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© Rick Hanson, Ph.D. and Jan Hanson, L.Ac. 2001, 2002

Good Nutrition for a Mother

Our previous column - on applying Chinese medicine to a mother's health - began a series on how to promote the well-being of mothers. Naturally, fathers and children need well-being, too, but in our experience, it is usually the mother who is the most stressed and depleted person in the family. By improving her well-being from negative to at least neutral - and then going further into positive wellness - she's able to be at her best for herself, her children, and her partner.

In this column and the next one, we discuss perhaps the most fundamental thing that a mother can do for her long-term health and well-being: get proper nutrition. We admit we're zealous about this, even to the point of being big nags. But the truth is, most of us are eating in a CRAZY way today, utterly at odds with the foods a body needs after millions of years of evolution. The hunter-gatherer diet consisted mainly of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and meat, basically without any grains, dairy products, refined sugars, or refined oils. Just 10,000 years ago - a mere blip on the evolutionary time scale - the modern diet began with the invention of agriculture, and it's only the last 50 years that have seen the widespread use of packaged foods, pesticides, heavy refining that strips away nutrients, and artificial ingredients. Bearing, breastfeeding, and rearing a child is an enormously physical activity, and to pull it off, you've just got to honor the fundamental biology of your body in a way you never had to before children. And that means eating a lot more like your great-great-Paleolithic-grandmother than the usual fare of bagel and coffee for breakfast, factory-farmed lettuce and processed oils at lunch, and microwave-fresh something for dinner.

For a snapshot of how you're eating, please look at the self-assessment in the box. You could already be taking good care of yourself. But if not, there are two ways to improve your diet: (1) make sweeping changes all at once, or (2) work your way into it. Whichever path you take, we urge you to stay on it until you end up with truly nurturing nutrition. It's a little more work to eat well, but your health is worth it. Experiment with different foods, and take a look at books on nutrition. But the fundamental recipe is very simple: Build up your body's balance sheet by eating more healthy foods and fewer worthless or toxic ones. At every meal, a few trillion molecules at a time, you'll be rebuilding the very tissue of your body.

Please don't give up because you slip up! Everybody slips. Just return to the path for your next meal. You can motivate yourself by remembering the health benefits of eating right, for yourself and your children. Try to understand the factors that keep you from eating well so you can take charge of them, rather than vice versa. For instance, Jan worked with a single mom who ate a huge, double handful of chocolate chips each day. She knew it wasn't healthy, but she said: I know it's not good, but I work hard all day long, and this is about the only thing I do for me. By finding other, healthier ways to nurture herself, she was able to cut down on this daily blast of sugar.

Pull out

Your Nutritional Self-Assessment

Put one or more points in the boxes that apply to you on a typical day in the past week. A serving is roughly half a cup of solid food or one cup of leafy vegetables.


[ ] Number of servings of fresh fruit (up to 2 points)

[ ] Number of servings of fresh vegetables (count one point for every serving)

[ ] Number of servings of a whole grain (two slices of bread from completely unrefined flour, 1/2 cup of brown rice or bulgur) (up to 2 points)

[ ] Drank four or more cups of water

[ ] Number of servings of protein (meat, fish, tofu, eggs, cheese) (up to 3)

[ ] At least half of all foods were organic

[ ] Oils used were mainly unrefined (virgin olive oil or oils labeled "unrefined")

[ ] Ate foods rich in Omega-3 essential fatty acids (salmon, mackerel, flax oil) or took an Omega-3 supplement

[ ] Took a good multivitamin/multimineral supplement


[ ] Number of sweet desserts you ate (a soft drink, donut, candy bar, ice cream cone, piece of pie) (if large, multiply by 2)

[ ] Number of servings of processed foods (potato chips, canned soups, packaged noodles and cheese, TV dinners, or any product made with white flour)

[ ] Consumed hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats (Crisco, most potato chips, margarine)

[ ] Had three or more caffeinated drinks (coffee, black tea, some soft drinks)

[ ] Had two or more alcoholic drinks (one "drink" is a beer, small glass of wine, or shot of liquor)

Add up your pluses. Add up your minuses (remember to count each serving of a sweet dessert or processed food). Subtract the minuses from the pluses. A score of 13 or above means you are doing well, 8 to 12 is pretty good but could be improved, and a score of 7 or below (including negative numbers) indicates a real need to make some changes in your diet.

