Is my toddler’s gluten-free, dairy-free diet ‘restrictive’?… or a start to a life of passionate, conscious, healthy eating?

I wonder what other people think when I tell them what my daughter eats. Please don’t give her (*deep breath in*): wheat, milk, yogurt, cheese, sugar, sweet treats, citrus, apples, tomatoes, meat…

I grew up eating differently. I was certainly made to feel that I was weird because I didn’t eat what other people were eating – this in conservative, Catholic Portugal in the 1980s where conformity was all there was, it seemed. Eating a diet of ‘brown rice and veg’ was not mainstream – far from it. I remember, poignantly, being laughed at for eating brown bread at school; or kids turning their noses up at the homemade, whole-wheat carrot cake served for my 7th birthday party. That was then. The world, the mainstream of it even, has come a long way. What is more, I live in California now where consuming a diet of whole foods is positively de rigeur. Even in Portugal, when I go back now, I have to chuckle when some friend (easily one of the ones that would have laughed at me when I was young and made me feel ‘different”) invites me to go to the hip new macrobiotic restaurant, like it is the new ‘in’ thing… ‘you are joking, right?!

Yet perhaps it was not what I ate but what I didn’t eat that most made me (makes me?) stand out. Today, my eating has gravitated much to the healthy diet my parents (blessedly) gave me when I was a kid – thanks for that again, by the way. I eat whole-grains, veg (salad, soups, stir-frys, etc), legumes (beans, chickpeas, peanuts, soy), nuts and seeds, some fruit and some fish. I don’t eat gluten (especially wheat – save on rare occasions), dairy or meat.

Anya is eating very similarly to me nowadays for various reasons – even though her dad was brought up on a traditional Chinese diet (lots of fresh, home cooked veggies, rice, fish and, notably, meat) and he certainly makes more ‘exceptions’ for things like fun-food (read junk food) than I do – although less and less so, it has to be said. One of the reasons Anya’s diet was originally so selective was due to the fact that she was clearly reacting to things in my milk – according to what I ate. Eggs, soya, tomatoes were all things that made her less than 100% well. Eggs made her come out in a pimply-rash on her face; soya made her spit up, tomatoes gave her diaper rash. Other foods, like apples, were put on a suspect list – to be watched.

I also chose to keep Anya away from such challenging foods as wheat and dairy which are known to be very acid forming, harsh on the gut and mucus producing – I want to let her digestive and immune system mature fully before introducing these, which means waiting until she is at least two. I am not a super-crazy-stickler about this. She has had little tastes of bread if somebody else was eating it and she wanted to try it, I just  make sure I don’t stock these foods at home or rely on them as a mainstay of her diet.

Now, a good nine months into eating solids, I think Anya is an amazing eater. She likes everything – really, everything – we have given her so far. Some things need to be introduced a couple of times, but even that is pretty rare. Things she has been eating, include (among others):

  • whole grains: rice, buckwheat, millet, quinoa (technically a seed but treated for all intents and purposes like a grain), etc.
  • vegetables including: chard, spinach, carrots, asparagus, onion, garlic, sprouts (like radish or broccoli sprouts), corn
  • legumes including: peas, kidney, white and pinto beans, chickpeas (garbanzos), broad beans, lentils and, her absolute favourite: peas
  • root vegetables: sweet potato, yam (which she loves!), potato, ginger (this could be in a spice section instead… she does love all kinds of spices, too)
  • some fish: she has only really had little tastes of fish – white and dark – but has enjoyed it all
  • tofu: she seems to be fine (now, at least) with traditionally prepared soya (a legume, in fact) and really likes it
  • Some fruit: avocado (another big fave), pomegranate, blueberries, blackberries, pears, papaya, etc. We steer clear from the acidic stuff (tomatoes, apples, citrus) as they seem to produce a rash. We do try and eat local and seasonal, especially when it comes to fruit as it is very clear the body likes it better this way and can handle, for example, bananas better when we are in hot a climate (challenging, I know, unless we move to Ecuador!). But again, the occasional banana is a great treat for Anya.
  • Dried fruits: raisins, mango, etc.
  • Gluten-free alternatives to wheat-based products, including: rice cakes, rice, quinoa or corn pasta, gluten-free bread, crackers, etc.
  • Good fats: olive oil, flax seed oil, coconut fat and the like
  • Seaweeds: Anya loves, loves, loves nori and also eats other seaweeds like hijiki or wakame when cooked into rice, etc. These are great sources of many minerals including iron, iodine and calcium.

She gets most of her protein from combining whole grains with legumes, at the moment, as you can see. Her iron comes from leafy greens, sea vegetables, avocados and beans, mainly – and fingers crossed her hemoglobin levels will still be nice and high when we next get them tested, following the anemia episode (I was anemic during pregnancy, with low iron stores so why, oh, why did I think my breastmilk alone would get her own iron stores up??).

