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5 Surprising Facts About Food That I Learned From A Pediatrician

It was two months until my daughter’s due date. I didn’t know the first thing about being a dad, but I knew that I wanted to be a great one.

I could see this little human developing in the clinic pictures. I felt her moving around, kicking, experiencing hiccups in my wife’s belly. A wonderful, helpless, brand new life.

The book I was reading was all about food and how it affects kids. I devoured the information. My fingers eagerly grasped for the edge of the page, wanting to turn it and reveal another undiscovered land. Reading this book was like being given an X-ray machine, I now had the ability to see inside each piece of food. I was surprised by what I found.

The book comprehensively turned over every rock in my nutritional library to reveal the critters crawling around underneath that I never knew were there. I thought my knowledge was more than adequate, but this book was a behind the scenes look at what our food is really like.

One of my core desires, something that every parent wants, is to give my child every opportunity to succeed and not do something that holds her back from becoming the best version of herself.

One of the interesting things we learned in the book is that no kid reacts the same because no two of us are alike. Some react strongly through issues like allergies, asthma, hormone issues, or brain development delays. Some don’t react at all. This is one of the things that makes parenting difficult: what doesn’t affect one child can really harm another.

As my daughter’s due date was approaching, the goal that was being formed within me, the first glimmer of becoming a dad, was the strong desire to protect her from anything that could possibly cause her not to flourish. I didn’t know if she was going to be affected greatly by these things or not at all. I didn’t want to take the chance that she was one of the kids who reacted negatively. The newly forming father within me wanted to put on his armor and defend her so that she has every opportunity to become the best she could be.

Pesticides are hormone disruptors

“Pesticide exposure during childhood affects children’s health as well [as prenatal exposure], and it has been linked to obesity, asthma, cancer, the increasing incidence of food allergies, and delayed or abnormal development.”

The list of banned pesticides continues to grow each year, sometimes adding compounds that have been used in the U.S. for decades. State governments are finding that the self-certification process for these compounds does not accurately capture the danger for their citizens. For example, New York and California have recently banned Chlorpyrifos for causing developmental harm in children. To understand the scope of the ban, in 2016 over 640,000 acres of grapes, almonds, and other crops in California were treated with Chlorpyrifos. Not only is there danger for the consumer, but the danger level is even higher for the farmer.

A classic study, Guillette 1998, “showed that the children exposed to pesticides in a Mexican community demonstrated significant developmental delays that nonexposed children didn’t.”

Sugar is addictive and activates the brain's reward system

“Sugar stimulates the brain’s reward centers via the neurotransmitter dopamine, like other addictive drugs.

"People (and rats) develop tolerance to sugar – they need more and more of the substance to be satisfied – just as with drugs of abuse like alcohol or heroin.

"Animals and humans experience withdrawal symptoms when suddenly cut off from sugar, just like addicts detoxifying from drugs.”

Sugar activates the reward center of our brain through dopamine. This mechanism helps our brain learn.  By linking the dopamine reward to things that are good for us, we develop habits. This process is extremely helpful when it comes to good things like being outdoors, eating fruit, or being in love. But it can also be problematic. The dopamine system is also partly responsible for addictions to drugs, pornography, and video games. In the case of sugar, we are affected in 2 notable ways: association and desensitization.

Eating sugar tells the brain "eat more sugar". Eating sugar and watching TV tells the brain “eat more sugar and watch more TV”. Eating sugar and playing video games tells the brain “eat more sugar and play more video games”.  Because the sugar dopamine response is so high, especially when combined with other dopamine generators, sources like drinking a cold glass of water, spending time in nature, exercising, or reading an interesting book aren’t enough dopamine to register in our brain as a reward in the same way.  We don't develop the habits for good activities because we struggle to associate them with a reward.

Eating sugar all the time is like getting constant high fives from your best friend. It is awesome. At first. Sooner or later we become desensitized to the high fives.  They aren’t special anymore. We have to eat greater and greater amounts of sugar to get the same reward. This is how addiction takes hold.  Why is it so hard to refuse that treat at work? Because the reward is so great, the treat is so delicious, and we don’t get rewards like it elsewhere.  Why do we have three treats instead of just one? Because one doesn’t give us the same amount of dopamine reward anymore.

Have you noticed that kids aren’t excited to play outside anymore? They turn it down in favor of sitting in front of a TV or video game or YouTube with sugary food because of the dopamine reward system.

A recent study of pigs shows this effect. Here is what the scientist concluded:

"After just 12 days of sugar intake, we could see major changes in the brain's dopamine and opioid systems. If sugar can change the brain's reward system after only 12 days, as we saw in the case of the pigs, you can imagine that natural stimuli, such as learning or social interaction, are pushed into the background and replaced by sugar and/or other 'artificial' stimuli." - Dr. Michael Winterdahl

Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame change brain activity

“Rats fed 5 percent aspartame in their diets for only two hours a day had significantly lower brain levels of serotonin - which modulates well-being, anxiety, and sleep - when compared with controls.