Eat Your Veggies!

A mother needs vegetables more than any other food because they're rich in vitamins and minerals, and they contain phytochemicals, hormone-like substances that seem to help balance the endocrine system. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends three to five servings a day, but less than one mother in eats this much. Plus people under stress need more nutrients than the standard amount. Therefore, we recommend you have five to seven servings of vegetables per day. So when you tell your kids to eat their vegetables, that means you, too! (Fresh fruits are also packed with nutrients, but they carry lots of sugar as well, so two to three pieces of fruit a day is plenty.)

All vegetables are not created equal: a cup of broccoli is vastly more nourishing than a cup of iceberg lettuce. Three types of vegetables - roots (carrots, beets), cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower), and best of all, dark greens (kale, collard, spinach) - have especially high concentrations of the micronutrients you need, including calcium, potassium, magnesium, folic acid, and phytonutrients. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should try to eat from all three types, particularly the dark greens. Fresh is best, which typically have two to three times as many micronutrients as frozen or canned.

Raw is the easiest way to get good veggies into your body. Washed well - with skin intact, where the wild nutrients are - a couple of carrots, beets grated over salad, broccoli florets, or cauliflower nuggets are delicious and surprisingly sweet. You're going to want to offer fresh vegetables to your children anyway, so you may as well make some extra for yourself. Cooking can make vegetables easier to digest, but that takes some time, so we like to keep it simple. A baked sweet potato makes an excellent breakfast - more often than not, Jan's morning fare for several years. You could steam four cups or so of veggies in the morning, and eat them throughout the day. You might make a big pot of hearty vegetable soup on the weekend that could last most of the week. It's easy to blend up a vitalizing elixir in a sturdy juicer. Corny or not, there's something about preparing fresh, living foods that feels inherently peaceful, and you can take in a serving of stress relief with your meal.

Organic When Possible

Organic foods - from carrots to cows - are a three-part prescription for your health:

#1 - More good molecules, because they come from richer soils. One study found that pears, apples, potatoes, corn, and wheat had 90% more vitamins and minerals when they were organic.

#2 - Fewer bad molecules, because they contain no pesticides or artificial fertilizers. The "safety" of these manufactured chemicals has usually been established through short-term studies using single substances, often on laboratory animals. The actual experiment, though, is being carried out on human beings who consume numerous chemicals in combination for a lifetime - and the plausible findings include an increase in cancer and autoimmune conditions such as asthma. Organisms that are developing rapidly or are vulnerable - such as children or pregnant, stressed, or depleted women - are even more likely to be affected by the mounting accumulation of potentially toxic molecules.

#3 - Better taste than conventionally raised foods: simply compare an organic tomato with one from the supermarket.

Organic products can be found in health food stores, and they are increasingly available in regular supermarkets. Farmer's markets are another good source, plus they can be an easier place to shop with young children. Food co-ops may have organic foods, and they're a good way to meet other parents.

You shouldn't drive yourself crazy to eat only organic foods, since a single episode - whether it's lunch at MacDonald's or a salad of organic greens - doesn't make a big difference. It's the accumulation over time that counts. If you nudge your family's food sources in the organic direction, the rewards will add up every day.

Down with Sugar

Suppose a mom starts her day with a bran muffin and juice, shares lunch with her toddler -peanut butter and jelly sandwich, soda, and a couple of cookies - has a bagel and soft drink for a snack in the afternoon, with a late dinner of spaghetti with tomato sauce, canned corn, and ice cream for dessert. Sounds pretty healthy - until you realize she ate about a third of a pound of sugar that day, amounting to 135 pounds or so per year. That's the amount the average American consumes, over one hundred pounds per year more than was consumed just a century ago. Making things worse, all those white-flour carbohydrates were quickly converted to sugars as well.

