Dietary Guidelines

In his 1988 Report on Nutrition and Health, then-Surgeon General of the United States C. Everett Koop wrote, “Your choice of diet can influence your long-term health prospects more than any other action you might take.” Let us rephrase this a bit Your choice of diet for your child can influence your child’s long-term health prospects more than any other action you might take as a parent.

Food provides the energy your child needs to grow, learn, jump, stretch, and play. It provides the nutrient base necessary for building a strong and healthy body. Food also provides immediate information] to the body. It can make your child feel full and re-energized, or tired, jumpy, and irritable. The breakfasts you give your child, the lunches eaten at school, the snacks you provide, the dinners you prepare all provide the building blocks for every cell in your child’s body.

The Historical Use of Diet

Hippocrates, the “Father of Medicine,” wrote, “Let food be your medicine. Let your medicine be your food.” This recommendation is as important for us today as it was in ancient Greece. Food was a primary form of medicine in ancient cultures and has continued to be used as such through the ages. Warm teas and soups for colds, prune juice for constipation, toast and crackers for diarrhea-all are well-known and time-tested “medicines.”

Food is important not only for curing illness, but for preventing it Today, the importance of diet in maintaining health-and conversely, in contributing to the development of disease-is increasingly evident. A proper diet is therefore useful in treating acute and chronic childhood illness as well as in promoting and enhancing optimal health.

The American Diet Today

A hundred years ago, food was prepared in a very different way than it generally is today. Most importantly, food was prepared and served more simply. In the last several decades, thanks to food-processing technology, we have seen the development of a vast selection of “quick-fix” packaged, canned, frozen, boil-in-a-bag, and microwaveable foods that get us in and out of the kitchen fast. Few people cook in the traditional sense of the word, at least on a regular basis. It’s easier and more convenient to stir water into the contents of a package, open a can, heat up a frozen dinner, or “nuke” a prepackaged serving in the microwave.

Highly processed junk food is a billion-dollar-a-year industry. The shelves of American supermarket are weighted down with candy, cookies, and all kinds of packaged baked goods; snacks loaded with sugar, fat, and salt; sodas, colas, “juices,” and punches made with more chemicals and additives than fruit; and artificially flavored and colored cereals.

The typical American diet is in need of an overhaul Most of us eat too much fat, too few complex carbohydrates, and too many empty calories, and are deficient in trace minerals and vitamins. The typical American gets about 42 percent of total calories from fat, with 16 percent coming from saturated fats and 26 percent from unsaturated fats. Compare this to the recommended amounts: a maximum of 30 percent of total daily calories from fat, with 10 percent from saturated fats (such as meat and dairy products), 10 percent from monounsaturated fats (such as olive oil), and 10 percent from polyunsaturated fats (such as corn, safflower, and soybean oils).

The typical American gets about 22 percent of total calories from complex carbohydrates (such as those in grains and legumes), 6 percent of calories from naturally occurring sugars (such as those found in fruits and honey), and 18 percent of calories from refined and processed sugars (such as those found in sodas, candy bars, and many processed foods). Yet it is recommended that at least 48 percent of the calories we consume should come from complex carbohydrates and naturally occurring sugars, and no more than 10 percent from refined and processed sugars.

You can make a good start toward a better diet by focusing on five of the dietary goals determined by the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Services to optimize the health of Americans through improved nutrition:

1. Increase your intake of complex carbohydrates.

2. Decrease your intake of refined and processed sugars.

3. Decrease fat consumption.

4. Decrease cholesterol consumption.

5. Limit salt intake.

In addition, encourage your child to avoid the routine consumption of products containing refined and processed sugars, saving them instead for occasional treats. Base your family’s diet on grains, vegetables, fruits, clean, lean proteins, and legumes. Don’t depend on processed, packaged foods for your nutrition-it is a disservice to your family’s health.

