We have a family tradition: Every day it’s over 70 degrees, Benji gets a popsicle. Today it got darn close — 68 — and we agreed that it’s 70 somewhere. In a coronavirus world, we’re relaxing things like this a bit. So Benji enjoyed his first popsicle of the season.
When I was a little girl, we obtained — I don’t know how — a children’s cookbook. Produced by a flour company, it contained the requisite references to “Gold Medal All Purpose Flour” in each recipe, but nevertheless also contained 26 recipes perfectly suited for teaching kids the basics of baking. During our enforced stay-at-home time, Benji and I have started baking through every recipe. It being Benji, of course we’re doing them in alphabetical order, with perfect rigor.
We have a cookbook from my childhood that’s an alphabet cookbook. It has 26 recipes, each one starting with one letter of the alphabet. I actually use the Wonderful Waffles recipe as my go-to when we make waffles — it’s pretty good! I also like the Oatmeal Pancakes, which are heartier (probably not healthier) pancakes that include quick oats.
Not surprisingly, Benji has decided he wants to cook every recipe in the book.
More surprisingly, he doesn’t care to do them in alphabetical order. Instead, he’s picking and choosing the order he wants to do them in.
I work for a software company. The thing about software companies is they’re always making improvements to their software. And so periodically — typically every 60 days or so — we release those changes out into the wild. When that happens, the other technical writer and I have to make sure the Help Center is all up to date and reflecting those changes.
But the previous release, scheduled for early November, was canceled. I guess the devs needed more time for the new features. Unfortunately, I’d already made changes to the Help Center, and it would’ve been a huge waste of time and effort to try to roll it back. (Don’t ask why.)
Well, I’ve been reading a book called The Gluten Lie (please pay no attention to the stupid clickbait title), and although I haven’t finished it, I’m finding it interesting so far. The book is written buy a guy who studies religions, meaning he’s used to evaluating cultural beliefs and myths, and looking for patterns in those areas. He brings this interesting perspective to the field of nutrition.
What this means is that, while he does allude to scientific research, he’s not presenting rock-solid scientific arguments with tons of research studies backing up his discussion points. For example, he discusses the current cultural fad of thinking gluten is “bad” for you and that all people would be healthier avoiding gluten. While he does offer some counter-research and some investigation of why those claims probably aren’t accurate, he isn’t trying to completely dismantle the claims of people advocating low- or no-gluten diets. Instead, he explores historical context for avoiding grains and how we came to hold this belief — and he calls on the reader to acknowledge that it is, in fact, a belief, ultimately taken on faith.
Because, as he points out, nutrition research is incredibly difficult. How do you run a controlled study on what people eat? How do you get a statistically meaningful number of people to let you control every molecule of what they put into their mouths every day, probably for years? Alternatively, when you ask people to self-report what they’ve eaten, who wants to admit they ate a dozen 2″-square brownies after dinner when they could simply round down to a half-dozen 1″ brownies? Or if people aren’t intentionally lying, they aren’t remembering accurately: How many brownies was it, again? and how big were they?
So when people object to all the conflicting reports we hear about different foods — are eggs full of dangerous cholesterol, or are they actually healthful protein packages? — they’re right. Recommendations are constantly changing. That’s because, honestly, researchers don’t know. Add to this the fact that many news articles tend to take cautious scientific statements like “There was a statistically significant correlation between consumption of eggs and slightly increased HDL cholesterol, which may contribute to heart disease,” and turn it into “Eggs cause heart attacks!” and you’ve certainly got a recipe for setting the general public up for disillusionment and distrust of mainstream experts.
Okay, let’s take that, and then ask, “How do people decide what to eat?” If it’s not based on serious, rigorous science, what’s the basis for deciding what to put in our pie holes when it’s not pie?
Belief. Myth. Stories.
“You are what you eat,” for example. We scoff at the idea that eating a (ahem) part of a tiger could make a man more virile (a belief held in Asia), but we still think eating high-fat foods will make us fat. Uh, nope; that’s actually excess calories. Eating a piece of bacon or bread with real butter on it isn’t more likely to make you fat than eating an equivalent amount of other calories — at least, there’s no research demonstrating that yet.
Yet this belief that eating fat makes you fat has persisted from the time of the ancient Greeks to today. I grew up eating nonfat everything, including nonfat frozen yogurt instead of ice cream, margarine instead of butter, and seeing my parents showing every evidence of obsessively avoiding fat. And look what it’s brought us: Gross fake substitutes and mountains of guilt over indulging in “sinful pleasures.”
Oh, yes, notice the religious language there? The author points out that we use quite a few religious terms when talking about food, such as the way we talk about “good” and “bad” foods rather than “nutritious/healthy” or “non-nutritious/unhealthy” foods.
Another common belief he discusses is that food and eating were healthier in the past. He calls it the “paradise past,” where we think that the way people ate at some point in history–be it 10,000 years ago or 100–is better than today, and that people in that time lived healthier lives because of their mythical perfect diets. The funny thing is that this belief has been around for a long time. When people 100 years ago said diets need to go back to a healthier past diet, what does that mean for us today claiming that diets 100 years ago were the ideal we should strive for?
