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What’s a parent to do about health and diet?

I think parents around the Internet responded strongly to the article Puberty Before Age 10: A New Normal?, published in the New York Times, because it hit on how vulnerable we feel when it comes to making decisions about food. It’s extremely hard to decide what to believe on the issue of how to feed our children a healthy diet and avoid dangerous substances in their food. There is so much competing information out there, and so much “evidence” that is cited that really isn’t evidence at all. How can we make decisions when the information we get is so confusing?

First of all, what sort of evidence should be considered “hard” evidence? The difference between “hard evidence” and “evidence” is that hard evidence withstands rigorous inquiry:

  • It’s reproducible
  • It can be seen on a large scale
  • It doesn’t go away in double-blind testing

There’s lots of “evidence” out there that indicates that some things in our environment may be making our kids sick. But how do we know how to react to all this information?

The problem with knowing whether we are “causing” these problems with the chemicals in our environment is that human bodies are so incredibly complex. And the problems we’re seeing are complex. Put those two things together, and designing a strong study becomes nearly impossible. Sometimes scientists can look at epidemiological evidence (longterm evidence, for example, that a certain type of cancer is rising), but that doesn’t answer the important question: Why? What’s causing it? Is only one cause or a combination?

Here’s an example of this complexity: I wrote at one point about the clear evidence, from the experience of many parents and with some evidence from studies, that gifted kids are more likely to have what is called “reactive hypoglycemia” and that they are likely to respond well to adding Omega-3 oils to their diets. Someone wrote back telling me that if my child was acting crazy when he was hungry, then there must be something deeply wrong with my child and he needed a full medical work-up. But no, many parents see that if we keep enough O-3 in our kids’ diets, we see marked improvement. And since that’s an easy, healthy way to fix the problem, and it’s very hard to find “hard” evidence past that, parents have to be satisfied that at least there’s a workaround.

But how would we get “hard” evidence for something as complex as the behavior of certain kids when they are hungry? First of all, they would have to take parents’ opinions out of the mix, because we are unable to be truly objective observers. But next, they’d have to find a way to verify that they have a large sample of kids who have this problem, and since it’s hard to test the problem without living with the kids, you’d have to put parents back into the formula. In other words, there’s no “hard” evidence for this phenomenon or the cure, but that doesn’t mean that the problem doesn’t exist or that the cure doesn’t work.

In the case of what’s causing this “early puberty” and how it can be fixed, we have even greater complexities. Is the onset of puberty really getting earlier in our country? Is early breast development the same as early puberty or does it just have one obvious characteristic in common? And even if we can prove it’s happening, how can we prove that a substance nearly ubiquitous in our food supply is the cause? One of the reasons it took so long to prove that smoking causes lung cancer is that smoking was so ubiquitous, scientists had trouble proving that it could be a factor. (Even one of the lead scientists on the first major study doubted they’d get any clear results… the day they started compiling their data, he quit smoking, but still died of lung cancer a few years later!)

I talked to my kids’ pediatrician about this and he said he believes, as I do, that the influence of diet on our health is the major new frontier in medical science. The way our healthcare and scientific systems are set up, however, it’s really hard to get funding for this type of research: the “cure” doesn’t involve a drug that a company can benefit from. Unfortunately, this leads to a lot of non-MD/scientists getting into this field — people who are into alternative medicine and are seeing marked improvements in patients just by dietary control. But since that field is also rife with charlatans (who just want to make money) and true believers (who are willing suspend rational judgment), the insistence on rigor and sound data goes out the window.

Correlation vs causation


As to how we parents should respond to this confusion, it’s clear that each parent has to make her own decision based on principles she believes in. Some parents are willing to make huge, difficult changes in their lives in case the people who espouse radical opinions are correct. My family’s approach involves straightforward lifestyle decisions:

  • Avoid milk/meat raised on hormones and antibiotics
  • Avoid BPA-lined cans and no heating in plastic containers.
  • Mostly organic produce, with an emphasis on all organic for plants that show high residues (root veges, fruits that you eat the skin of)

But I am not going to turn our lives upside-down for this, because I also believe in a balanced, enjoyable life. Thus, yes, sugar is pretty bad for us, but we love desserts and do eat them in moderation. And yes, we would be better off eating only whole grains, but pleasure in food is also part of health and frankly, sometimes a lovely croissant is just what your body and soul needs!

Finally, I think it’s best for parents to avoid reading inflammatory articles if these articles affect them negatively. Definitely don’t go looking at these magazines whose sole purpose, it seems, is to make us fearful of modern life. We are living longer and healthier lives because, in many cases, of the very same advances in applied science that may be making some of us sick. It’s very complicated, but with reasonable people taking reasonable care to sort it all out, things will continue to improve. As parents, we have an obligation to make our concerns known. But we don’t have to torture ourselves about the decisions we make – sometimes we just have to go forward with what we’ve got.


Posted in Culture, Health, Parenting.

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