In Search Of The Perfect Diet

What if I told you that there was one way of eating, one diet, that could ensure proper growth and good behaviour in your kids, could reduce sick days, could ensure weight control, could eliminate brain fog and lethargy, could improve sleep and energy, and could avoid all disease?

Would you say, “oh... finally! Please just tell me what it is!”

Or, would you say, “You’re nuts...it can’t be that simple!”

Well, both answers would be kinda right. Let me explain.

While I am still floored by people who think that what they eat has no impact on their symptoms, or that a change in diet is an “extreme” measure to take (like cutting out an organ isn’t extreme?) truth is, to claim that there is one perfect diet is a kinda nutty thing to say.

It is more complicated than that. But wait.... it’s not much more complicated.

Conversations and “camps” around various diets are getting increasingly polarized. It’s never been more confusing to decide what to eat and I find this frustrating. Paleo? Vegetarian? Pescatarian? Traditional? “The Perfect Health Diet?” GAPS?

Everyone thinks they are “right”. That they have the answer.

And they are right. For them.

When you change your diet and start to experience better health it’s easy to think everybody should follow your lead.

The good news is that these experiences are perpetuating the understanding that dietary changes can heal the body. Which they can.

The bad new is that there is no one-sized-fits-all solution to any health issue. And that makes things confusing.

While I love research, we can’t rely completely on research for much help because nutritional research is notoriously politicized and conflicting. Take the dietary fat mess. In the 1970s preliminary research and a political decision resulted in an eat-low-fat public health policy that has persisted for 40 years! Newer research suggests that saturated fat can cause inflammation and heart disease in some people, but not in others. Fat is also being shown to be a protective factor in the development of neurological diseases like alzheimers and ADHD.

Confusing. To say the least.

So what do we do? We are parents who just want to do right by our kids. What should we be feeing them?

Let me take a crack at this one and give you a few strategies you can implement right now.

The Harvard school of public health is trying to persuade us to stop obsessing over nutrients and start talking about food.  Author Michael Pollan calls our obsession with nutrients “nutritionism” and also warns against it, saying the approach distances us from what's on our plates. I think both approaches can be helpful to determine what we should be feeding our kids.

So let’s take the “let’s talk about food as food" approach for a minute...

Here’s what most people agree on...

  • We need lots of vegetables. They should be as chemical-free and as fresh as possible.
  • We need small amounts of fresh fruit, nuts and seeds.
  • We need to avoid additives as much as possible
  • We need to reduce refined flour
  • We eat too much sugar
  • Transfat is bad for our health

Here’s what the “alternative” foodies (like myself) add in...

  • We need to nourish the gut. We are not what we eat, so much as we are what we absorb and are able to do with what we eat. The status of the inner microbiome, to a large degree determines what foods we can and can not tolerate
  • We need to eat in a way that balances blood sugar and controls insulin
  • Food is medicine; it is a powerful tool in the creation of both illness and health.
  • Inflammation in the body is a major driver of disease (but which foods cause inflammation is a point of controversy)

And here’s where most of the controversy lies....

  • We need quality protein - but should it be animal or plant?
  • How important are whole grains?
  • Which dietary fats are healthy and which cause disease?

Now, just for moment I need to go “nutritionalistic” on you (if that’s even a word).

The currently rising health issues amongst our kids are related to brain function (autism, ADHD, sensory processing issues etc), immune function (asthma, allergy, chronic infection etc), and metabolic issues (diabetes, obesity).  

One thing research is helping us understand (though we can by no means say we know it all yet) is that certain nutrient deficiencies seem to be common among people who are experiencing neurological, immune, and metabolic issues. They are: Zinc, Calcium, Iron, B vitamins, certain Essential Fatty Acids, Vitamin A, Vitamin D, chromium, Probiotic Bacteria.

There are a few others nutrients that come up in case studies, there are hormones, enzymes and toxins we could throw into the mix, but let’s keep things focused on food and nutrients for the time being.

So what's "the diet" to change all this around?

Can you get these nutrients covered in a Paleo diet? Yes, as long as your meat is good quality and diverse.

Can you get them through a vegetarian diet? Most of them, but it’s more difficult. You should be aware of signs of deficiency and if you see them you might need to supplement or rethink your chosen diet.

Can either approach reach the targets I listed? The ones that everyone seems to agree upon? Yes, as long as you keep them in mind.

Will the alternative foodies be happy with either diet? Well, there are things on that list that can be missed in either approach if they are not kept on the radar. It seems to be a bit easier to control blood sugar and inflammation with a Paleo approach, but folks like Dr Neil Barnard and Dr Esselstyn have also done it using a plant-based diet.

So what am I saying? I'm saying that while I wish I could give you “the perfect template” to follow, what you actually need to figure out is which foods are right for you and your family by getting to know your bodies.

Here’s what I suggest you do to find out if you are currently eating and feeding your kids what is optimal….

Step 1:

Start by examining your family’s diet. If it includes transfat, refined sugar, additives, refined vegetable oil, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial sweeteners then that’s the place to start. These foods cause the body, at any age, to inflame and revolt.

Here’s one way to look at it. Is your grocery cart filled predominantly with foods that have no label? (the answer should be yes). And of the packaged foods, are they predominantly ones that have more than 4-6 ingredients? (the answer should be no). And of those 4-6 ingredients, are there more than 2-3 non-food items? (the answer should be no).

This is where you start your transition. Once you have that covered, you can move to step 2.

Step 2.

Start adding in more vegetables. Grind or dehydrate leafy greens, try sprouting or juicing, experiment with “greens supplements” if you need to. Get more plants in.

Step 3:

If things are ticking along nicely then continue doing what you’re doing. If you are seeing worrying health issues like recurrent infections, learning or behaviour concerns, asthma, allergy then it’s time to get nutritionalistic again.

The place to start is to look at your intake of nutrients I listed above. Adding them into the diet in the form of whole foods is best, but high quality supplements can also be helpful, especially if you are super busy, hate to cook or have picky eaters. You can check out my advice for picking supplements here.

Step 4:

If your health issues are still not resolving, that’s when to seek some help. You need a targeted diet that brings in critical nutrients, resolves malabsorption issues, and supports gut health. 

Despite the muddy landscape I do take comfort in seeing a wildfire-like increase in this trend of understanding food as the driver of health that it is. Resist the temptation of throwing up your hands in confusion and understand that food is a powerful tool that will support the health of your entire family. You just need to learn how to use it.

If you want some help navigating all this, I hope you'll check out my resources here.

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About Jess Sherman, M.Ed, R.H.N

Jess is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist™ and Family Health Expert, specializing in brain health & resilience for kids. She is the author of Raising Resilience: Take the stress out of feeding your family & love your life, a mother and an advocate for children’s health. Her book and online resources have helped families all over the world improve the lives of their children with learning differences, anxiety, ADHD, autism and mood disorders by fitting the food and feeding piece into their health puzzles. She is the 2019 recipient of the CSNNAA award for Clinical Excellence for her work helping families get healthier, and she continues to work at bringing an understanding of the power of good nutrition to the mainstream conversation about children’s mental health, learning, and overall resilience through her blog, courses and as a  contributor to print and online magazines. You can reach Jess at www.jesssherman.com 

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