Food Additives and Other Chemicals

Too much of what passes for food in the United States contains chemicals such as manufactured sweeteners, processed fats and/or fat substitutes, artificial flavorings and colorings, plus vast quantities of preservatives. Preservatives are nothing new. Salting down and pickling meat and vegetables were common practices centuries ago, as was the drying (dehydrating) of various foodstuffs. Foods preserved this way lasted a very long time, which was important in an era before refrigeration and efficient transport of fresh foods. But these natural methods took so much time and care that they were not easily adaptable to mass production. As the prepared-food industry grew by leaps and bounds, other timesaving and more cost-effective-if less healthy- methods of preserving foods were developed by the major food manufacturers.

Food additives and preservatives undergo exhaustive testing, on an individual basis. During the testing phase, laboratory animals are given megadoses of a single additive at a time. It’s easy enough for manufacturers to explain away any adverse reactions by pointing out that a human will ingest only a tiny bit of a particular additive per serving. But few studies have been conducted on how different food additives interact with each other or what they do to the human body, even

though it’s impossible to find a manufactured food product that contains only one additive. A small-scale study reported in the Journal of Food Science in 1976 tested three common food additives, with alarming results. When laboratory rats were given a single additive in their food, no adverse effects were noted. When two additives were combined, the rats sickened. When all three additives were given, all of the animals died within two weeks.

And what about the effects over the long term? Current scientific research can’t tell us what the cumulative effects of ingesting a single food additive will be-let alone what the ever-present chemical combinations of multiple additives may do over a period of many years.

Today’s food products often contain more chemical additives than basic food ingredients. Always read the labels! Trying to find additive-free products can be an exercise in frustration. Preparing fresh, whole foods is a good beginning and a way to avoid the frustration. Even so, farmers often use pesticides and chemicals in their fields that contaminate even what look like healthy fresh foods. Since the 1940s, the use of chemicals by the food growers of America has increased tenfold. In the last twenty years alone, the number of pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, rodenticides, chemical fertilizers, and soil conditioners has doubled. These toxic chemicals do not disperse and decay harmlessly. They contaminate the food we eat, pollute the air we breathe, and seep into the water we drink. And these chemicals are all pervasive, often mysteriously traveling far from the areas where they were actually used.

DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) is a case in point. It was banned in 1972, yet nearly every American still carries traces of DDT in his or her body. DDT has even been detected in wild animals roaming free in the Antarctic, a place once thought free of man-made chemical contamination.

Each year more than 2.5 billion pounds of chemicals are sprayed or dumped on agricultural crops, spread in forests, and used to treat ponds and lakes or “green” lawns and parks. In the mid-1980s, farmers, pest-control companies, and homeowners spent over $6.5 billion on chemicals.

A 1987 study released by the National Cancer Institute showed that children living in homes where pesticides are routinely used are seven times more likely to develop childhood leukemia than are children who live in chemical-free households. In 1989, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reported on a comprehensive two-year study of the impact on children of pesticide residues in food. It showed that, compared to adults, the average child receives four times more exposure to eight cancer-causing pesticides in food. Apples, apple products, peanut butter, and processed cherries that have been treated with the chemical growth regulator daminozide (better known as Alar) were named as foods posing the greatest potential risk to children. The average exposure of a child under six to daminozide and to UMDH, the carcinogenic compound it forms in the body, is 240 times the cancer risk that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calls “acceptable” after a lifetime of exposure to this toxic chemical.

The study determined that children consume proportionally more fruits and vegetables-and thus more pesticides-than adults. Fruits are especially susceptible to pesticide contamination. On average, produce accounts for about one-third of a child’s diet, with fruits predominating. The average preschool child consumes six times more fruit and fruit products, and drinks eighteen times more apple juice, than his parents do. During infancy, the average baby consumes thirty-one times more apple juice than adults in the household.

The NRDC study targeted only eight widely used chemicals. But you should be aware that the EPA has identified sixty-six different carcinogenic pesticides that turn up in the average child’s diet. To date, the EPA has not acted to restrict the use of these chemicals.

Only about 1 percent of the produce, domestic or imported, in your supermarket has been tested for pesticide residues, and tests currently used can detect only around 40 percent of the possible chemical contaminants. Many dangerous metabolises (chemical compounds that form as the source chemicals break down in the body) cannot be detected at all.

