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Baby Nutrition – Understanding a Whole-Food Based Diet

Posted Jan 19 2010 7:03pm

By Colleen Hurley, RD, Certified Kid’s Nutrition Specialist

No, whole food doesn’t always refer to that ubiquitous grocery store chain but rather a way of eating. It has become quite a common catch phrase these days which can only add to the confusion for parents attempting to provide their kids with a healthy diet.  Mum Mum’s advocates starting kids off right with a well balanced, minimally processed diet – but what exactly is that?

Whole Foods Vs. Processed

The phrase “whole food based diet” basically means choosing foods in as close to their natural state as possible, which  provides the body with maximum nutrients a food has to offer.  Although we have made major advancements in the past 50 years with respect to food processing, research is pointing for us to go back in time and eat the way our grandparents did.  Essentially, choosing foods that go the shortest distance from the ground to your plate.

 Processed or refined foods are pretty much the opposite of a whole food.  Again, these are buzz words found all over the place but often without explanation.   A refined food may have come from nature at some point, but has been processed – chemically, mechanically, or both- into a new food.  A perfect example is white rice.  Rice, in nature, is dark (brown) because of the rich sources of nutrients.  To make the rice white, the germ and bran are removed, and the rice is polished using glucose or talc then sometimes parboiled at high temperatures.  This process removes most of the nutrients that are then added back into the food through a process called enrichment, yet enrichment cannot replace many phytochemcials. 

 The definition of processed foods is loose because even healthy foods may undergo some processing including frozen wholefoodvegetables or dried fruits. It is when the processing either makes a ‘food’ from a group of chemicals or as biotechnologyonline.gov explains: “Any food product that has undergone physical or chemical treatment resulting in a substantial change in the original state of the food”.  For processed foods following the latter description, they are often lacking in nutrients and likely have added fats, sugars, and a lot of other chemicals that do not provide nutrients.  Yes, they are ok once in a while but should not make up the basis of a diet.  When it comes to children, they often eat small amounts to begin with and filling up their tummies with foods of little nutritional value may lead to nutrient deficiencies.

Well Balanced

Just like it says, a well balanced diet is not too heavily weighted in any one particular type of food and includes all the food groups, espeically whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.   This is another media catch phrase but ironically there is no real definition of what exactly constitutes a “well balanced” diet, but perhaps the operative word here is ‘balanced’.  Kids do not need caloric restriction because they are growing rapidly and need lots of fuel, yet it is also not appropriate force feed children.  As the wise Ellyn Satter explains: parents provide the what (to eat) and kids decide how much.  Research is now correlating adult diseases with childhood diet, which is why what you are feeding your children now is so important.  While science has not yet proven for a fact what types of refined or processed foods are detrimental to long term health, what has been proven is how harmful the lack of whole foods can be in the long term.  By offering your children a variety of whole foods, with of course some treats mixed in now and then, you will be teaching them habits – and that ever elusive ‘balance’- that will last a lifetime.  Check out myPyramid for kids, a great resource for meal planning and understanding the nutrient needs for kids of all ages.

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