Bitter health consequences come along with that sweetness, especially for mothers. Within a few hours, high sugar intake is often followed by a crash in energy and mood, especially if you've had caffeine, which accelerates sugar metabolism. Regular sugar makes the body less sensitive to insulin, which lessens its capacity to function under stress and increases the risk of adult-onset diabetes. Additionally, sugar forcefeeds pathogenic microbes, disturbing your gastrointestinal system, so you get less out of the foods you eat. Besides depleting your body of B-vitamins, chromium, calcium, magnesium, and copper, sugar has also been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer, heart disease, arthritis, migraines, gallstones, and obesity.

The average American consumed nineteen grams of sugar a day in 1815 - still much more than her Paleolithic grandmother - and a reasonable goal nowadays would be to stay under twenty grams a day (about five teaspoons). Women with digestive problems (discussed further in the next chapter) should consume less than ten grams of sugar a day. Food labels tell how many grams of sugar a serving contains, and it doesn't much matter if the sugar is refined or"natural" (like fructose or honey).

To find out where you stand, keep a "sugar diary" while eating normally for a few days, and the daily average will show how big your sweet tooth actually is and identify where you could make some changes. (Naturally occurring sugars in fresh fruits, milk, or vegetables needn't be counted since they enter the bloodstream more slowly.) Please see the chart in the box for the sugar content of common foods.

Eating less sugar can be challenging. Sugar begets the craving for sugar in order to avert a hypoglycemic crash. Sweet snacks are convenient and they feel like a treat. They're easy bribes or rewards with children - and a chance to grab a cookie yourself. Nonetheless, some simple steps can make it easy to stay under twenty grams a day:

  • Drink water or tea instead of soda or juice, since two soft drinks a day adds up to about sixty-five pounds of sugar a year. Studies have found that drinking sodas does not lead people to eat fewer calories elsewhere, making sodas a major source of both unwanted pounds and disturbed physiology. Try diluting juice to half or three-quarters water. You can also make delicious herbal iced teas, and flavor them with stevia if you like. Cutting out the sweet drinks is the easiest and best way to lower your sugar overall!

  • Eat protein at breakfast (eggs, nuts and nut butters, low-fat sausage) and whenever you crave sugar. (See next month's column for more on protein.)

  • Sugar isn't good for kids, either, and there are other rewards and delicious treats, like fresh fruits. Try not to get them started in the first place so they can still appreciate a juicy orange or apple.

  • Avoid temptation by not keeping cookies, candy, ice cream or other desserts at home. If you want something sweet,purchase a single item. And if you do want to have some dessert around, try to have just one or two kinds, since we tend to eat more if there is a variety.

  • Although artificial sweeteners such as aspartame (NutraSweet) are widely used, on principle we're cautious about man-made molecules for mothers. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other organizations have judged these substances to be safe, but some individuals still report negative reactions, including nausea, fatigue, and disturbed vision; about three quarters of the non-drug complaints to the FDA are for aspartame. A natural alternative is an extract of the plant, stevia rebaudiana, which tastes intensely sweet without any calories; it comes in liquid or powdered form and is available in health food stores. You can use it just like sugar, including baking, an advantage over aspartame.

  • Check the labels on processed foods like breakfast cereal, peanut butter, or spaghetti sauce and try brands with less sugar. Think twice about "discretionary sugar," like tons of jam on toast or a second helping of ice cream after dinner.

Sugar in Common Foods
Food Grams
Teaspoon of honey 5
Raisin Bran (1 cup) 20
Instant oatmeal (one packet) 17
Pancake syrup (1/4 cup) 39
Tomato soup (one small can) 11
Fruit cocktail (small can) 23
Fruit juice (1 cup) 20-30
Power Bar 14
Fruit roll-up (one) 5
Small cardboard container of apple juice 28
Chocolate milk (1 pt.) 31
Lemonade (1 pt.) 28
Can of soft drink (12 oz.) 39 - 41
Strawberry yogurt (6 oz.) 31
Spaghetti sauce (1 serving) 8
Small cookie 3 - 5
Ice cream (1/2 cup) 21
M & M's (small bag) 31
Milky Way bar (small) 35

Coming Up Our next column will complete this summary of good nutrition for a mother by discussing how to get enough protein, quick alternatives to processed foods, good fats versus bad ones, and sensible supplements.

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