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Blog/Opinion: Food that Prevents and Heals Childhood Illnesses

One out of three American children suffers from a chronic illness – asthma, birth defects, cancer, lead poisoning, and mental-behavioral disorders. The massive load of toxics in their lives is, without a doubt, a major cause. While some children bear an unfortunate burden of genetic vulnerability, susceptibility to disease is apparently largely set in utero or early in infancy, in a battle between nutrition vs. toxic exposures.1 So it’s a major problem that, in too many families, neither the children nor their pregnant mothers eat the food that defends against toxic assaults. Of course, there’s a toxic point in all people, no matter how well nourished they are, but the threshold for resistance will usually be lower in poorly-nourished children and children with specific nutritional weak spots. 


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This is more than just “eat an apple a day.” Today a lot is known about which foods will protect against which specific illness, drawn from recent discoveries about how our body’s systems work.2

One field of battle takes place in our immune system. Here, as in all mammals, is a major headquarters for raising an army of antioxidants – their mission is to fight the normal oxidative stress that is the ordinary result of our body’s perpetual struggle to rid itself of the by-products of normal cellular metabolism. Normally, they win these daily battles.

But then, along come man-made contaminants, such as PCBs, found in trace amounts in all of us, though those chemicals (once widely used in electrical equipment) were banned decades ago. Many types of PCBs wreak harm by causing so much oxidative stress that it ends up inflaming the cells that line blood vessels and, in that way, damages the cardiovascular system as well as the brain and nervous system. A child exposed in the womb to a dose that’s the equivalent of one single drop of PCBs in a bathtub can suffer a lowered IQ and a rise in attention disorder, and cardiovascular diseases later in life. 

Man-made contaminants especially threaten children because their bodies produce lower levels than an adult of the master detoxifying antioxidant, glutathione. And some children, probably because of inherited genetic variations, make even lower levels. These children are often the ones with learning and behavioral disorders. So antioxidants are up there on the top of the list of nutrients we need to fight toxins.

Cancer, too, is influenced by antioxidants, including those delivered through food. In the 12 months prior to pregnancy, the higher the mother’s diet of vegetables and fruit as well as protein sources – beans and lean beef in one study – the lower the risk of having a child with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ACC). Again, what’s at work here includes the antioxidant glutathione, with its power to help make DNA and repair DNA damage. The study that found this connection also found that pregnant women who consumed cod liver oil and folate supplements similarly reduced the risk of their children suffering from ACC cancer.3

If a child during his early years consumes oranges and orange juice, which are packed with another antioxidant – Vitamin C, and potassium-rich bananas, again the likelihood of childhood leukemia falls. A hearty consumption of fruits and vegetables high in beta carotene, another dietary antioxidant, and of foods with vitamin A (again, oranges, as well as yellow, orange and red vegetables) as well as the antioxidant vitamin E (sunflower and safflower oils, hazelnuts and almonds, wheat germ) also builds the body’s defenses against cancer.5

How about damage from lead and other heavy metals to your child’s brain and nervous system? It’s lessened if your child’s body has a good reserve of calcium, iron and zinc, all nutrients that are found in a good diet.
Certain birth effects such as neural tube defects, cleft palates and cleft lips are linked to a deficiency of folic acid, a B vitamin found in abundance in leafy green vegetables, as well as in lesser amounts in citrus fruits, beans, and whole grains. Just to be sure, it’s usually recommended that pregnant women take 400 micrograms or more of folic acid supplements.6

Infertility, which is on the rise in the U. S., also bears the influence of nutrition. Women are more likely to conceive if they follow a Mediterranean diet full of vegetables, vegetable oils, and fish. (Some fish, however, contain high mercury levels, so you have to avoid them. Consult Fertility also requires enough iron and folic acid, and folic acid seems to bolster sperm quality in men.7


Foods with higher levels of beneficial omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, are fish and fish oil, flaxseed and walnuts, canola oil, soybeans, soybean oil, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts.   


Endometriosis (where cells lining the uterus grow into other areas of the body), another illness growing in incidence, also responds to foods with anti-inflammatory powers and to foods with lignans, which help remove toxic substances (such as man-made chemicals that imitate hormones and disrupt endocrine systems) from the body. Lignan-rich vegetables include cabbage, broccoli, and brussel sprouts. 8


There are foods that parents should do their best to keep out of their children’s mouths: chicken raised with arsenic, beef raised with antibiotics, milk produced with growth hormones, and non-organic strawberries (doused with a particularly carcinogenic pesticide). It’s wise to be cautious about foods high in saturated animal fat, which includes butter, cheese, meat and processed foods, because many persistent chemicals concentrate in this fat. 

One final note about meat: Whether meat-eating is “good” or “bad” for you and your child is, as far as I can tell, still debatable. While one study shows, for example, that the level of toxic chemicals plummet after a five-day vegetarian diet, the benefits of meat eating is championed by others – see the book Nourishing Traditions. If meat is your choice, buy only grass-fed, locally-raised meats, which are less polluting and polluted, more humane and better for animals and the planet; and they do not contain as much saturated fat because of the way they are raised.

Can our nutritional troubles be solved by popping a vitamin pill or eating the ‘superfoods,’ also known as “nutraceuticals,” that our food industry is beginning to manufacture? Will “fat-burning waffles” or tomatoes pumped full of beta-carotene take care of our children’s needs? Dr. Ellen Silbergeld of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Public Health says, “Eating nutrients in their natural state, in food, appears to have more positive effects than taking one chemical such as one specific vitamin and putting it in a pill.” 

