I have two children. They are young and healthy. I am grateful everyday for their health. But what about the baggage that they carry with them? Their genetics? How much does genetics affect us? Well, science shows that genetics is definitely a factor. But is it a verdict? The presence of Diabetes in our family history is indisputable. My mother had it. My aunt has it. My mother-in-law has it. Does that automatically create a certainty that my children will have it?
This leads us to the topic of Epigenetics, which is a field of science that studies the ability of genes to turn themselves on and off in response to various biological mechanisms. How does this relate to our discussion on children and diabetes? Ultimately, if diabetes is genetic, then that means that our genes turn on the disease process. In the world of Epigenetics, scientists have shown that in fact, many factors can affect this process. For example, a healthy diet… if we adopt a healthy diet, we can influence our genetics, particularly our genes that turn on a disease such as diabetes. It seems that our children that are raised in families with a history of diabetes have a greater propensity towards getting this disease in life. But what if they ate a healthy diet? How would this affect their future health?
The obesity epidemic affecting our children today, especially in the United States, is all around us. It is hard to miss. In fact, there are so many chronic illnesses today that seem to be affecting the majority of children in our country; including ADHD, asthma, allergies… autism is on the rise. Our children are becoming sicker.
What can we do to make a difference—a big difference? Let’s take a moment to discuss inflammation. Inflammation is a common characteristic of all chronic disease. The standard American diet is ‘inflammatory’ which means that when we eat this type of diet, it contributes to more inflammation in our body. Why is this important? Well, if we were to eat a diet that was less inflammatory, we could essentially affect our genetics. We could reduce our chances of developing chronic diseases. We could improve our children’s health. Its, literally, as simple as that!
Of course, changing our diet is not easy, and changing our children’s diet is even more challenging. But what if it meant improving our longevity? Reducing the chance of disease and illness? There’s no question that it’s worth it, and the consideration that it’s under our control—that we don’t have to go see someone to initiate this process of change—that’s pretty cool!
So how do we start? How can we initiate a healthy diet that is limited in inflammatory foods? Follow these steps:
- Eliminate refined sugar and artificial sweeteners: Keep in mind that there are plenty of healthy alternatives to sugar—even tasty ones. Here are some substitutions that can be used in moderation: Stevia, raw honey, pure maple syrup, coconut and palm sugar.
- Reduce grain and eliminate gluten: Gluten is a particularly inflammatory protein found in wheat, rye, barley and often oats. It is very easy to be ‘gluten-free’ today because of all the substitutes. But keep in mind that grain, in general, can be inflammatory and also can contribute to challenges with sugar metabolism. It is ideal to change our staple meals from being grain-based (pasta and bread and rice) to eating more vegetables and natural protein. Consider pasta and bread as only an accessory to meals but never the main event.
- Eat your vegetables!!! And fruit: Ideally, we should have one or two servings of vegetables at every meal. Fruit also has many important nutrients, but when obesity is an issue, we need to limit fruit to one or two per day and eat fruit that are considered ‘lower glycemic’ which means that when we eat them, they don’t spike our blood sugar. Some examples of lower glycemic fruit include: berries, apples, and pears.
- Eliminate processed foods and preservatives: Processed foods and preservatives contain many chemicals that when eaten on a regular basis can contribute to inflammation in the body and lead to disease and illness. The best alternative is fresh food.
- Avoid GMO or genetically modified foods: The verdict is still out on GMO foods in our country. In Europe, they have banned all GMO foods because of their negative effects on our health. It is best to completely avoid if possible. The labeling laws are yet to be fully initiated in our country. Ultimately, the only way to know for sure that something is not GMO is if it’s labeled as ‘organic’. On a side note, Trader Joes, which is a great natural grocer that is more affordable then some of its competitors, is completely free of GMO foods.
- Avoid peanuts and peanut products: Peanuts can be very inflammatory. It is best to avoid eating peanuts altogether. A great substitute for peanut butter is ‘sunbutter’ which is a nut butter made from sunflower seeds.
- Natural animal protein: The ideal is organic and grass-fed or free-range meat—but when this is not available, then natural and hormone/antibiotic-free is the second best. When a cow is fed a grain-based diet, it means that the meat will be more inflammatory, similar to how grain affects our body. When the cow is grass-fed, it means that the meat is healthier. But grass-fed meat is not always available. In this case, especially with obesity, it is better to eat more organic or natural poultry. For many of us, we are protein deficient. Eating three servings of protein daily is ideal. But keep in mind that it is difficult for our body to digest more then 5 ounces of animal protein at a time—gone are the days of 16oz steaks!
- Avoid processed dairy: For many people, dairy is inflammatory. For others, it is important that the dairy source is free of antibiotics and growth hormones. The dairy should also be a full fat source—when dairy is fat free, it is generally more inflammatory because of the chemical processing involved to create this lesser fat version. The best way to know if dairy is not ideal for you or your child is to eliminate it completely from the diet for 1-3 months and assess how you feel—do you feel any different? Do you have less symptoms? Have you lost a lot of excess weight? These questions will help you determine whether you can eat dairy products. If you find that dairy is not good for you, there are many substitutes today, including coconut milk and nut milks, butter substitutes such as Earth Balance, and even some cheese substitutes.
- Drink lots of water! Most people, including kids, are dehydrated. This means that we are not drinking enough water. When we are dehydrated, our body does not function as well. When we drink lots of water, our body’s waste systems work better which means we are able to drain more toxins out. Ideally, with children, substituting water for juice is the best. Juice is processed in the body as sugar which can lead to further obesity issues.
Though changing our diet and our family’s diet can seem daunting, it is actually easier then it seems. Ultimately, we need to shift our mindset. Eat only when you’re hungry and try to eat only natural foods with lots of water. Here is an example of a meal plan:
Breakfast: scrambled eggs with sautéed spinach OR homemade coconut pancakes (see recipe below!) with fresh berries
Mid-morning snack: apple OR carrot sticks and humus
Lunch: Leftovers from dinner OR large salad with natural protein and nuts and seeds and a light salad dressing (olive oil/lemon juice/sea salt and pepper or homemade honey mustard made from honey/mustard/lemon juice)
Mid-afternoon snack: nuts and seeds OR berries and coconut yogurt
Dinner: Roasted turkey with broccoli and sweet potatoes OR beef stew with carrots, parsnips, rutabaga, turnip, and green beans
In an effort to reduce grain in my family’s diet, I modified a gluten-free pancake recipe to be grain-free. Consider this coconut pancake recipe to be the ‘basic recipe’ that you can then fold in optional additional ingredients such as blueberries or sautéed apples and cinnamon.
- ½ cup coconut flour (sift into bowl through mesh strainer)
- ¼ cup tapioca starch
- ¼ cup potato starch
- ½ tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp baking powder
- ¼ tsp sea salt
- 1 egg
- 1 cup water or milk substitute
- ½ tsp vanilla extract
- Add dry ingredients together and mix lightly
- Add liquid ingredients in separate bowl and mix well until all ingredients are incorporated
- Pour liquid mixture into dry mixture
- Mix well until batter is smooth—if mixture is too dry (coconut may cause batter to clump) then add in more water or milk substitute (a little at a time)
- If you are choosing to add in additional ingredients, now is the time—gently fold in ½ – 1 cup of filling into batter
- Heat pan to medium
- Use oil spray to create non-stick surface (if oil burns then pan is too hot)
- To check if pan is at correct temperature, sprinkle water drop son and hear sizzle
- Pour ¼ cup batter onto pan as ‘tester’ pancake to determine if correct heat and batter thickness
- When bubbles start to form in pancake on pan, then flip pancake and cook for additional minute on other side