The General Accounting Office (GAO) reports that it takes the FDA close to a month, on average, to complete a laboratory analysis of a food sample. During that time, a suspect food stays on the market. In more than 50 percent of the instances where the FDA has found violations, the GAO says, the contaminated food was not recovered. By the time the FDA had completed lab testing, unsuspecting families had eaten the “evidence.”

Choosing Food and Water for Your Child

As a parent, you have an important and powerful influence on your child’s eating habits. Children will learn to eat what a parent eats and serves. Children will eat what you stock in the refrigerator and cupboards. Children will learn to eat the way their parents do, whether that is slowly or quickly, to satisfy hunger or to ease or avoid feelings, at mealtimes or while sitting in front of the television. We need to be conscious of what we are passing on to our children.

Following are some guidelines to help you provide a healthy, balanced, nutrient-rich diet for your child (and for yourself!).

Whenever possible, buy organically grown produce and grains. Buy meat from animals raised without hormones or antibiotics. Buying organically grown foods is the one way to avoid the danger of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Organic foods are grown without the use of synthetic chemicals. They are absolutely the healthiest choice for our children, our families, and the earth and air.

Contaminants in the air, food, and drinking water c the nation are a major concern. By testing rainwater samples from twenty-three states, a recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey found that agricultural chemical end up in the atmosphere. Along with eliminating the pesticide residues that linger on commercially farmed foods, organic farming spares the earth from these unnecessary and destructive toxins. If you have difficulty finding a source of organic foods, ask your local grocery to carry certified organic produce and grains. Certified organic farms are periodically inspected by state agencies (at present, there is no federal law or organization that oversees organic farming practices). The California law has set the standard for regulating and certifying organic farming methods. It states that in order for a farm to be certified organic, the ground must have been worked without the use of chemical sprays or fertilizers for at leas four years. The soil of a farm is tested each year to deter mine compliance. You may also see produce marked a coming from transitional farms, meaning that the farm has not yet made the four-year mark, but is in the process of transition into farming without sprays or fertilizers.

If you cannot buy organic fruits, vegetables, and grains, wash everything thoroughly. Use a mixture of warm water and vinegar (1/4 cup of vinegar for each gallon of water); vinegar accelerates the breakdown of some pesticides. When serving vegetables like cabbage and lettuce, always remove the outer leaves, which often contain many times more chemical residue than the inner leaves do. Root vegetables (carrots, potatoes turnips, etc.) should be scrubbed and peeled. Any fruit or vegetable that has been waxed (this is often done to’ apples, cucumbers, eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, and citrus fruits to make them look shinier and more attractive) should be peeled as well. Even with these precautions, however, you should be aware that there will probably be some residue in the foods you eat. Some chemicals can be washed away and some cannot. Some chemicals can be peeled away, some cannot.

Offer a diet of 50 to 65 percent complex carbohydrates, 15 to 25 percent proteins, and 20 to 25 percept fats. Complex carbohydrates include whole grains (wheat, rye, barley, rice, oats, millet), vegetables, legumes (dried beans, peas), and whole fruits. The sugars found in complex carbohydrates are more gradually absorbed into the bloodstream than those from processed refined sugars. A diet rich in complex carbohydrates will help the whole family feel more alert and energetic during the day.

Complete proteins are found in milk, cheese, eggs, meat, fish, poultry, nuts, and most legumes. Combining grains and vegetables will also provide a complete protein. Proteins are essential for the growth and repair of all body tissues, including organs, muscles, bone, skin, blood, and nerves. Each cell in the body requires protein.

