Distortion: How Poor Early Nutritional Experiences Set us up for Failure
Ace holds up the cupcake ceremoniously. He takes his first bite which, in his little two-year-old mouth, is mostly just blue frosting. His eyes light up and he starts dancing from side-to-side. The table of adoring family erupts in laughter. He continues to rapidly devour the treat, dancing and laughing all the while. With all eyes on the two-year-old birthday boy, no one even notices grandpa holding Ace’s six-month-old baby sister. He’s swiping frosting off a cupcake and feeding it to her.
As my eyes finally scan over to see blue baby lips, I come out of my seat to stop the madness. My little baby girl’s immaculate palate just got its first introduction to non-formula food and this was what was chosen for her. The helpless little girl, incapable of controlling any ounce of her environment, was subjected to died blue sugar cream. As the table turns to scold grandpa, he protests, “But she likes it!” “Yes and she’d really love cocaine,” I retort.
Clearly, I could have reacted better. Having adopted her and her brother, she was unable to breastfeed and now I feared her palate was being distorted by what is, at best, a controlled substance.
I’ll readily admit I catastrophized and overly dramatized the harm of this situation. But the comparison isn’t completely without merit. After exhaustive studies its been shown that over 94% of rats who were already hooked on cocaine and morphine chose saccharin, an artificial sweetener. Even after upping the cocaine and morphine doses, rats still preferred intense sweetness. Of course she liked the frosting! Our choices should be held to a higher standard than the effects on immediate sensory pleasure. People might like a heroin high, but I’m still convinced it would ruin their lives. The results of added, refined sugars certainly aren’t as immediate or drastic as hard narcotics, but both drastically distort future perceptions, expectations, and experiences.
Still, I felt bad for my outburst. It was the cumulative frustration of raising kids in a world I deem insane—where parenting my children according to my vision of strength, supported progressive self-sufficiency, and harmony with their bio-evolutionary needs is constantly met with resistance. The “but she likes it,” set me off more than anything. It is the standard response from anyone who disagrees with my parenting approach. It is why kids are allowed to watch TV all day, eat only junk, and why as teens they are addicted to their smartphones. Our inability to recognize an environment full of temptations engineered for optimal human addiction and then to set boundaries is leading millions to lives of mental and physical poor health.
“We may be approaching a time when sugar is responsible for more early deaths in America than cigarette smoking.”
Dr. Lewis Cantley
When looking at the modern landscape, the national obesity epidemic teetering near 50%, the rampant heart disease, the projections that 57% of today’s youth will be obese by age 35, and even the skyrocketing rates of depression and anxiety, so much is a product of the norms and expectations created in people’s earliest years. The majority of Americans repeatedly battle with their relationship to food, yo-yoing through cycles of obsessive diets, binges, and frequent feelings of regret and personal disappointment. All of this is based upon a bizarre, normal eating model that, until exhaustively corrected, distorts all future eating experience.
Distortion is the act of altering or twisting something from its true, natural, or original state. It is a process of misleading, confusing, and warping systems out of balance. The sweets and sugar-infused snacks that dominate childhood are not only addictive, but they create distortions in reality that shape future choices, expectations, perceptions, and sensory experiences.
1. Distortion of Perceptions
In the Western experience, youth are saturated in types of foods better labeled as chemistry experiments. Pop Tarts, Cheetos, sodas, fish sticks, mac and cheese, and the abundant fast food options are considered normal eating. Eating predominantly unprocessed whole foods that made up all the foods available for over 99.9% of the human experience is considered a bizarre and extreme lifestyle. As a social species, these norms have as much power as the chemical addiction that accompanies them.
2. Distortion of Sensory Experience
Our biology never could have been ready for the variety and abundance of refined, added sugars, or the efficiency of their transmission in the body. Inundated with this barrage of extremes the palate shifts drastically, growing to expect intense sweetness, while finding everything else unpalatably bitter by comparison. Fruits grow bland and vegetables repulsive. Strong evidence suggests that artificial sweeteners also distort the palate to create more craving for sweetness.
