I wrote this blog a while ago, however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe it is more relevant than ever. Sadly, rather than embrace an all foods fit mentality in this time of uncertainty, diet culture instead is doubling down on BS about food, immunity and even weight gain during quarantine/isolation.
Have you become scared to eat or serve certain foods? Perhaps you’ve been lectured on the dangers of gluten or sugar. Or maybe you just want to avoid scornful looks from others when contributing to bake sales or office parties. Unfortunately, food shaming is alive and well (even during a pandemic). But is all the fuss really necessary? are we really more healthy by avoiding some foods while choking down others?
Since pivoting from the traditional “eat this-not that” diet mentality, and becoming a non-diet, weight neural, body positive dietitian, the amount of fear that is out there in the world towards certain foods and nutrients is astounding- and frustrating and sad.
I work with adults to help them break down their food fears and myths that keep them feeling trapped by diet culture- all of which are toxic and unnecessary. After having kids, I started to notice that the fear mongering is just as prevalent in the world of family & kid nutrition. Many of my clients are parents who struggle to meet their own needs for nourishment while balancing family & work responsibilities. Add family food shaming and unrealistic advice on “clean” eating or strict avoidance of nutrients like sugar and fat on top of other parenting responsibilities and you’ve created a recipe for burnout.
As a parent, I know how crazy hard it can be to just get through the day unscathed, not to mention following all the health advice, let alone the food advice! Getting the kids to school/daycare on time, in clean clothes, with breakfast in their bellies (not to mention getting yourself to work on time, in clean clothes, with breakfast) may sound like the least you can do as a parent but in fact, this is a daily feat. Now factor in the advice you may have heard regarding a tiny aspect of your morning- breakfast. Apparently, you are not a truly good parent unless that breakfast contains only the best of foods: such as NATURAL peanut butter, or PLAIN yogurt or
CARDBOARD wholegrain cereal/bread or sugar-free pancakes.
Peanut butter is a great example
Why do I find some of this advice ridiculous? Let me give you an example. Let’s break the difference between NATURAL (just peanuts) peanut butter and regular ‘ole original Kraft peanut butter. There is a tiny bit more saturated fat (0.5g) and sodium (60mg) in the original Kraft version (per tablespoon). In normal speak, we are talking about a difference of 1/10th of a teaspoon of saturated fat and 3/100s of a teaspoon of salt. But, what about the sugar?! Well, there is ZERO difference in the amount of sugar. At least not in the brands I compared. Both the natural/just peanuts and the original contain 1g of sugar per tablespoon. (https://www.presidentschoice.ca/en_CA/products/productlisting/pc_blue_menu_just_peanuts_peanut_butter_smooth17085.html)
Plain versus flavored yogurt
Now, let’s take a look at PLAIN yogurt. What’s the difference between plain and fruit added? (other than the fact that my kids will actually eat the flavored yogurt while the plain gets thrown out all the time). The difference is about 1 1/2 tsp of sugar (for 100g of yogurt). Plain yogurt naturally has sugar in it in the form of lactose so you will never see a yogurt with 0g of sugar. (https://www.activia.ca/en-us/products)
What about the difference between plain yogurt with fruit added at home and fruit yogurt purchased? Well, it depends on how much and what kind of fruit you add. If you were to add 1/4 cup diced fruit to the 100g yogurt, depending on the fruit, the difference in sugar obviously becomes smaller, anywhere from about 1 teaspoon to no difference at all. If you were to use fruit coulis, maple syrup, honey or jam to sweeten plain yogurt, the difference would be even less.
It is important to note that the body cannot tell the difference between sugar from fresh fruit, sugar from macerated fruit and sugar added for flavor. It does not use or store the energy from the sugars any differently- they all go on to fuel our muscles and brain.
I have one last food to vent about. I scrolled past a “family-friendly” recipe recently in my social media feed. It was a tip about cooking and enjoying breakfast together as a family and the recipe was for crepes.
This recipe came with a warning though- if these crepes are to be served to toddlers, make sure to leave out the sugar. I am not sure if you are familiar with crepes, but they are a kind of very thin pancake and usually, a recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of sugar (per 9 or 10 pancakes). I suppose you could leave it out, since it is such a small amount, however, the difference it will make on your overall health or sugar intake is zilch. Is my toddler really going to suffer if they eat 1/9th of a teaspoon of sugar? The truth is that sugar in a recipe will NOT affect anyone’s health or well-being.
The funny thing is that this particular social media post & recipe recommended you eat these crepes with maple syrup. *facepalm*. I am ALL FOR maple syrup, especially on crepes. BUT WHY is sugar in the crepe batter deemed “bad” for a toddler while maple syrup is “ok”? Again, the body does not discern from sugar in maple syrup or in white table sugar. It all goes to feeding our cells and nourishing our body and mind.
Food choices can’t be made based only on nutrition
Sometimes the world of child nutrition (and adult nutrition, for that matter) can get so wrapped up with micro-focusing that we forget other, very important factors that dictate our food purchases.
Many families have a tight budget and have no choice but to purchase what is affordable. If these so-called “healthier” options (i.e plain yogurt and natural peanut butter) are not in the budget, and the time-starved parents can’t make their own bread, soup or yogurt, they are stuck feeling bad about these normally fine choices. I am certain more guilt and food shaming is NOT what any parent needs.
No to mention that some families have to work around the added stress of food allergies and picky eating. These are highly stressful issues that demand a lot of attention to detail for anyone feeding kids who have allergies or feeding issues. Letting go of our own food judgement is hard enough for many parents & guardians, not to mention society’s relentless judgement of food choices with no understanding of specific situations.
Also, I’m not sure about you, but if I can’t stomach a food, I am not going to force my child to gag it down. Of course, trying a food many times is important for children, but having no food choices because the other options contain feared ingredients (ie. stirred yogurt with fruit), is a lot of pressure for the parent not to mention the problems that being hungry brings about for the child.
Health is based on so much more than what we eat
I see parents who are upset they can’t serve or get their kids to eat vegetables at 2 meals per day. Where meal times have become fraught with fights and tears because the parents feel pressured to be the food police.
I have clients who are distraught because their kids enjoy eating cookies and pasta. We’ve forgotten how normal and natural it is for humans to like delicious foods that give us energy.
And you know what difference these things make in our kid’s overall health- NOTHING. It bothers me to think that awesome parents who are doing their very best while putting their basic needs aside are then bombarded by info about how much BETTER they should be doing. It is never enough. Never.
So, I suggest we embrace the idea that fed is best and that all foods nourish, some nourish our body, others our soul and some foods nourish both.
What about adults?
I have focused a lot of this rant on feeding children- so what about adults nutrition? Should we worry more about having the perfect plate the older we get?
The short answer is no.
Of course, if you have the mental energy and desire to understand your body’s needs for nutrients and pleasure, there is nothing wrong with eating inline with our physical needs for nourishment. But just like with kids, our food does not determine our health. Many, many factors we cannot control along with a few things we can kind of control dictate our health. And it is important we balance our physical needs for nourishment with our mental needs for delicious, satisfying foods (if we are in a privileged position to be able to do so).
I don’t deny that the body works best with all the essential nutrients present, but foods that do not contain any “essential” nutrient can be essential for many other reasons too. For connection, for satisfaction, for enjoyment, for coping, for stress relief, etc. In other words, eating foods that have traditionally been labelled as “bad” or to be avoided, cannot (and do not) negate any of the healthful nutrients we do ingest.
Our relationship with food is of the utmost importance for our health and well being and if we have kids, than modeling a healthy relationship with food is the healthiest thing you can do for them.