We get it: Kids have a weakness for chicken nuggets, mac and cheese, or sugar-packed snacks. Sometimes it’s just unavoidable to give in to the demands. But what if introducing your kids to a wider variety of foods could prevent the development of allergies, asthma, and eczema? New research suggests this is exactly the case. And with the rate of food allergies skyrocketing for kids nearly 50 percent from 1997 to 2011 according to the CDC, helping your kid develop a wider palate could be one of the best health gifts you give them. Here are some great tips from pediatricians on how to raise a kid with a stomach of steel.
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Eat whole foods early.
"Collective evidence from human studies supports a beneficial effect of exposing infants to a varied diet in the developmental stage," says Dr. Anna Nowak-Wegrzyn, a pediatrician at Mount Sinai. One 2013 study found that babies who ate homemade whole foods developed fewer allergies than those whose diets relied on processed and commercial baby food. And a recent study published in Science suggests why: Eating a diet of whole macronutrients instead of the basic elemental stuff (a.k.a. commercial baby goop) can stimulate the cells that give the immune system its tolerance. So if your kid can already swallow lumpy food (usually at four to six months), try to introduce a wide variety of solid meals taken from your own plate, like fish, fruits, poultry, and veggies. These have a more "protective" effect than commercial baby fare because they expose infants to a wide range of proteins, carbs, fats, and fiber — and a diet stripped of such diverse nutrients could contribute to an underdeveloped immune system.
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A pregnant mom's diet matters.
Strengthening your kid's stomach could start even before they leave the womb: Expecting moms can kick start allergy prevention for their babies by sticking to a healthy lifestyle themselves. "Pregnant and breastfeeding women should [eat] a varied diet including whole grains, white meats, fish, fruits, and vegetables," says Nowak-Wegrzyn. Research shows pregnant women and even nursing moms with strong digestive tracts and a healthy gut flora pass down their good probiotic flora to their babies. Furthermore, eating more nuts also seems to protect babies from developing a nut allergy, as one study published in JAMA found. Early exposure to allergens could up a baby's tolerance, especially in the first year of life. Dr. Supinda Bunyavanich, also at Mount Sinai, adds that you should "continue to add to this variety of foods so that your child's diet becomes increasingly diverse as he or she gets older."
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Eat a wide variety of food.
It's important to expose kids of all ages to the same novel foods adults eat, and avoid unnecessary dietary restrictions. That means saying no to frozen dinosaur chicken nuggets and yes to the wider range of proteins like fish. Also, you can never get enough fruits, veggies, and whole grains. These are rich in antioxidants and fiber and can help kids develop a stronger digestive tract and acquire a taste for real foods. A diet lacking in fiber can lead to impaired production of T cells in the gut, which leads to the development of an immune system more vulnerable to food allergies.
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It's all about the microbiome-enriching foods. Dr. Nowak-Wegrzyn suggests introducing kids to fermented fare like greek yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and tofu at an early age. Such foods can help your body fight the infections and inflammation caused by bad bacteria. Scientists have found prebiotic and probiotic supplements can also help to prevent eczema in the skin, and, they speculate, food allergies.
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Avoid processed foods as much as possible.
At an early age, teach your kids the difference between processed foods loaded with sugars, artificial sweeteners, and salt, and "real" food like organic veggies, fruits, white meats, and fish that contain natural nutrients. The idea that processed food strips the stomach of good gut-healing bacteria isn't new, but a ream of studies also suggest that the supersize amount of calories in the Western diet, with its reliance on processed and fast food can lead to a high risk for allergies that sneaks down your DNA to your kid, too. And a global study surveying over 400,000 kids from ages 7–14 found that eating fast food three times a week ups the risk for asthma and eczema caused by allergens, while three weekly servings of fruit decreased that risk by 11 percent. So the next time a processed Happy Meal seems like the 'kid-friendly' choice, remember whole food is just as appropriate for your kid as it is for you.
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Make food fun.
If the thought of introducing your kid to tofu and sauerkraut seems daunting, experts have a few suggestions. Dr. Nowak-Wegrzyn suggests offering "colorful and fresh food" that looks and smells appetizing to drive home the idea that healthy food can be fun. "Cut fruits and vegetables in fun shapes, and use special utensils," Wegrzyn says. But if your picky kid is still resisting, don't be too disheartened. "If your child is picky and will eat only a few foods, keep trying," says Dr. Bunyavanich. "It often takes several attempts before a child will accept a new food."
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