3. Distortion of Expectations
Even if the palate had not shifted, we see that once kids are exposed to processed junk food, they’ll prefer it to their vegetables and most other options. The choices and expectations of meals will change, considerably. These are young children incapable of self-imposed discipline or long-term planning. From their worldview, it is perfectly reasonable to throw a tantrum or sit there stubbornly until they get what they want. If they don’t have parents insisting they eat balanced meals, they’ll never set healthy nutrition habits. Their future choices will be radically warped by the experience of their childhood. This, of course, only serves to create more difficulty in any attempts down the road to eat healthier and create positive changes.
Needless to say, I don’t want my kids to take on the full brunt of these distortions in their lives.
An Insanely Extreme (While Rational) Approach
As a thought experiment, imagine if you never gave your children anything but whole, minimally processed foods. They ate fruits, vegetables, chicken, fish, oatmeal, sweet potatoes, avocados, nuts, seeds, and even whole milk and truly natural peanut butter, but never anything out of a wrapper. This deprived existence would still be far more flavorful, broad, and decadent than the diets available to 99.9% of human history. Every meal would still be the best thing most humans would have ever tasted.
Kids who only experienced these foods would love most of these foods. They are the foods humanity evolved to eat, after all. Preferences would still arise. Squash, zucchini, and roasted carrots would probably be favored to broccoli and cauliflower. Grapes, and bananas with peanut butter would be more favorable, still. Yet, overall, children would be just as happy, if not happier than they are immersed in our modern diabetic conveyor belt. Vegetables would be far more enjoyable—perceived as far less extreme in their bitterness, and most of these foods would be eaten with the same enthusiasm children bring to their mac and cheese and Pop Tarts, today. They’d relish that bowl of oatmeal each morning and look at a sweet potato like it was the magical taste sensation that it is.
When they saw Oreos, Gogurt, or cupcakes they’d hardly register them. Someone could be having a cookie right next to them and they’d be totally content working on a Ziploc full of cashews. That is the beauty of young children. Absent of an experience with these sugary extremes, they are completely unremarkable. Just as you never crave the heroin you’ve triumphantly avoided in your life, Junior will not crave the donut.
It wouldn’t be until the child was almost four that he started to really notice this other world of food that other people were subsisting on. At that point, he’d have a very well-adjusted foundation. You’d get the joy of taking them out for their first ice cream at an age where they’d appreciate and remember the experience. It would be an event. “Alright buddy, today we’re going to try something that is really gonna rock your world.” They’d slowly accumulate broader modern eating experiences, but with boundaries and after an age where there was enough maturity that these didn’t change their day-to-day expectations.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy good food as much as anyone. I love the occasional pizza, tacos, ice cream, wine, or a gin and tonic in the summer. I fully appreciate the enhancement these treats can bring to life when they are controlled. Still, if I had it my way, my-two-year-old and certainly his 6-month-old sister would never eat anything but whole food. This is clearly easier dreamt than done, but a concept at least worth exploring.
People often feel it is mean to even suggest such an approach to childhood eating. As if I’m just trying to deny them awesome, pleasurable experiences. Yet, what is mean is setting a child up for a life of poor health.
The idea isn’t to shield kids from the real world. I want them to be autonomous, free, and encouraged to explore. Yet there should be a calculated understanding of our environment and the extremely addictive and perception-changing experiences that are normal for most. The modern world is an impulse mine-field. Anyone not intentionally setting boundaries for themselves will be dragged along the impulse super-highway to a destination they aren’t happy with. Young children, having no ability to do so yet, require us adults to set boundaries for them.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide. Nutrition-related diseases proliferate along with mass lethargy, and yet compulsive smoking is held at a level of public contempt far surpassing the more common compulsive eating of junk food. Perhaps it is rational to behave in a way society deems extreme.
This Week’s Mission
Go through the house and find one item to throw out and stop buying at the grocery store. If you love ice cream that’s cool. I do, too. Maybe it is a treat that deserves a trip each time. Pick a healthier substitute. If your kids love chips, perhaps you could get more fruit and mixed nuts options. We tend to default to what is easy and available so a great first step is to own the home environment.