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8 Ways to Give Your Child a Safer Diet

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  May 23, 2013 07:58 AM

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snow-white-poison-apple.jpgFood: It's supposed to keep us healthy. But these days, sometimes our food makes us sick.

I'm not just talking about bad potato salad. I'm talking about more insidious risks, the kind that build up, and cause problems down the line--such as cancer. That's what makes these hard: you feel fine after eating or drinking this stuff. 

As parents, it's particularly important that we make our children's diet is as safe as possible. Not only are we responsible for their well-being, but the fact that they have so many years ahead of them means that toxins have many years to build up in their bodies.

It's nearly impossible to avoid all toxins these days--they are truly everywhere. But here are 8 things parents can do to at least make their child's diet safer (not necessarily in the order of importance):

1. Limit processed foods. Yes, processed foods make life simpler. But they simply aren't as healthy as food you make or cook yourself. As much as you can, buy whole grains and fresh produce and fresh meats. Make big batches of recipes and freeze some. MyPlate has a great Pinterest board with tons of healthy, easy recipes.
2. Buy organic--wisely. The pesticides many farmers use can be poisonous and increase the risk of various diseases. However, it's not absolutely necessary to go totally organic. Some foods just have more pesticides than others. The Environmental Working Group has two great lists: The Dirty Dozen and The Clean Fifteen. Check them out--there's even an app you can use while you shop.
3. Wash your produce. Really well. All the time. You lower all sorts of risks that way. Originally in this post I said to wash meat, but I was appropriately corrected; the USDA says not to do that, because of the possibility of cross-contamination.
4. Be aware of mercury. Mercury can harm the developing brains and nervous systems of unborn babies and children--and there's mercury in a lot of seafood these days. Thick fish like tuna and swordfish (my favorites, sigh) have particularly high levels. To find out exactly what is safe (and what isn't) for children and pregnant women, check out the Fish Consumption Advisories page of the website of the Environmental Protection Agency.
5. Limit rice and rice products. Turns out that the rice plant is really good at sucking things out of the ground--like arsenic. The Consumer Products Safety Commission published a scary report last year that suggested we should all be cutting back on the amount of rice and rice products we ingest (I summarized it in a blog I wrote last fall). Rice isn't the only food with arsenic in it--a recent report found it in chicken, too--but it's important to know about.
6. Watch out for BPA. BPA, bisphenol-A, is another ubiquitous chemical, found in all sorts of plastics, the linings of cans, and even cash register receipts. It can affect the reproductive system, may affect behavior and can increase the risk of cancer. To limit exposure, use fewer canned goods (I've been using dried beans more--takes advanced planning but worth it) and don't serve or eat foods in or on plastics with the numbers 3 or 7 on them (limiting plastics in general is a good idea). You can read more at the National Institute for Environmental Health website.
7. Keep to real colors. This is part of #1, really, but if the color of the macaroni or the drink you are giving your chid is, well, not a color you've ever seen in a food (or in nature), that's not a good sign. Not that all food coloring is toxic. But some of it isn't good for you--and chances are that the food or drink isn't healthy for some other reason. Speaking of drinks...
8. Keep drinks to the healthy three. Kids really should be drinking milk (or a healthy alterna-milk--my friend Dr. Natasha Burgert has a great post about those), water or 100 percent juice (although, keep juice to no more than a cup a day or so). Nothing else.

If I'm forgetting something, please chime in!

It's really important, too, to stay informed. Talk to your doctor. The various websites I've linked to have lots of great information, as does the American Academy of Pediatrics website for parents and families. We learn new things every day, so check in frequently to learn the best ways to keep your family healthy.

Is there something you'd like me to write about? Leave me a message on my Facebook page--and "like" the page for links to all my MD Mama blogs as well as my blogs on Thriving and Huffington Post.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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