Months ago I wrote that understanding human microbiota is a game changer. There is not enough evidence to know the exact mechanisms linking disease and our resident microbes, but what is understood is that our environment plays a major role in the kinds of microbes that populate our gut in the first place, especially diet. Nowhere is that more avidly explored than in the health of infants and children.
A baby’s gut is rather sterile until it pushes through the birth canal and the baby suckles at it’s mother’s breast. Both a vaginal birth and breastfeeding are primary ways to colonize the infant’s gut with the mother’s healthy bacteria. If the baby is born via c-section and fed formula a very different bacteria flora is supported. Formula manufacturers are very tuned into this research, adding probiotics and prebiotic ingredients that attempt to mimic what happens naturally with breast milk, and more research is needed to assess the success of this effort. Some researchers are suggesting that less than optimum gut flora in the infant may be linked to a whole host of infant maladies including infections, a compromised immune function, digestive diseases, and even some cancers.
For the infant, breast milk offers a rich source of non-nutritional bioactive substances which assist in adaptation of the fetus to life after birth. Ironically, the more we learn, the more breast milk is promoted and acknowledged as the norm for feeding infants.
Thirty years ago, it wasn’t quite like that. Too many clinicians and mothers considered breastfeeding to be a rather archaic and bothersome way to feed the baby, especially in the hospital. Formula was considered so much “easier.” I have talked to countless women who struggled to keep a bottle out of their newborn’s mouth before they left the hospital. Even with mothers who want to breastfeed, 25% of those babies born in California are given a bottle of formula within two days.
There are renewed efforts to support breastfeeding, but still the number of mother/child dyads exclusively breastfeeding drops offs dramatically over the first six months of life. When I had my son 17 years ago, people were surprised that I was exclusively breastfeeding at 9 months of age. I gave the breast pump back at that time, not knowing any better and opted for a mix of breastfeeding and formula until Noah was a year of age when he suddenly weaned. I would have breastfed much longer if I knew then what I understand today.
WHEN WE FEED OUR BABIES, WE FEED THEIR GUT MICROBES TOO
What we eat determines the kinds of gut microbiota that thrives in our gut. It is thought that more whole foods with a high fiber content and resistant starch (from beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, vegetables, fruit and whole grains) feeds beneficial bacteria. The refined starches and sugars that are ubiquitous in the marketplace feed the other kind. This begs the question, how can we facilitate the growth of healthy bacteria in our baby’s gut when they begin to eat complimentary foods? Simple. Don’t feed refined, processed and sterile conventional baby foods.
The number one first food fed to American babies is rice cereal. The desire to reduce allergies is the driving force. Yet a paper published in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics and well as positions taken by the World Health Organization state that there is little evidence that this practice has had any beneficial effect in reducing incidence of allergies.
Infant rice cereal is made from highly refined rice flour. It is reported to have a glycemic index of 95–close to sugar. How ironic if the refined rice flour used to make infant rice cereal has actually been increasing inflammation all along.
Americans have been seduced into thinking baby food comes from bottles and boxes in the baby food aisle at your local grocery store. Most people are surprised to find out that there was no such thing as commercial baby food until the 1920’s. Babies have been thriving on traditional foods prepared in the home for generations without all the refined and sterile convenience.
RETHINKING FIRST FOODS
Maybe we need to rethink first foods. The AAP currently recommends that meats, such as turkey, chicken, and beef, should be added as one of the first solids to the breastfed infant’s diet. The Academy goes on to explain, “Meats are good sources of high-quality protein, iron, and zinc and provide greater nutritional value than cereals, fruits, or vegetables.”
Other cultures include rich protein foods in their baby’s diets and rely on more whole foods cooks in gruels and soups often with broth and meat. In addition, other cultures seem to put more emphasis on vegetables, beans and legumes. These are foods with far more resistant starch, higher protein content and far less refined starch than the commercial infant cereals sold today.
Traditional foods are mashed or pureed so the beginning eater can take in the food. The homemade food has the potential to introduce more texture, more variety in flavors, and a wide variety of colors and other factors missing in commercial products–including the opportunity to nourish healthy microbes in a baby’s developing digestive tract.
The ability to introduce your baby to whole foods and the sensory richness of food are reasons I was immediately drawn to consulting for Mika Shino as she wrote her book, Smart Bites for Baby. I see how conventional baby food is produced to have the same texture and taste for all takers. With commercial baby food there is no opportunity to introduce babies to cultural foods with distinctive tastes, looks, colors and textures. There can be a disconnect between commercial baby food and what is usually prepared in the home. What happens when the baby is ready to take start eating the same foods as the rest of the family?
FEEDING BABY, FEEDING ME
Stanford pediatrician, Dr. Alan Greene published Feeding Baby Green in2009. In 2011 he launched a rather provocative effort titled, “WHITE OUT: End junk food for babies” and encourages other pediatricians to rethink their conventional advice regarding first foods. Dr. Greene proposes that highly processed commercial baby food may be one reason babies prefer and even refuse to eat anything other than refined starchy or sweet table foods. He also links the use of highly processed refined starches and baby foods to the growing incidence of obesity.
I have worked with families who complain that their children only eat pasta, rice and pizza. Many babies seem to live off of small bags of goldfish, graham crackers and other finger friendly foods–even if the parents attempt to purchase the whole grain, organic versions. The foods are supplying mostly highly refined starch, with and without the sugar. What we need is a return to introducing babies to real food cooked at home with all the color, texture, taste, and healthy microbes that come with eating close to the earth. We need to feed our children as well as we can feed ourselves.
CONVENIENCE VS HEALTH
Parents face an ever increasing array of prepared and processed baby foods– with or without the health halo of organic– but still sterile and highly processed . I’m wondering if that perceived convenience is worth the potential cost to our children’s health and well being. Often it can take less time and certainly less money to make your own.
In hindsight, despite breastfeeding my 17 year old for a year and making my own baby food, I know I would do things differently today. We didn’t consider gut microbes back then. I readily used formula to make my life easier after I turned in the breast pump. I didn’t think twice about using baby cereal. I readily used crackers and biscuits for snacks, even as I also introduced him to a colorful array of whole foods. I was doing everything I knew to enhance my child’s health with what I understood at the time. But I’d love a do-over. I would feed my baby differently today.
Highly processed and sterile infant cereal is still the primary first food recommended today. Health care providers and many parents are guided by the familiar. Processed and refined baby food have been institutionalized since 1920. But I am speaking to pediatricians at the California State American Academy of Pediatrics in Las Vegas this Saturday. If they haven’t already been convinced by Dr Greene, maybe they will rethink their recommendations after I put down the microphone.