (“How come my vitamins taste so much like candy?”).
- How do you get children to take their supplements? If it’s a great product but they won’t consume it, there’s no gain, right? This means it needs to be in a form that children will accept. It’s doubtful that pills and capsules will work that well with kids, as they can be hard to swallow. So, that leaves gummies—which can get stuck in teeth, be confused with candy, and provide excess sugar—or something like a liquid. Keep in mind that all supplements have to dissolve (liquefy) before they can be absorbed, but liquids are already in that form. If you can provide something that tastes good either by itself or added to a cup of half juice/half water or a smoothie, the kids will take it.
* Dirty DozenTM: a list of foods defined by the Environmental Working Group that, due to their known elevated pesticide content level, should only be consumed if certified organic (http://static.foodnews.org/pdf/EWG-shoppers-guide.pdf).