Feeding Our Children


Author's Name Withheld

autism-little-boy-smI'm not qualified to dispense medical advice. I'm not a doctor, a nutritionist, or a dietitian. And yet, three years ago — when our son was struggling with autism-spectrum–style issues, worsening digestion, incredibly picky eating, autoimmune/allergic symptoms, and all sorts of behavioral and developmental challenges — my husband and I discovered a major problem: nobody else was quite qualified to treat him, either.

Our son was six at the time. I (and my children) had eaten a whole-foods vegetarian diet since birth. I was a vegetarian chef and taught classes on vegetarian cooking and nutrition. I thought I was doing everything possible to ensure the health of my offspring. My son never ate gluten or dairy, I selected whole grains and organic foods, and whenever possible I limited our exposure to environmental toxins. And still, despite holistic and conventional healing attempts, by 2010 his health was deteriorating severely and rapidly.

Sometimes it takes my breath away: my body co-created my child, and now his body re-makes itself, every day of his life, using the stuff we breathe and consume. It was three years ago when I truly began to grapple with the implications of this: Every time I prepare food for my family, I make choices that support or detract from our continual healing and rebuilding. Our bodies heal and rebuild for as long as we're alive. Even a broken femur can heal itself; why not a broken brain?

I began to believe that our bodies are always doing the best they can with what they've got; despite the sometimes-lifesaving effects of pharmaceuticals, no drug can stand in for fundamental physical health. This is why I developed one particular goal: to heal my child with food. I had to figure out at least three things: what food his body needed, how to help his body digest and absorb the nutrients in the food, and — only someone who has tried to feed a Superbly Picky Eater can appreciate how daunting this was — we had to get him to actually eat the healing foods I identified.

For the first time, I asked a lot of old questions and actively searched for new answers. I wondered: Did our healthy human ancestors consume a plant-based diet? What does malnutrition look like? What are the differences between a healing diet for a sick child, and a healthy diet for a healthy child? Are some of the typical issues children currently deal with (tantrumming, hyperactivity, blood sugar fluctuations, aggressiveness, picky eating) "normal"? Or are they simply "common"? How long does it take to see results from a dietary intervention? How different (or similar) are the underlying pathologies in celiac, Lyme, eczema, acne, ulcerative colitis, asthma, autism, ADHD/ADD, depression, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and so on?

When I launched my speculations, I did not expect to conclude that grains and starches/sugars (even the whole, unrefined ones that were the foundation of our previous diet) are some of the most difficult foods for humans to digest. I did not know that cholesterol and saturated animal fats are essential for optimal brain function. I had no idea that every traditional human culture appears to have eaten animal foods.

Today, my family still eat tons of vegetables and whole foods, but otherwise we have radically changed our consumption habits. We eat high-fat animal foods at nearly every meal, and no grains at all. I have learned how to ferment and culture. I have also learned a huge amount about diet, nutrition, anorexia, developmental delays, digestion, and our immune systems — along with some fascinating ideas concerning the microbes that live in the human gut (and love to eat unabsorbed carbohydrates), and the ways that this "microbiome" impacts mental health, particularly in growing babies and children.

Our son, now nine, is not Perfectly Healed. But we have succeeded in reversing the trajectory of ill-health within our family, and for this I am profoundly grateful. He climbs trees like a monkey, talks to other people, is capable of learning new things, hugs us goodnight, and is so, so, so much healthier than he was. It is not a coincidence that our previously incredibly picky child now eats and enjoys a huge variety of nutritious foods.

It turns out that even with no official credentials, my husband and I were (and are) uniquely qualified to be the primary advocates, researchers, and healers for our son, his siblings, and ourselves.

Our journey is just beginning.

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