Food Is Medicine

I’m sure that nobody is surprised that pediatricians want you to make good food choices.

By Dr. Robert B. Golenbock

A recent session at the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference was devoted to “using food for physical, mental and environmental health.” The topic is very broad, and I cannot tell you everything you need to know about using food choices to keep your child healthy. I do want to suggest some topics you may want to discuss with your pediatrician. In some cases, your pediatrician may even want to have you consult with a nutritionist.

Let’s start at the beginning. If you can, breastfeed your baby. If you can’t, be sure your alternative is as close as possible to the real thing. And how long should you breastfeed? I prefer that moms continue for at least 9 months. In this country, breastfeeding feeding more than two years is usually unnecessary, but you should not let “friends” bully you into stopping before you’re ready to do so.

When do we start solids? There are scientific reasons to wait at least 4 months and start before 6 months of age. While you’re at it, talk about how to offer tiny amounts of peanuts very early to prevent peanut allergy. Whole nuts and popcorn – like other small choking hazards – should be avoided before five years of age. As children get older, they will develop their preferences for solid food items. Children often eat almost nothing but one food for weeks before moving on to something else. Stay calm. My concept of a balanced diet is one that contains all the proper nutrients over a month or two. Most children will be drinking milk. Low-fat milk is usually a better choice simply because it has fewer calories, but some children need the extra calories of whole milk. If there is a reason – medical or family choice – to avoid cow milk, your pediatrician can help you. Similarly, vegetarian, or vegan diets are much more difficult because growing children may not get all their necessary nutrients without supplementation. Just remember that not all nutritionists have the expertise to consult about children’s diets.

Food is not a bribe, and food is not a punishment. Do not make mealtime a power struggle. Don’t promise something to make your child eat something he doesn’t want. And the days of making a child sit at the table until he’s eaten all his broccoli or – worse – sending him to bed without supper are long over. Always have something like peanut butter, yogurt, cheese, fruit, or, in my son’s case, garbanzo beans available as a substitute. Be creative about hiding foods in soups and stews. There are whole cookbooks about such tricks.

What about snacks? Snacks are an important addition to children’s diets, but again the choice of snacks matters a lot. Yogurt snacks, fruit snacks, and raw vegetables can become your child’s preference if you’ve been offering such things since before they could even ask. Parents need to learn about processed foods. These are foods that are mostly flour and sugar. Not just cakes and cookies, but candies, chips, pretzels, and soda. Incidentally, if you avoid buying these foods for yourself to keep them out of the house, you’ll feel better, too.

I also want to emphasize something called the anti-inflammatory diet. The idea is that what you eat can reduce your risk of developing chronic illnesses. Foods on the “good” list include berries, fatty fish, nuts, leafy greens, oatmeal, and olive oil as well as a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The number one food on the “bad” list is sugar. Right behind sugar are trans fats, processed grains, fried foods, additives, and red meat (especially cured meats like bacon and lunch meats). If you can model your diet around choosing mostly “good” foods and reducing the intake of “bad” foods, your whole family will benefit.

Finally, don’t be the food police. We all like a treat from time to time. Most of us will be fine without totally removing “bad” foods from our diet. And often children coming home from a birthday party full of sweets find that they don’t feel so good. You don’t have to make a fuss. They will probably figure out for themselves that the junk food made them sick, and you don’t have to be the bad guy.

Robert B. Golenbock, MD, is currently retired. He has cared for children in the Danbury area for 43 years, including at the Center for Pediatric Medicine. The CPM is located at 107 Newtown Rd, #1D, Danbury, CT, 06810. For more information, please call (203) 790-0822 or visit