That idea of an eating “paradise past” ties in not only with the idea of the Paleo diet’s claim that we haven’t “evolved” to eat grains, but also the suspicion of “chemicals” in our food, the mistrust of GMO foods, and the whole “only use ingredients your great-grandmother would recognize” claim. (Good thing it doesn’t say “grandmother,” or else we might be going back to the 1950s era of lime Jell-O mixed with canned spinach and topped with whipped cream and grapes. It’s all green!)
He doesn’t call this out specifically, but all this got me thinking about how people really do treat food choices like a religion. Ever talked to someone who’s on the Paleo diet? They have the evangelistic zeal of a Mormon missionary: Boy do they know they’re right and want to convert you to their thinking. They aren’t alone; many people, when you scratch the surface, hold equally powerful beliefs around food. Similarly, the rules and rituals around food and the avoiding of specific foods parallels religious behavior in many ways.
Most of all, like when a person believes in a certain religion, no amount of counter-evidence is going to change the believer’s mind. They know they feel better when they cut out gluten (never mind the other lifestyle changes that may have contributed), and that’s much more powerful than a discussion of the nocebo effect and sociogenic illness. Plus, once you buy into a specific diet or food belief system, it becomes a fundamental part of how you think of yourself. It’s incredibly hard to ask someone to then evaluate that decision in a cool, rational way.
What does all this mean?
Well, I haven’t finished the book yet, so I don’t know how the author wraps it up. But it reminds me of a few things:
Well, when Benji came along, Ian and I decided to take a stand in two areas: Sleep and food. I wanted Benji to have a healthier relationship with food than I did.
Throughout the littlest-kid years, we defended naps with the vigilance of a mother tiger over her cubs. Sleep was tough, sure, especially during sleep regressions and when we hit developmental milestones. Is it time to go from two naps to one? How do we do it? Yet, ultimately, we controlled that to a great extent. That is, we could at least control when we put Benji in his room and when he was allowed to come out: We carved out the time for healthy rest, and for the most part, he took it.
Only since school started this September has he really seemed to give up napping, and even so, he still falls asleep occasionally during “quiet time,” which we still do for at least an hour a day after lunch.
Anyway, boy, food has proved tougher. You can’t make a kid eat! Eating or not eating — from Day 1, it’s the first place that little person asserts his independence. You can’t make me eat!
Long story short, we eventually settled on offering a variety of mostly healthy foods and telling him to eat until his tummy wasn’t hungry anymore.
But over time this evolved into Benji wanting us to quantify how much food he had to eat to be done. We would suggest a number, and he’d take that many bites, no more or less.
Then it got worse as, at dinner time, the question turned into: “How many bites do I have to eat to get dessert?” No matter what we said, this always resulted in whining and negotiating, claims that no reasonable human being could eat six bites of pasta AND all the peas, we were practically monsters in parent form, etc., etc.
About a month ago, I was talking with a friend at church about this misery and she mentioned that they just have dessert nights at their house. The kids pick two nights a week when they have dessert; the other nights, they just don’t.
I loved this idea, and combined it with another idea I heard elsewhere many years ago: Serve dessert as part of dinner. It isn’t a reward, it isn’t some kind of treasure you have to dig through a pile of gross food to get to. It’s just another part of the meal: You get protein, veggies, carbs, and a little bit of something sweet — emphasis on little. Dessert should be small enough that the kid isn’t full, and still wants some real food after eating the sweet part.
We started implementing the dessert night idea immediately, and I have to say, it’s been great. We don’t negotiate anymore. If it’s a dessert night (Benji picked Monday and Friday), I give Benji dessert along with everything else on his plate. Of course he eats it first — but then he goes on to eat a pretty substantial amount of his real dinner, too, with no complaints, whining, or stalling… or at least, none related to how many bites he has to eat. He’s still a kid, after all, and I don’t expect him to fall upon kohlrabi with cries of rapture (I know I don’t!).
We aren’t being completely straight-laced about this, mind you. Sweet treats happen at other times and on other days — with grandparents, at a friend’s house, at church, whatever — but dinner has sure gotten a lot nicer. But we are trying to focus on healthier foods that provide real nutrients, so this fits with that goal synergistically (if that’s a word, and if it’s not, it SHOULD be).
So that’s that! For now, anyway, we’ve broken free from the tyranny of dessert. Hooray!
Now, little strikes fear into my heart like the phrase long weekend. Some people wish for 25 hours in a day, right? Well, I’d be happy to loan them our darling beloved child, because I swear days actually are longer with him. Alas, that comes with the caveat that you’ll get a negative amount done, because not only will no productive work happen, you’ll actually end up with more to do cleaning up at the end than when you started.
The remainder of this is a parental whine, which makes me wonder if whining is contagious. If so, I’m sure to catch it, because I had some serious exposure this weekend.