Fats are essential for metabolizing fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), for normal growth and development, and for maintaining healthy skin, hair, and nails. Fats regulate digestion, influence blood pressure, and are needed for the production of prostaglandins, chemical “messengers” that are present throughout the body. It is important to remember, however, that all fats are not created equal. We recommend using unrefined, minimally processed, cold-pressed organic oils. Use flaxseed, linseed, pumpkinseed, soybean, and walnut oils in order to get important essential fatty acids. Safflower, sunflower, canola, and olive oils are also acceptable sources of fat. Polyunsaturated oils should be kept refrigerated after opening. Try to avoid animal fats and the so-called tropical oils (including palm oil and coconut oil), and steer clear of any and all products containing hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils. Margarine and solid shortenings are manufactured with partially hydrogenated oils (see The Hydrogenation Process, page 45). In fact, even though animal fats are not generally recommended, a small amount of butter is healthier for your child than any amount of margarine.

Offer a variety of foods. Along with the fun of trying new and different foods, variety ensures that your child will get the full range of nutrients his growing body needs. Next time you shop, buy something new. Include a vegetable and grain with each lunch and dinner.

Prepare foods simply. Foods that are steamed, baked, or broiled are easily digested. Use water, lemon juice, broths, flavorful herbs, and fruit juices to steam, bake, or broil. Avoid frying foods. Fried foods are more difficult to digest, heated oils and fats turn rancid quickly, and oils and fats add calories.

Give your child three meals a day, with wholesome snacks as necessary (see page 46). To supply the fuel your child needs, make breakfast and lunch the larger meals; offer lighter foods at dinner to support your child’s body as he slows down and prepares to rest for the night. Allow at least two hours between dinner and bedtime. Sleeping on an overly full stomach can cause restless sleep and a groggy feeling in the morning.

Reduce or eliminate refined sugars. The sugar issue may be the greatest dietary challenge a parent faces. Food advertising targeted at children often promotes products that are laden with refined sugars-breakfast cereals, candy, and cookies, among others. Even foods that don’t seem like sweets, such as peanut butter, often contain sugar. Refined sugars, including glucose, fructose, and sucrose, are simple, fast-acting sugars. They cause a rapid rise in blood sugar, followed by a rapid drop. Children may react to these changes in blood sugar with hyperactive, excitable behavior and an inability to concentrate, followed by tiredness and irritability. And we all know the association of sugar with tooth decay and obesity.

There are alternatives to refined sugar. Honey, rice syrup, molasses, barley malt, and maple syrup are fair substitutes. But these too should be used sparingly, as in excess they add little to the diet except calories.

Processed foods can contain a surprisingly large amount of sugar. Thus, decreasing consumption of processed foods can significantly decrease refined sugar consumption. It is important to read food labels carefully so you know exactly what you are feeding your child.

If you can’t eliminate sugar entirely, limit it to early in the day. When your child eats sugary sweets before bed, he may have difficulty settling down for sleep and may wake up groggy and tired the next morning.

Give your child lots of clean water. The only way to be absolutely certain the water your family drinks is safe is to buy clean and pure spring water from a reputable source. If you opt for purified bottled water or a water filter in your house, choose a water purification system that uses reverse osmosis. In reverse osmosis, water passes through a semipermeable membrane. The tiny water molecules pass through the membrane easily. The molecules of many pollutants, chemicals, and heavy metals (such as lead, chlorine, and fluoride), as well as bacteria and viruses, are all too large to pass through the special membrane. The undesirables are caught and flushed away.

Basic Nutrients Your Child Needs

The four basic building blocks of your child’s diet are water, complex carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. A proper balance of these essentials is necessary for optimum health. The table on page 48 provides a brief introduction to your child’s fundamental dietary requirements, as well as a guide to the functions and food sources of these four dietary elements. A diet based on a wide variety of simply prepared whole foods is most likely to meet your child’s basic nutritional needs.

Parents who raise their children as vegetarians must take special care not only to provide adequate protein for healthy growth, but also to teach their children about a nutrient-rich and protein-adequate diet. Many plant foods do not contain the full spectrum of eight amino acids that make up a complete protein. At one time it was thought that to provide a complete protein, certain foods–such as rice and beans-had to be combined and eaten at the same time. Now we know that a diet based on a variety of vegetables, legumes, and grains will provide adequate protein for a child. However, it is important that vegetarian children eat a varied, balanced diet in order to get the full spectrum of amino acids, and therefore complete protein.

