As regular readers may have already noticed, I’m a tad obsessed with the health of my family. I just wish that living well always equated to being well and there were no other variables to consider. Welcome to the UK health postcode lottery, folks. Apparently where we live plays a big part in how healthy we are likely to be. Who knew?
According to this government report, people living in the least deprived areas of the country live around twenty years longer in good health than people in the most deprived areas. (Greater London is quite high on this list and happens to be where I live.) This doesn’t even take into account the quality of healthcare you are likely to receive when you’re ill. Which – unsurprisingly – varies massively, depending on which part of the country you live in.
What can we do to offset the health postcode lottery?
Personally, I like to err on the side of prevention being better than cure. Which is why I feed my family the way I do. We are not perfect eaters, by any stretch of the imagination, but we do eat a diet which is mostly organic, cooked from scratch goodness, free from common allergens and refined sugar. It has always baffled me how some view food merely as fuel and choose to eat cheaply, when they can afford better. I truly understand that some simply cannot eat organic, etc, because of restrained finances. If you feel like this, I’d highly recommend checking out Cooking on a Bootstrap by Jack Munroe.
For me, food is so much more than what we see on the surface. I view it as my main weapon against illness, disease and a general feeling of meh (both physically and mentally). Living life in this modern world is exceptionally hard work, why make it even more difficult by giving our bodies insufficient nourishment?
Perhaps I have a fairly unique view, because I know first hand what the long term effects are of eating too much junk as a child. I’ve suffered from various gut issues over the years, which had to be remedied by going on the super strict auto-immune healing diet GAPS. I also have a mouth full of fillings, root canals and too many replacement teeth for a person who isn’t quite forty. Not only is it unattractive, but all the dentistry I’ve undergone and am still undergoing, costs a small fortune.
Is the gift of wellness the best head start we can give our children?
Way back in 2012, when Polly was almost three, she was diagnosed with a list of food allergies as long as my arm. Her worst one being corn and all it’s many derivatives. Did you know there are almost one hundred corn derived ingredients? This means manufacturers of processed food often sneak several types of corn sugar into their products. Corn became my nemesis back then. My eagle eyes could spot one of these ingredients from a mile off. Here’s the full list, for anyone who might be curious.
So began years and years of strict exclusion diets and painstakingly explaining to a toddler why she couldn’t eat the same food as her friends. By the time we received Polly’s autism diagnosis in 2015, I was already seeing the allergies as a blessing in disguise. What it meant for us was that Haribo-type sweets, processed cakes and cheap chocolate (which is mostly glucose syrup and palm oil) never featured in our lives. Rather than feed Polly differently to the rest of the family, we all simply avoided the foods she couldn’t have.
When I look back, I see this decision as one of the best ones I’ve ever made. Instead of making Polly feel like she was on her own, we got through that time as a family and it brought us together. Even though the allergy days are now behind us, we still mostly avoid processed food and especially refined sugars. On the odd occasion my kids have eaten standard sugar-laden food, we have had horrible consequences. Hyperactivity, meltdowns and two or three days of grumpiness afterwards. Who has the time for this nonsense?
Being a home educating family, there is no escape from each other. When you have autism to factor in, you need to remain as level as possible. Being level is impossible when you are riding the blood sugar rollercoaster all day long, not to mention suffering from fatigue and brain fog. What we eat is directly linked to how we feel, so limiting the opportunities that are going to make us feel crap is vital. Especially for families like mine, where surviving the day can be an achievement in itself.
How to empower our children with the confidence to make healthy decisions
Include the children in your cooking plans. Polly has been sitting in the kitchen, helping me make food, since before her second birthday. She has had free reign to make whatever she wants since she was eight yers old. At almost ten, she now cooks, in some capacity, every single day. Polly can make paleo cakes, bread from scratch, a full roast dinner including the gravy. She can make curries, which need things pounded in a pestle and mortar, stir fries and a mean spaghetti bolognese. You can check out her recipe blogs here, if you wish. Freddy and Clara now help her in the kitchen the way she used to help me (which quite literally makes my heart sing). Food brings us all so much pleasure and is never seen as a chore.
Give plenty of choice, but don’t force it. Polly is adventurous and will try pretty much anything, she won’t always like everything but she’ll give it a go. Clara (seven and a half) likes quite plain food – she will eat all fruit, most salad veggies and raw carrots until the cows come home. However, she’s not a fan of green veg or potatoes, unless they are home made chips cooked a certain way. She will eat huge piles of the food she likes, and every now and then, she’s willing to try something new. So we try it and if she likes it then great. Seeing Clara make her own decisions about trying new foods, and sometimes liking them, gives me confidence that not forcing the issue is the best move. Which brings me nicely onto my next point.
Picky/fussy eaters. Freddy (five and a half) has sensory issues and is not a fan of food. The list of things he is willing to eat is very small and changes. Currently he’ll eat salmon maki at YO! Sushi, and occasionally home made sushi. Some days he’ll eat sourdough or paleo bread, some days he won’t. Some days he likes plain yoghurt or fermented cream. Yesterday he liked apple chopped into slices, today he won’t even look at the damn things. Every morning I make him a nutrient dense power smoothie. Here are the ingredients: home made yoghurt or milk kefir, avocado, banana, raw carrot, egg yolks, cacao and raw honey. It’s an impressive list, covering plenty of nutrients. If he eats a little bit of solid food on top, I see it as a bonus. I live in hope that his menu grows as time goes on. This piece goes into detail about how I got comfortable with Freddy’s fussy eating.
Swap sweets for home made treats and fruit based snacks. Although they are still a sugar hit, they will never be as damaging as high fructose corn syrup, which is what a lot of kids sweets are mostly made from. Sweet treats made from whole foods release sugar into the blood steam a lot slower than processed sugars do. Also, beware of the sweets labelled ‘sugar free’ (at least carefully scrutinise the ingredients and give them a google) because they often contain very harmful sweeteners. My food archive contains tons of healthy recipes for those who are curious.
Don’t allow others to influence you. Due to my own relationship with sugar, I felt very strongly about my children having a natural diet. However, I was a lone voice in 2009, and often still am. Perhaps if Polly hadn’t been allergic to corn, things might have been different? Maybe I would have caved. Especially when she was at school and being handed Haribo every other day because it was such-and-suches-birthday. If you feel strongly, stick to your guns. Even if your kids hate you in the short term, they will eventually see you are doing the best for them.
Be honest with your children. My teeth are a great conversational starting point for my kids. They are a cautionary tale of what happens when you eat too much sugar and junk when you’re growing up. Really they are. I barely have a tooth that hasn’t had some form of dentistry. When my kids ask me why they aren’t allowed to eat sweets, I tell them what high fructose corn syrup does to the body and mind (let alone teeth), which stops the conversation in its tracks. Rather than just telling them they “can’t” have it, I’m empowering them to see that a different choice would be better for them.
Read the labels. As soon as Polly could read, I’ve had her reading supermarket labels. We google the weird and wonderful ingredients, look up their wiki pages, see for ourselves how damaging lots of them are. I don’t need to scare monger my kids, the evidence is right there on our screens. I do not see these items as food, because they are not. They’re mostly science experiments. Even though my kids are still young enough to be tempted on occasion, there is always a fallout. They are learning to listen to their bodies and make their own healthy choices.
Life is hard enough!
The way I see it is this: we cannot put a price on avoiding the dreaded health postcode lottery. I am hoping that by eating the way we do, I’m giving my children a good head start. We have enough to contend with in our little family and it would be great for them to have one less thing to worry about as they emerge into adulthood.