Why A White Food Diet Is Making Our Kids Sick...And what to do about it!Dec 01, 2021
A couple of months ago I was asked by nine.com.au for my expert opinion on a ‘Whiteatarian’ diet. Why do most kids gravitate to white foods? Is it making them sick? And how can parents help their kids eat a more balanced & colourful diet? (You can see the nine.com.au published article here).
This is a question I get a lot from our clients. So many of our clients (who are parents) are doing deep healing work for themselves, to restore their body and their health, so they can show up as better parents. So of course it makes sense that they are concerned when all their kids want to eat is bread and cheese!
I hope this article can help you help your own family to eat well and stay well (I always say, preventative medicine is the best type of medicine!).
Why do some children limit themselves to white/beige foods?
A common reason why many children reach for white/beige foods (think bread, potato, popcorn, cupcakes, crackers, even bananas) is that many of these foods are high in carbohydrates. Carbohydrates turn into simple sugars in the body, providing a quick hit of energy for busy children. Some of the more processed white/beige foods often have sugar added to them, making them irresistible for little humans who love sweets. In fact, data shows that sugar releases feel-good neurotransmitters, such as dopamine. This can also lead to addictive behaviours, causing a child to only want white/beige sugary foods.
The texture is another reason why some children may limit themselves to white/beige foods, especially in children with sensory processing issues. Many white/beige foods are smooth in texture (like cheese, yogurt, bread, cakes, bananas), making them easy and non-threatening food to eat.
Parents may not think about this, but along the same lines, the colour white can also feel non-threatening to fussy eaters. White foods are not visually or sensory overwhelming. They often taste blander too. This makes them a safer choice for children who are not very adventurous with trying new foods.
Is a ‘Whiteaterian’ diet something parents should worry about?
If they are only eating refined carbohydrate foods like bread, pasta, crackers, and cookies, they may become nutrient deficient in amino acids and fatty acids. Amino acids and fatty acids make up every cell in the body - if a child is not eating enough protein or good fats, this could lead to a breakdown of any system in the body. For example, fats make up a large portion of the brain - if they are nutrient deficient in fatty acids, they could start experiencing behavioural issues, hyperactivity, depression, or anxiety. If you’re noticing these symptoms, it could come back to their limited diet.
White foods are also void of many important minerals, like magnesium and iron. Magnesium is rich in green vegetables, while the iron is rich in red meats. Magnesium is needed for more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body - it’s important for nerve and muscle function, heart and bone health, and the immune system. If a child is agitated all the time, not sleeping well, or prone to catching infections, it may be due to their white diet. Iron deficiency will also cause fatigue, so if a child is lacking in energy, it could be a nutrient deficiency.
Another issue with only consuming white foods is that it could lead to a depletion of the beneficial microbiome. Gut flora thrives on diversity and colour, especially with fibrous plant foods. If a child is not feeding the good bacteria with colourful plant foods, it can lead to an overgrowth of pathogenic microbes, leading to gut issues like constipation, bloating, nausea, and also systemic symptoms like mood imbalances, low energy, and low immunity.
How can parents ensure their kids are getting the correct nutrition?
When it comes to making sure your child is getting the correct nutrition, many parents can overcomplicate things, or can feel very overwhelmed by this. My top tip would be to think about the variety of food your child is consuming. When it comes to feeding your microbiome, you want to consume around 40+ different plant foods over the course of the week. This can come in the form of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, grains, herbs, and spices. Also, different varieties of a specific food item are considered different - for example, a red apple is different from a green apple, and brown rice is different from purple rice. 40+ different plant foods may initially feel impossible to achieve, but when you think about all the different varieties of the same food, you can see how you could help your child increase their variety. I’d recommend keeping a food journal over the course of a week and jot down all the different types of plant foods your child is eating. That way you know if you are hitting the 40+ mark or not.
Growing children also need protein, and this is a food source that not many children are consuming. If they are able to consume at least one serving of animal protein (or tofu, if your family is plant-fast), that should be enough to ensure their amino acid status is healthy.