Also necessary for good health are nutrients that together are classified as micronutrients, which include vitamins and minerals.


Vitamins are essential to normal body function. They are not a form of energy or fuel, as foods are. But they play an indispensable role in the normal metabolism, growth, and development of your child’s body.

Vitamins are classified as either water-soluble or fat soluble, depending upon which type of molecule (fat- or water-based) transports them in the bloodstream. Water-soluble vitamins include all of the B complex and vitamin C. These vitamins are quickly used by the body or excreted in urine, so they must be replenished daily. Water-soluble vitamins may leach out of foods during cooking, be damaged by overprocessing, or be destroyed when foods are overcooked.

The fat-soluble vitamins-A, D, E, and K-are fairly stable during low-temperature cooking. However, antibiotics, mineral oil, and certain drugs (steroids, for example) interfere with their absorption from the digestive tract. Frying foods alters the fat-soluble vitamins in them as well.

For a review of the vitamins your child needs every day, as well as their respective functions and food sources, see the table on page 50.


Minerals are part of all body tissues and fluids. They are essential in nerve responses, muscle contractions, maintaining proper fluid balance, and the internal processing of nutrients. Minerals influence the manufacture of hormones and regulate electrolyte balance throughout the body. The term electrolyte refers to the form in which various minerals circulate in the body. Calcium, potassium, and sodium are examples of important electrolytes. Calcium, for example, is not only an important constituent of bones and teeth; it is also involved in the transmission of nerve impulses, the transmission of energy from cell to cell, and the contraction and relaxation of muscles, including the heart. Calcium, potassium, and magnesium together control the continuous cycle of contraction and relaxation of the heart muscle and blood vessels. If these electrolytes are out of balance, resulting fluid shifts may cause swelling or dehydration, the neuromuscular system may become irritable, or an irregular heart rhythm may develop.

Minerals are excreted daily and must be replaced either through the diet or in supplement form. Of all the vitamins and minerals, calcium and iron are probably the most important for children, and may be valuable to take as supplements. For a quick review of the minerals your child needs every day, as well as their functions and food sources, see the table on page 52.

Diet and nutrition comprise a huge subject that deserves your time and attention. Read more, experiment with new and different foods, use cookbooks devoted to whole-foods cooking, and ask lots of questions. The more you understand about food and nutrition, the more committed you will be to providing a healthy, wholesome diet for your child.

Working with a Nutritional Counselor

There are many different kinds of professionals, with varied educational backgrounds and philosophies, who can recommend dietary programs and nutritional supplements. Registered dietitians, nutritionists, naturopathic physicians, chiropractors, medical doctors, and nurses-to name only a few-may all practice nutritional medicine. When interviewing a nutritional counselor, whether the person is a medical doctor or macrobiotic counselor, find out about his or her educational background, work experience, and nutritional philosophy.

Nutrition is a broad and constantly changing field. Providing a healthy, well-balanced, allergen-free diet, along with nutritional supplements when needed, may be the most important thing you can do to support your child’s health. You may need assistance planning the optimum diet. Choose a counselor you feel you can work with, a person who believes in the fundamental importance of a healthy diet. As with any health care practitioner, choose a person who knows the current research, who is compassionate, and who will work with you as a partner to create the healthiest, most manageable plan possible.

Nutritional Supplements

Unless a child or teenager has a chronic illness or is unable to eat a varied, healthy diet, he is unlikely to need nutritional supplements on a daily basis. If you are unable to provide a nutritionally complete diet of wholesome, organic foods for your child, you may want to talk to your physician about supplementing your child’s diet with a good multivitamin and mineral formula.

Nutritional supplements can be helpful in supporting your child’s body during illness. For example, in many of the entries in Part Two we suggest boosting your child’s infection-fighting capability with three specific vitamins. Vitamin C is a well-documented anti-inflammatory that eases the common cold. Bioflavonoids help fight infection, reduce inflammation, and decrease allergic reactions. Beta-carotene, which the body uses to manufacture vitamin A, helps mucous membranes to heal.