So, here is my question to you, is Anya’s diet ‘restrictive’? I mean she appears to be happy enough with it, by and large – as I say she is a pretty good eater. We are lucky and blessed with that, I know! I am not worried about it from that angle. I also think nutritionally speaking she has a pretty good diet (well, even if you disagree with some of my food-beliefs, we will doubtless agree that her diet is all the richer and healthier because of what it does not contain: sugar, processed foods, hydrogenated fats, etc). But here is the crux: I suspect, actually, that her diet may be considerably wider than many-a-toddler. I mean she eats quinoa and buckwheat quite regularly and soup and…

My thought is that the very people who may be moved to feeling her diet is restricted are people whose kids’ (or their own) sustenance relies arguably too much on wheat/gluten based products and dairy. So for them, a diet without those things would appear ‘lacking’, somehow. Perhaps their kids eat sandwiches nearly every day… and/or pasta, and/or cakes, cookies, crackers, pizza, bread, pastries, pies, cherios or any of the other other gluten-filled goodies we find so easy to load up on, often unthinkingly. Is that good for the body? And what about dairy? Are they loading up on yogurt, cheesy goods and milk everyday?

I know dairy is a controversial one. It goes like this, you either buy wholesale the ‘got milk’ type campaigns that tell you milk is a life-giving source of easily utilisable Calcium or… you don’t. Do your own reading on this, please. And hey, I am not unsympathetic to the movement for organic, whole, raw milk – yes if you gotta do it that is a better way to go, for sure – but for many people (depending on your constitution and all) milk just means trouble – gut trouble, skin trouble, sinus trouble and on and on. And, fyi, the calcium from milk isn’t that easy for the body to use because milk also contains casein, a protein that (… wait for it) inhibits the absorption of calcium. You gotta laugh, right? But again, the point is, if their kids eat dairy based products every day, then to them, they might be left wondering what they would give their kids if two of their mainstays were taken away (wheat and dairy) and maybe within some people’s food knowledge and repertoire a diet without milk and bread stuffs would just be barren. I don’t find it so. On the contrary, I think we have a vibrant, diverse and colourful diet… but still, I find myself wondering (and sometimes even caring) what others think.

And, yes, there are days I wish I could cook my full repertoire of recipes for Anya and introduce her to the stuff all the ‘normal’ kids are eating and though that would be the easy option and probably would make her happy (hey who doesn’t like cake or ice cream) I am most likely going to continue doing the best I can with the knowledge I have, sticking to basics like ‘fresh is better than processed’, ‘whole is better than refined’, and ‘home-cooked is better than store-bought’. A little bit of me will still wonder also, at times, whether those kids with their bags of cherios and cheese sticks are, at home, getting a wider, healthier and more varied diet than my kid (and I am guessing the answer is some do, some don’t) but I don’t think I’ll be seduced into thinking that different is necessarily bad. I am making strong, conscious choices for my child’s health and wellbeing, laying down a blueprint of flavours she will probably enjoy for life based mainly on traditional ways of eating in pre-industrialised societies. I, the mother am guiding this process – not the ‘food’ manufacturing companies, the marketing agencies or the media. I am not perfect. I am learning new things about diet – which sometimes contradict everything I thought I knew, all the time, but I am trying and I am going into it consciously, rather than walking supermarket isles like a zombie (well, okay… sometimes I am part-zombie, but most days not).

And a cute little upside of this is… Kai and I have been looking forward to blowing Anya’s mind and her taste buds by introducing her to her first taste of ice-cream – an experience she might even be able to remember when she grows up! Incredible. So the idea is not to restrict, but to eat consciously and yes, still have fun. Indeed, we want her relationship with food  to be natural and effortless; for food to be viewed not just as fuel or comfort but as health-giving, nourishing, uplifting and for her to value the opportunity for social connection that comes with it.

Still, a healthy relationship with food is at least as important as a healthy diet, per se, in my view.  I hope Anya’s nutritional life will be driven by the heart, by a passion for fresh, home cooked food; not just by a rational understanding of what is good for you or a fear of what is bad for the body. Hmm… perhaps I need to do some work on this myself, after all she will learn first about food by watching us, so I need not to preach this stuff but to live it. I want to eat foods which make me feel alive, full of vitality and rearing to go and to re-kindle the joy of cooking. Lived like this, motherhood is good for your health.

NB The photos are vintage Anya… but convey the whole ‘happy eater thing’ quite well, no?

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There is no such thing as a weed, just a flower in the wrong garden

After mentioning the other day that I am practically the only person I know who is exclusively breastfeeding (no pump), I went to a La Leche League meeting, this week. Deep in-breath. I spoke to the facilitator who explained to me that the La Leche League, which I know by reputation and from consulting their website (http://www.llli.org/), is dedicated to supporting women with natural breastfeeding, wherever possible. No expressing, no bottles, just you and your baby.