When your child is an adult and parent or grandparent, s/he will thank you for all this care. First, because s/he will have a lower likelihood of getting sick. Research has confirmed that disorders seeded in childhood set a person’s cellular code for life and can cause illness at any time from conception until old age. So defending against these assaults can head off adult and old age diseases too. And second, because disruptions, from nutrition and/or toxins, to the way our genes normally work can be inherited through several generations. So your child’s child may be affected because of his good or bad health.9

What It Means for You
Compared to 50 years ago, we Americans eat drastically fewer vegetables and whole foods. Yet we are bombarded by toxins in enormously increased amounts.  In 1980, we manufactured or imported 200 billion pounds of man-made chemicals a year. Today that figure is 27 trillion pounds.
First and foremost, we as citizens should find ways to reduce the burden of toxins in our environment, and change the system that allows this assault on our children to continue.

As prospective parents, start eating healthy foods even before your child is conceived, at least twelve months before you plan a pregnancy. (One scientific article on the subject bears the title, “You Are What Your Mother Ate.”) But that should include both partners. Some physicians recommend that pregnancy-planning women get tested for their nutritional levels; and it probably makes sense for the partner to be tested, too.

Reduce your child’s risk from all sources of pollution, including foods: consult the resource appendix in Poisoned for Profit: How Toxins Are Making Our Children Chronically Ill (  

How to get a young child to eat the right foods?

Here’s what I learned (unfortunately, too late for my own grandchildren) from a wise friend:


“My children eat these foods because their taste buds are not polluted with synthetic flavorings or sugar. I was careful to not introduce junk food to her and to my son. Let’s face it, a carrot will not taste sweet and delicious if your child is getting donut holes or Captain Crunch for breakfast. 


“Just because an infant spits out a food at your first attempt to give it to them does not mean that they don’t like it. It’s just different to them, so you reintroduce it time and time again until they accept it. Since babies learn a lot from facial expressions and voice tone, new foods should be introduced with a smile on your face and words of encouragement. 


“We’re a one meal household: If there’s a family member who does not like a particular food I’m making for dinner, I will not make a separate dinner to their liking just for them. I will never cater to such pickiness. If a child skips a meal because they hate what you are serving, that’s ok because they won’t starve to death from missing one meal; however, there’s no junk food in the house for them to fill up on till the next meal.


“It’s more difficult to get a child who has been altered by having junk foods to switch to healthy foods, but it is doable with patience. I’ve made extensive use of children’s picture books that get the message across. When possible, children should be allowed to help prepare the meals or do the shopping. They also seem to like to grow the food and eat it right from the garden.


“PS: If your young child has a Fisher Price play kitchen set, throw out all the “garbage” plastic foods that it comes with and replace them with plastic fruits and veggies.”



True Food offers 8 simple, wise steps (in a visually appealing layout) for cooking, eating and cleaning in ways that are healthy for your family and the planet. Washington, DC: National Geographic, by Annie E. Bond, Melissa Breyer, and Wendy Gordon, 2010. 

Anticancer: A New Way of Life, Viking Press, by David Servan-Schrieber, September 2008. 

Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging, Ted Schettler et al, Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Science and Environmental Health Network, Boston, 2009. The same nutritional advice that applies as we age applies to children. Rates food, applying an algorithm developed at the Yale Prevention Research Center, looking at over 30 factors to determine the score, including the calorie density and Omega 3 content.  Foods that score 100 are broccoli, blueberries, okra, orange, and green beans. Information on ingredients in manufactured foods, including a guide Healthier Food for Busy People


Top Ten Foods and Drinks for Cancer Prevention, Melissa Breyer, August 3. 2010,


Food Matters, a documentary, see for information on purchasing this film.


1. “The Developmental Basis of Health and Disease,” Jerrold J. Heindel, Reproductive Toxicology, May 2007. 
2. “Using Nutrition for Intervention and Prevention against Environmental Chemical Toxicity and Associated Diseases,” Bernhard Hennig et al, Environmental Health Perspectives, April 2007. 
3. “Maternal dietary risk factors in childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia,” Christopher D. Jensen, et al, Cancer Causes and Control, Northern California Childhood Leukemia Study, University of Berkeley Press, 2004. 
4. “Food consumption by children and risk of childhood acute leukemia,” Marilyn L. Kwan et al, Northern California Childhood Leukemia Study, Berkeley 2004.
5. “Antioxidants and Cancer Prevention: Fact Sheet,” National Cancer Institute, undated; and “Modulation of the Effect of Prenatal PAH Exposure on PAH-DNA Adducts in Cord Blood by Plasma Antioxidants,” Frederica P. Perera, Cancer Epidemiology, August 2009.   
6. “Acid May Prevent Cleft Lip and Palate,” National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, January 2007.  
7. “The Fertility Diet,” Jorge Chavarro, Harvard School of Public Health.  
8. Prevention of Endometriosis and Related Diseases, M. L. Ballweg, Endometriosis Association, Milwaukee, WI, 2010.
9. Poisoned for Profit, Philip and Alice Shabecoff, 2010, pp 97 ff.


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Food that Prevents and Heals Childhood Illnesses:  Created on October 14th, 2010.  Last Modified on October 17th, 2010

About Alice Shabecoff

Alice Shabecoff is the co-author with her husband Philip of the book Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on Our Children, Random House. See her website,


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