Why It's More Important Today To Feed Our Kids Well...
Pulling this one back out of the archives (2015) as we begin another school year. While some districts have made bold moves toward creating a culture that values healthy choices, some can still use a little encouragement. What's ONE thing you can do in your community?
It's just a cupcake. Chill out.
Birthdays only come once a year.
The Food Nazis are at it again.
These are the kind of comments I often read on Facebook posts, usually attached to healthy alternative recipes or maybe to the latest news on sugar and how all our extra consumption is impacting our health.
I likely would have said the same thing a decade ago when I stood in front of a classroom and often "treated" my students with pizza and candy.
As more schools move toward removing food from classroom celebrations to prevent life-threatening allergic reactions and to help reduce the rates of obesity and chronic illness, some are fighting back. There was the Texas Ag Commissioner, for instance, who vowed upon his election to bring soda and deep-fat fryers back into the schools.
While I don't get that kind of asinine, I do get that nobody likes to be told what to do. Not kids and not grown-ups.
But there is a special kind of urgency that I think not everyone understands.
As of 2009, 1 in 12 people had asthma. The Centers for Disease Control reports a 73.9% increase in asthma rates between 1980-1996.
1 in 13 children now has a food allergy.
Between 2001 and 2009, there was a 21.1% increase in Type I diabetes and a 30.5% increase in Type II diabetes among children.
Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years.
Autism increased 119%, from 1 in 150 children in 2000 to 1 in 68 in 2009. More commonly known today as austistic spectrum disorder (ASD), it is the fastest growing developmental disability in this country.
Why is this happening?
Nobody seems to have the answer. But one doctor and team of researchers have stumbled upon something potentially ground-breaking.
Our bodies are teeming with bacteria, inside and out. While there are about 30 trillion human cells, there are more than 100 trillion bacterial and fungal cells that make up the human body. We are, therefore, more bacterial than human. (Update: scientists from Canada and Israel have busted this oft-repeated myth.) We co-exist with a virtual ecosystem of microscopic flora, and like all ecosystems, diversity is crucial to its healthy existence.
Without our microbes, we could not absorb nutrients from our food. Hormones could not send messages to the brain telling us when it's time to sleep or time to focus. With microbes, the lining of our intestines would become thinner and eventually tear and allow food particles to escape into the bloodstream, potentially leading to an autoimmune disorder.
That's where Dr. Martin Blaser's important work comes in. Author of Missing Microbes, Dr. Blaser and his team have been studying the impact of antibiotics on our micro flora. His research has directly linked missing protective bacteria to an increase in obesity, hay fever, asthma and GERD (esophageal reflux), and his team's research is now looking into autism, Type 1 diabetes, food allergies, and other auto-immune disorders.
The first antibiotic -penicillin- was invented in the 1940's and went on to save countless lives during World War II, and Dr. Blaser is quick to point this out. He also refers to how his own life was saved after he acquired a slow growing, spiral-shaped bacteria called Campylobacter. He understands the need for antibiotics and how valuable they are to our health care system.
But, Dr. Blaser cautions in his book, antibiotics are not being used with the discretion they should, and this is having long-term, and so it appears, generational effects. In one study, a group of people receiving clarithromycin (a macrolide antibiotic) to eradicate H. pylori bacteria from the stomach, ended up with high numbers of macrolide-resistant strains of bacteria (Enterococcus and Staph epidermis), still present three years later when the study ended.
It appears, therefore, that while broad-spectrum antibiotics do their job in eliminating the targeted bacteria, protective bacteria that keep harmful strains at bay are also killed in the process, perhaps never to return. Dr. Blaser theorizes that this loss of protective bacteria, this lack of diversity in our flora, is being passed on to next generations.
But it's not only prescribed antibiotics responsible for the decreasing diversity of microbes. Dr. Blaser points to our exposure to antibiotics through animal products, as well as our overuse of hand sanitizers that kill indiscriminately. He argues the danger of elective cesarean sections, particularly common in Rome, Italy. Inside the womb, babies have no bacteria. Those born vaginally will be covered with the mothers' vaginal flora, while those born c-section will be colonized with the types of bacteria found on skin.
"The fancy names of these bacteria don't matter as much as the notion that the founding populations of microbes found on C-section infants are not those selected by hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution or even longer."
Dr. Blaser concludes that more studies like his need to be done, and that we need a combination of narrow-spectrum antiobiotics that kill only targeted pathogens versus the broad-spectrum that are currently used, more education for doctors and parents, and government restrictions on the unchecked use of antibiotics in the farming system.
So what does teaching our kids to eat well have to do with any of this?
Bear with me for a moment.
If we were prescribed antibiotics prior to birthing our children, we likely lost some diversity in our own microflora and passed this deficit on to them. If there were c-sections involved, or if we couldn't nurse, they missed out on protective flora, at least during part of their development. If antibiotics were prescribed during labor, as is often the case to prevent Group B strep, additional protective bacteria were lost, potentially selecting for resistant strains in their place.
What this all means is that children today are likely born with a greater susceptibility to illness and disease than we were.
Perhaps the reason for the alarming statistics?
But here is the good news. While research is still young in this field, scientists have found that healthy individuals do have one thing in common: a gut with a variety of healthy microbes.
That very thing we struggle with in our world is the most important thing we need to have in our guts if we are going to be healthy and able to withstand or prolong disease.
Most of our microbial swimmers live in our gut, specifically in the colon. The only food that makes it all the way down to the end of our digestive tract without being digested first is fiber.
FIBER is food for our microbes.
Where do we find fiber?
From a variety of plant foods.
Greens, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains.
When our bodies receive a constant stream of these high-fiber nutrients, we are more likely to have a diverse colony of microbes that can perform all the various functions necessary to keep us healthy. And when our bodies get sick less often, we can avoid antibiotics.
We may not be able to change the DNA we passed on to our children, but we can influence how well they live now and into their adult years. The sciences of epigenetics and nutrigenomics continue to prove that lifestyle trumps genetics, so while it may be true that DNA within our children may not be as strong, it's also true that we have some power in changing how genes in their bodies express themselves.
Healthy lifestyle habits can make us stronger, even if some of our DNA may not be.
So yes to the occasional cupcake, but let's get out kids excited about eating their veggies again.