What a relief to find that I am not after all alone, the one woman who still wants to do it this way, in the whole of Silicon Valley. There are more of us, a silent movement of mothers doing what feels right (for as long as it feels right).

But hey, I’ve got to tell you, if I were to have a second child it is very likely that I will pump. As right as this has felt, it is hard work; it is a sacrifice even as it is a joy. Sometimes beautiful things take effort. Not sure I have the energy in me to do it twice. We’ll see. For now, I rejoice in having found sisters in natural nursing and finding, I am not, afterall, a ‘weed’.

My right breast: dealing with blocked ducts

Tuesday morning I woke up with one painful, engorged breast: the right one.

That boob has for a long while been lagging in milk production. Anya had a preference for the left breast for a while there, in the early days and the right one never quite caught up… until now. Recently I have been trying to put Anya on the right side wherever possible to try and balance out the milk production on both breasts again. I guess it is working.

So, Tuesday, the right boobie was all hard and tender. I didn’t think much of it. K took Anya when she woke up at 6am so I could stay in bed for another couple of hours. When she came back I put her on my right breast (to relieve the pressure) and we both fell asleep.

When I woke up, I realised it was still engorged. Clearly Anya had just suckled herself to sleep but hadn’t really fed from that side at all, so the pain was still there. Aaarrgh. I spent the next 30 minutes or so doing ‘dangle feeds’ – where you literally get on all fours and dangle your breast into baby’s mouth. Sounds hilarious and I’d probably be laughing too, were it not for the fear of obstructed ducts and mastitis!

In that crazy-pose, the gravity helps the milk move down, and you can position the baby’s chin so that it is pointing toward the hard, sore ‘cake’ (as they call it) and that drains the milk from that area, specifically. I alternated those feeds with warm compresses on my breast. I couldn’t believe I had come this far into breastfeeding (5.5 months) without blocked ducts and with no mastitis only to fall prey to it now!!

After a few attempts, with me massaging and squeezing the breast, finally Anya was able to get enough suction to get some milk out and slowly the breast started to get drained, though hard areas remained.

Later that day, coincidentally, I was talking to some moms and one of them said she had ‘cake breasts’, with large hard areas due to blocked ducts and we got to talking and someone said lecithin really helps. Hah! I have been taking lecithin all through breastfeeding (in fact I have been taking it for years for brain function and fat utilisation). I just ran out about 5 days ago and hadn’t gotten round to replacing it yet!

Perhaps that is why I haven’t had more issues with blocked ducts and mastitis (an infection of the breast that comes from excess, blocked milk). Maybe I have been lucky, maybe it is in the genes, somehow, good breastfeeding. And of course the fact that I feed on-demand and straight from the breast (never confusing the balance of milk supply and demand by introducing a pump) also helps… but maybe lecithin has been my secret helper, all along. Who knew?

So, the good news is, by the end of the day I had worked through all those hard lumps in my right breast. And now it would seem I have all but equalised production in both breasts – as witnessed by the fact that they look pretty much the same size again for the first time in months. Horrah! I am balanced once more.

Green Poo

When Anya was six weeks old her poo turned green. Hey, I had read somewhere that babies’ bowel movements changed, often dramatically at about that age; plus I had heard there was a range of colours baby poo came in all of which were healthy, so I didn’t worry.

Until, at about 10 weeks, I was in a ‘baby and me’ group and another mother saw Anya’s pooey diaper and said, and I quote: Ewww!

Her baby was way older than mine yet she seemed utterly surprised by its green hue. Could it be less than normal?

So, what could I do? I googled it.

The virtual oracle offered two possible explanations: food intolerances or an imbalance of fore and hind milk (resulting from an over-production of milk). Well intolerances were going to be much harder and take much longer to investigate [don’t I know it – as I am going through that now] so I thought I’d try the protocol suggested for dealing with over-production of milk.

First, let me explain this potential imbalance. As breastfeeding mammas will now, babies need to get both foremilk and hindmilk. Foremilk, the first milk that comes through at each feed, is more watery and thirst quenching. The hindmilk is richer in fats and will provide satiety. However, if you are producing too much milk (and or swapping breast too soon) your baby will get all foremilk and not enough of the essential fatty hindmilk which makes them full. And apparently this will show up as green poo (as the lining of the intestines gets irritated by the lack of lovely fat).

So, I did what the moms on this forum I found suggested and fed my child from the one breast everytime she chose to feed in one two-hour period and only then would I change breast. And, lo and behold, within the predicted 48 hours Anya’s poo was back to the normal mustardy-seedy yellow. Hoorah!

After thinking at one time that I didn’t have enough milk and despite my still really quite small breasts, it turns out I had an over-production of milk. This certainly is verified by her incredibly fast weight gain, she has gone up by 65 percentile points since birth – quite something, ei?