In addition to vitamins and minerals, a number of different food supplements are often recommended, including lactobacilli (Lactobacillus acidophilus or bifidus) and chlorophyll. When your child is taking a prescribed course of antibiotics, supplementing his diet with yogurt is helpful, and taking lactobacilli for at least ten days after the treatment is very important. Antibiotics are indiscriminate in their choice of targets. They destroy the necessary “friendly” bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract right along with the harmful bacteria they are designed to eliminate. Lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidus restore healthy flora to the intestines and bowel. Chlorophyll, the green pigrnent found in plant tissue, is a natural deodorizer and contains many useful trace nutrients, especially magnesium. It is helpful when treating ailments as varied as bad breath, canker sores, chronic constipation, impetigo, menstrual cramps, vaginitis, and mononucleosis, as well as in rebuilding blood after a major bleed or in rebuilding bone tissue after a break.

Giving Nutritional Supplements to Your Child

Vitamin and mineral supplements are either isolated from food sources or manufactured synthetically. Synthetic and natural vitamins and minerals have identical chemical structures and supposedly do the same work within the body, although there is some controversy over which are more effectively absorbed and used.

Whether you select a natural or synthetic formula, be aware that the contents of any supplement have to be altered in some way to put them into pill, powder, or capsule form. A nutritious, varied diet remains the best source of both vitamins and minerals.

Many vitamin and mineral formulas designed to appeal to children contain refined sugars or artificial sweeteners, such as sucrose, mannose, xylitol, and aspartame (NutraSweet). Some health care practitioners question whether artificial sweeteners are carcinogenic. To be safe, select a formula that does not include them. A health food store will likely carry a child-pleasing vitamin and mineral formula sweetened with honey or rice syrup. Such a formula is a better choice.

To avoid upsetting your child’s stomach, it’s best to give vitamins and minerals with food. Minerals are best administered at the beginning of a meal. Vitamins are best administered at the end of the meal, when your child’s stomach is full. If you are giving a combination vitamin and mineral supplement, give it to your child after a meal.

Age-appropriate therapeutic dosages of nutritional supplements may be found in the beginning of Part Two. When treating your child with nutritional supplements, you should be aware that if a formula appears to be helping support your child’s body, it does not follow that “more is better.” A toxic overdose of a vitamin or mineral is rare, but it can occur, especially with products containing iron. Although a reaction to an age-specific dose of a vitamin and mineral supplement is likewise rare in childhood, be responsible and careful in administering them. If your child should develop an upset stomach or any adverse reaction, decrease the dosage or stop giving him the supplement.

Follow the storage instructions on product labels. In general, you should store vitamin and mineral supplements away from heat, tightly capped, and out of reach of your child. Keep vitamins A and E in the refrigerator. These two vitamins are usually oil-based and will keep longer in a cool environment. Check expiration dates on formulas. A vitamin or mineral formula that has passed its expiration date will not have full potency.

Paying attention to diet and nutrition is perhaps the single most important supportive measure you can offer your family’s health. A good diet will optimize health, just as a poor diet will chip away at your overall health and well-being. A healthy, nutritious diet based on whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, and moderate amounts of clean, lean protein will increase energy, strength, and vitality-and will help your child’s body to resist illness. Bring home food from the produce section; limit your use of prepared foods that come in boxes, cans, or frozen packages. Discover if there are organic farmers in your area and support them, or ask your grocer to stock organic produce (or, if you can, grow your own!). Take the time to learn about preparing foods that are life enhancing-abundant in essential vitamins, minerals, and trace elements.

From Smart Medicine for a Healthier Child by Janet Zand, N.D., L.Ac., Robert Rountree, MD, Rachel Walton, RN, ©1994. Published by Avery Publishing, New York. For personal use only; neither the digital nor printed copy may be copied or sold. Reproduced by permission.

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Written by Janet Zand LAc OMD

Explore Wellness in 2021