"Clinically, several studies have linked aspartame consumption with disrupted electrical activity in the brain as well as other health issues including headaches and various kinds of cancer including brain.”

Because of its ability to cross the blood-brain barrier, the artificial sweetener aspartate (part of aspartame) can change brain activity in measurable ways. Kids, having rapidly developing brains, are more susceptible to brain development effects than others. When I think about what I want to protect my daughter from, anything containing the words “disrupted”, and “brain”, trigger an immediate red-alert response within me. In an effort to reduce the amount of sugar that shows up on a nutrition label, food companies have been substituting artificial sweeteners – Aspartame, aspartate, phenylalanine, glutamate, saccharin, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, neotame…

Food coloring is harmful

“Yellow dyes – tartrazine and sunset yellow- are xenoestrogens, which disrupt our children’s hormones and are implicated in breast cancer and liver disease. Yellow Dye No. 5 also negatively influenced learning behavior in mice – and not just in one generation, but throughout several generations – meaning the dye can affect our brains and our epigenetics.

"In 2010, the European Union required warning labels for foods containing artificial colors…

"[the FDA has banned] Green 1 (liver cancer); Orange 1 and 2 (organ damage); Red 1 (liver cancer); and Sudan 1 (toxic and carcinogenic). Each of the banned food dyes had been considered “safe” – they’d been used on produce and in spices, candies, and other packaged foods – right up until the ban.”

Food dyes are in everything from Kraft Mac n’ Cheese to cereals to drinks. One of questions that haunts me is: “what food coloring that is widely used today will be banned in the future just like these others?” When this is combined with the fact that none of these are necessary, provide any nutrients, vitamins, minerals, or any benefit at all, I ask myself why we even want them. I think it comes back to marketing. Companies use these colors to lure children. Their marketers link the bright pigments to fun, excitement, celebration, and energy.

rBGH may be linked to early puberty

“A very worrisome – and likely – contributor [to early puberty] is that rBGH, a synthetic estrogenic hormone that has become ubiquitous in our milk supply. Milk naturally contains estrogenic hormones – another reason why drinking more than one to two glasses a day is inadvisable, particularly during puberty, when hormones rage.

“Synthetic hormones behave differently in our bodies than endogenous ones (hormones produced by our own bodies).

“Onset of puberty has gotten so much earlier during the last two decades – as many as two years earlier – that the American Academy of Pediatrics actually adjusted the lower limit of “normal” for puberty to seven for girls and nine for boys.”

When I learn about any compound that may affect hormones to the point of possibly causing puberty happen earlier, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. To me, that doesn’t seem okay. 7? 7 years old and starting puberty? That isn’t the way girl’s bodies are supposed to develop when free of an outside influence.

I was startled

After reading this info, I started to notice how prevalent all these compounds are in our world. They are everywhere.

My daughter wasn’t born yet, but I already wanted to be her hero, using my shield to defend her from what might hamper her development.

At some point in the distant future, my daughter will be able to make decisions for herself. Until then, it is our job as her parents to make decisions on her behalf. We are the ones determining what she encounters.

After realizing how many threats surrounded her, it started to feel as though I was going to need 3 shields used in an acrobatic display, one on my left arm, one on my right arm, one on my foot. I was going to need to stand on one foot providing defense in a beautifully choreographed dance. I’m not that good at yoga, or dancing, so this task felt daunting.

All around us are desperate people wanting to make money off of us, our kids, and these compounds. They are paid lots of money to tell us that fun and happiness are linked to foods containing these ingredients. Through advertising, they do their best to link family memories, joy, and excitement to their products. They are so persuasive. Their ads are so pervasive.

Some of the defense I need to provide for my family is for our own hearts, that we don’t succumb to their sales pitches. Real fun, real excitement, real family memories aren’t found with these purchasable items, they are found through shared discoveries, shared adventures, shared struggles.

There is adversity that I want my daughter to face. It will build character, develop resilience, create grit and virtue, but there is adversity that I don’t want her to have to struggle with. The effects of these compounds fall into the latter category of difficulties that don’t need to be encountered and dealt with for her benefit.

This is the task that I have been given as a dad. I accept it. I want it. It is intense, danger lurking everywhere. It is confusing at times, littered with misunderstandings. But, I want to protect my little one from the dangers in her food, from the high voltage marketing to kids, and from the deafening roar of society telling us what we should do. If you were me and she was your daughter, what would you do?

If you would like to learn more about the food we eat, check out "Dirt Cure: Growing Healthy Kids with Food Straight from Soil" written by Dr. Maya Shetreat-Klein, M.D.


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