Is my toddler’s gluten-free, dairy-free diet ‘restrictive’?… or a start to a life of passionate, conscious, healthy eating?

I wonder what other people think when I tell them what my daughter eats. Please don’t give her (*deep breath in*): wheat, milk, yogurt, cheese, sugar, sweet treats, citrus, apples, tomatoes, meat…

I grew up eating differently. I was certainly made to feel that I was weird because I didn’t eat what other people were eating – this in conservative, Catholic Portugal in the 1980s where conformity was all there was, it seemed. Eating a diet of ‘brown rice and veg’ was not mainstream – far from it. I remember, poignantly, being laughed at for eating brown bread at school; or kids turning their noses up at the homemade, whole-wheat carrot cake served for my 7th birthday party. That was then. The world, the mainstream of it even, has come a long way. What is more, I live in California now where consuming a diet of whole foods is positively de rigeur. Even in Portugal, when I go back now, I have to chuckle when some friend (easily one of the ones that would have laughed at me when I was young and made me feel ‘different”) invites me to go to the hip new macrobiotic restaurant, like it is the new ‘in’ thing… ‘you are joking, right?!

Yet perhaps it was not what I ate but what I didn’t eat that most made me (makes me?) stand out. Today, my eating has gravitated much to the healthy diet my parents (blessedly) gave me when I was a kid – thanks for that again, by the way. I eat whole-grains, veg (salad, soups, stir-frys, etc), legumes (beans, chickpeas, peanuts, soy), nuts and seeds, some fruit and some fish. I don’t eat gluten (especially wheat – save on rare occasions), dairy or meat.

Anya is eating very similarly to me nowadays for various reasons – even though her dad was brought up on a traditional Chinese diet (lots of fresh, home cooked veggies, rice, fish and, notably, meat) and he certainly makes more ‘exceptions’ for things like fun-food (read junk food) than I do – although less and less so, it has to be said. One of the reasons Anya’s diet was originally so selective was due to the fact that she was clearly reacting to things in my milk – according to what I ate. Eggs, soya, tomatoes were all things that made her less than 100% well. Eggs made her come out in a pimply-rash on her face; soya made her spit up, tomatoes gave her diaper rash. Other foods, like apples, were put on a suspect list – to be watched.

I also chose to keep Anya away from such challenging foods as wheat and dairy which are known to be very acid forming, harsh on the gut and mucus producing – I want to let her digestive and immune system mature fully before introducing these, which means waiting until she is at least two. I am not a super-crazy-stickler about this. She has had little tastes of bread if somebody else was eating it and she wanted to try it, I just  make sure I don’t stock these foods at home or rely on them as a mainstay of her diet.

Now, a good nine months into eating solids, I think Anya is an amazing eater. She likes everything – really, everything – we have given her so far. Some things need to be introduced a couple of times, but even that is pretty rare. Things she has been eating, include (among others):

  • whole grains: rice, buckwheat, millet, quinoa (technically a seed but treated for all intents and purposes like a grain), etc.
  • vegetables including: chard, spinach, carrots, asparagus, onion, garlic, sprouts (like radish or broccoli sprouts), corn
  • legumes including: peas, kidney, white and pinto beans, chickpeas (garbanzos), broad beans, lentils and, her absolute favourite: peas
  • root vegetables: sweet potato, yam (which she loves!), potato, ginger (this could be in a spice section instead… she does love all kinds of spices, too)
  • some fish: she has only really had little tastes of fish – white and dark – but has enjoyed it all
  • tofu: she seems to be fine (now, at least) with traditionally prepared soya (a legume, in fact) and really likes it
  • Some fruit: avocado (another big fave), pomegranate, blueberries, blackberries, pears, papaya, etc. We steer clear from the acidic stuff (tomatoes, apples, citrus) as they seem to produce a rash. We do try and eat local and seasonal, especially when it comes to fruit as it is very clear the body likes it better this way and can handle, for example, bananas better when we are in hot a climate (challenging, I know, unless we move to Ecuador!). But again, the occasional banana is a great treat for Anya.
  • Dried fruits: raisins, mango, etc.
  • Gluten-free alternatives to wheat-based products, including: rice cakes, rice, quinoa or corn pasta, gluten-free bread, crackers, etc.
  • Good fats: olive oil, flax seed oil, coconut fat and the like
  • Seaweeds: Anya loves, loves, loves nori and also eats other seaweeds like hijiki or wakame when cooked into rice, etc. These are great sources of many minerals including iron, iodine and calcium.

