Paradox Health - Kids and Food


There are many instances we can all appreciate where it makes sense to treat people of different ages differently.  We think it’s cute when babies are chubby, but not so much when adults are chubby.  This is appropriate because that fat is stored growth and is not associated with disease.  Most chubby babies (if not overfed) will lengthen and slim down rather quickly.  Another example is how we treat children based on their mental capacity.  We know that an 18mo old still doesn’t understand punishment, and so timeouts and other negative reinforcements don’t work.  The toys we give them are “age appropriate.”  The language we use with them is “age-appropriate.”  This age-appropriateness is intuitive and all part of rearing children.  It makes sense.  Now, in order to vet something that society views as age-appropriate, I find it helpful to think back through history and ask the question, “Has this been the case for the last few decades, centuries, or millenia?”  If the answer is yes, then I know it is appropriate and part of normal growth and development.  But when it comes to the question of childhood food choices, it fails, quickly.

What foods do we view as acceptable for adults?  Vegetables, lean meats, fruit, and a lack of processed food.

What foods do we view as acceptable for children?  Cereal, goldfish, donuts, candy, juice, ice cream, and Happy Meals.

Society has made our diets “age-appropriate,” and this is not progress.  Yes, of course during the first two years of life, our diets are age-appropriate – Newborns function optimally on breastmilk and in the second year of life we are still getting the majority of our nutrition through liquid calories.  But after we dial back the liquid calories around 2 years of age, why should the average child’s diet look any different from a 40 year-olds’?  Is there some period between the ages of 2 and 10, or 2 and 15 (depending on the person) where we want them to eat processed food where sugar makes up the majority of their calories, and then switch them to “healthier food” when they are “of age?”  This makes no sense to me.  Instead, we should be starting them out on a diet that they will likely stick to for the rest of their lives.  Otherwise, our children will have to re-learn how to eat at some point in life, less they develop the chronic diseases that plague developed nations. 

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander

There is a clear link between childhood and adult eating patterns both within an individual and within a family and the science bears that out.

This study demonstrated improvement in obesity and insulin resistance scores (HOMA-IR) in children whose parents attended six classes at a local hospital focused on dietary changes to improve their health. 

I think any further quotation of the literature is unnecessary.  We know our kids model our behavior in all areas of life, and that includes eating. 

What did we eat before all of this processed food became available?

The dietary pattern we see through the 20th century is with traditionally homemade meals, requiring more time to prepare, being replaced with processed food inventions that take less [or no] time to prepare.  As the industrial revolution took hold and society changed, demand for a “quick breakfast” arose, and so did the inventions:

1930s – Bisquick, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Mott’s apple juice and apple sauce

1940s – Spam, Cheerios, concentrated orange juice

1950s – Eggo Waffles, Dunkin’ Donuts, Denny’s, Jif Peanut Butter, Lender’s Bagels

1960s – Pop-Tarts, Carnation Instant Breakfast

1970s – McDonald’s Breakfast, Sugar cereals, Quaker Oats, pre-made yogurt

1980s – SlimFast & more sugary cereals

Before this time, we ate what we would eat at our other meals.  At certain times, eggs, bacon, and breakfast sausage were common, and then would often be replaced by refined-carbohydrates when, for instance, the depression hit, or during WWII.

Regardless of the reason for it all, the pattern emerges of real food being replaced with highly processed pseudo-food.  A lot of it is also hyperpalatable, meaning that it confuses and overloads our sensory nervous system, and we don’t really know how to react to it except that we know we want more.  The further we get from something that comes from the environment we live in, the more difficult it becomes for our bodies to process it, and for our nervous system to understand it.

A framework for feeding children

  1. My kids should be eating what I’m eating for 75% of their meals.
  2. If they’re eating something different, make it another healthy option.
  3. If my kids have a treat, make sure their next meal is not a treat.
  4. Try to minimize food as a reward.
  5. If my kids start throwing tantrums over a food item, take it out of the house, at least temporarily.

I realize this all takes time and effort.  But all good things do!

Closing thoughts:

The promise of instant gratification and shortcuts in life are quite the trap and the applications are endless: weight loss, getting work done, gaining muscle, lack of sleep, and probably the biggest one, stress.  We all want the “quick-fix” when in reality the best way to tackle each of these things is to fully understand the problem and take a more holistic and sustainable approach that doesn’t compromise.  We want convenience, but convenience ultimately is not the best thing for us.  We function best when we sit down with our family and friends and talk over a meal.  We function best when we eat real food that wasn’t invented within the last century.  The issue of childhood nutrition is an issue of convenience and effort.  Our challenge is to change the paradigm that says our 4 year old should be eating differently than us.

Afterthoughts:  The history behind cereal and High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)

The first time, cereal was invented by a religious and conservative vegetarian who went by the name of James Caleb Jackson. He invented it in 1863 from graham flour dough, and it was set out to dry and broken into pieces. The pieces were so hard that they had to be soaked in milk for the entire night so that they could be used. This invention was termed “granula.”  Dr. John Harvey Kellogg invented corn flakes in 1894.  He did this to fight the dyspepsia (heartburn) epidemic going on in 19th century America from eating things like meat and pie for breakfast, ostensibly a much heavier meal.  Besides ameliorating gastric woes, Dr. Kellogg also believed gluttony to be a gateway drug to sin and so felt his corn flakes had a higher, religious purpose in life.  He called this reform of his, “Biologic Living.”  His brother, William Kellogg, and one of his patients, C.W. Post, succeeded in creating the two powerhouses we know of today, Kellogg’s and Post Cereal Brands, by adding sugar to their own concoction of grains.  And thus, modern day cereal was born.

Sugar became cheap for a number of reasons.  The Cuban Missile Crisis was a 35-day affair in 1962, however, we put a semi-permanent embargo on Cuba and thus raised the price of US imports on cane sugar.  In 1965-1970, a Japanese scientist, Yoshiyuki Takasaki, was able to crack the code on producing fructose from the glucose in corn starch after inventing something called xylose isomerase.  The Clinton Corn Processing Company of Clinton, Iowa then licensed the technology and began producing HFCS domestically.  Archer Daniels Midland (based in Chicago) is now the largest domestic producer.

Table 1

Country                                        ProductionConsumptionCountries exported to
U.S8.3 million tonnes (2017)22.1 lbs per capita  (2018)Mexico (75%)
China4.15 million tonnes (2017)Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, India

The US government subsidizes the corn industry, whilst simultaneously imposing tariffs on cane sugar imports, thus making HFCS cheaper relative to cane sugar.  This began with the Cuban Embargo and has continued until today. Other countries like Vietnam have similar policies with no tax on HFCS imports and a 5% tax on sucrose (cane sugar) imports.  In 2017 Vietnam paid roughly $398 for a ton of HFCS vs. $702 for a ton of sucrose (cane sugar).