If in doubt, using a good quality multivitamin will help to make up for any potential nutrient deficiencies.
Tips on how to introduce colour into kids’ diets?
- If your child is struggling with sensory processing issues and ONLY wants white/beige foods, then start with introducing new white/beige foods into their diet. For example, chicken, white fish, peaches, pineapple, honeydew, pears, coconut, cauliflower, parsnip, mushrooms, white carrot, etc. You could also look at swapping out more refined foods with more whole foods. For example, switch from white wheat-based pasta to legume-based pasta; sugary-processed yogurt to coconut yogurt or greek yogurt sweetened with some raw honey, and white flour to spelled or buckwheat flour.
- Try hiding new foods into foods they already consume regularly. For example, if your child loves milkshakes, try adding nutrient-boosting ingredients into the drink - i.e. collagen powder, cinnamon, cacao powder, coconut oil, different fruits, a small amount of baby spinach, and ground nuts and seeds. You might need to sweeten the smoothie more than usual initially; try opting for natural sweeteners like Medjool dates, pure maple syrup, or honey. The same can be done with lunch, dinner, and snacks - try adding some extra good fats in their mashed potato; grate some different vegetables into their spaghetti bolognese; use different types of whole food flours when baking cookies and muffins, such buckwheat, coconut flour or spelled flour. I also like to use cooked legumes in things like brownies, to add some more fibre and nutrients to their treats.
- Pair new foods with foods your child is already eating. A research study showed that this type of pairing increased children’s willingness to try new foods. As an example, if they like yogurt, you could use this as a dip, to dip a new fruit into. Or if they love baked potato chips, try baking these with sweet potato chips, and have them dip both of them into their favourite condiment.
- Teach your child the importance of eating a rainbow. As an adult, you’re unlikely to do something new just because you’re told to do it. Kids are the same. They want to know WHY. They are more likely to try new food, if they understand how it can help the good bugs in their gut, or make their brain happy, or help protect them from catching nasty colds.
- Take them shopping and get them to choose new foods to try at home. Having the ability to make their own choices is very empowering, and will more likely lead to new eating behaviours. Getting them involved in the cooking process and making food fun is also helpful.
- As a mum of two, my kids - like most kids - refused to eat their greens. In the Chakra philosophy, green is the colour for the heart: for heart health and also for feeling the love. So I used to say to my kids: “when you eat your greens, your heart is filled with love.” It was a simple thing to say, but they ate their greens every time! This imagery or metaphor might not work for your kids. If it doesn’t, try thinking of some other positive associations that resonate with your child.
How to deal with resistance?
- Be patient. Your child is likely not going to eat a brand new food straight away. Be consistent, and continue trying. The more they are exposed and given the opportunity to eat new foods, the more likely they will be to eat them eventually.
- Don’t punish your child for not eating new food. They likely have their reasons. Instead, acknowledge that they are trying. For example, if your child keeps spitting out new food, instead of saying “don’t spit it out!”, say “Wow. You really didn’t like that! Maybe you’ll like it another time. Good job for trying.”
- If your child is refusing to try new food, let them smell, touch, and lick it first. This can help them feel more comfortable about the new food. They might not eat it the first time, but at least they are getting used to being around the new food.
- Approach meal times as an open experiment. Let the child decide if they want to take it or leave it. This will save you a lot of stress as a parent, and will also reduce stress and anxiety in your child around mealtimes, which could lead to better eating patterns in the future.
Filipa Bellette is Co-Founder of Chris & Filly Functional Medicine. She is an accredited Clinical Nutritionist & Functional Medicine Practitioner. She is also a Ph.D. thought-leader, award-winning writer, and regularly published as a guest blogger & in the media. Together with her husband Chris Bellette, Filipa has worked with over 2,000+ busy, burnout clients in the last 10+ years, and specialises in producing healthy, balanced, and happy Mums & Dads...or as she calls it, a Power Parent! Filipa’s own passion for producing high-performance Power Parents came from her own personal experience of Mummy Burnout, after having babies and juggling the demands of business, family, and her failing health.
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