She gets most of her protein from combining whole grains with legumes, at the moment, as you can see. Her iron comes from leafy greens, sea vegetables, avocados and beans, mainly – and fingers crossed her hemoglobin levels will still be nice and high when we next get them tested, following the anemia episode (I was anemic during pregnancy, with low iron stores so why, oh, why did I think my breastmilk alone would get her own iron stores up??).

So, here is my question to you, is Anya’s diet ‘restrictive’? I mean she appears to be happy enough with it, by and large – as I say she is a pretty good eater. We are lucky and blessed with that, I know! I am not worried about it from that angle. I also think nutritionally speaking she has a pretty good diet (well, even if you disagree with some of my food-beliefs, we will doubtless agree that her diet is all the richer and healthier because of what it does not contain: sugar, processed foods, hydrogenated fats, etc). But here is the crux: I suspect, actually, that her diet may be considerably wider than many-a-toddler. I mean she eats quinoa and buckwheat quite regularly and soup and…

My thought is that the very people who may be moved to feeling her diet is restricted are people whose kids’ (or their own) sustenance relies arguably too much on wheat/gluten based products and dairy. So for them, a diet without those things would appear ‘lacking’, somehow. Perhaps their kids eat sandwiches nearly every day… and/or pasta, and/or cakes, cookies, crackers, pizza, bread, pastries, pies, cherios or any of the other other gluten-filled goodies we find so easy to load up on, often unthinkingly. Is that good for the body? And what about dairy? Are they loading up on yogurt, cheesy goods and milk everyday?

I know dairy is a controversial one. It goes like this, you either buy wholesale the ‘got milk’ type campaigns that tell you milk is a life-giving source of easily utilisable Calcium or… you don’t. Do your own reading on this, please. And hey, I am not unsympathetic to the movement for organic, whole, raw milk – yes if you gotta do it that is a better way to go, for sure – but for many people (depending on your constitution and all) milk just means trouble – gut trouble, skin trouble, sinus trouble and on and on. And, fyi, the calcium from milk isn’t that easy for the body to use because milk also contains casein, a protein that (… wait for it) inhibits the absorption of calcium. You gotta laugh, right? But again, the point is, if their kids eat dairy based products every day, then to them, they might be left wondering what they would give their kids if two of their mainstays were taken away (wheat and dairy) and maybe within some people’s food knowledge and repertoire a diet without milk and bread stuffs would just be barren. I don’t find it so. On the contrary, I think we have a vibrant, diverse and colourful diet… but still, I find myself wondering (and sometimes even caring) what others think.

And, yes, there are days I wish I could cook my full repertoire of recipes for Anya and introduce her to the stuff all the ‘normal’ kids are eating and though that would be the easy option and probably would make her happy (hey who doesn’t like cake or ice cream) I am most likely going to continue doing the best I can with the knowledge I have, sticking to basics like ‘fresh is better than processed’, ‘whole is better than refined’, and ‘home-cooked is better than store-bought’. A little bit of me will still wonder also, at times, whether those kids with their bags of cherios and cheese sticks are, at home, getting a wider, healthier and more varied diet than my kid (and I am guessing the answer is some do, some don’t) but I don’t think I’ll be seduced into thinking that different is necessarily bad. I am making strong, conscious choices for my child’s health and wellbeing, laying down a blueprint of flavours she will probably enjoy for life based mainly on traditional ways of eating in pre-industrialised societies. I, the mother am guiding this process – not the ‘food’ manufacturing companies, the marketing agencies or the media. I am not perfect. I am learning new things about diet – which sometimes contradict everything I thought I knew, all the time, but I am trying and I am going into it consciously, rather than walking supermarket isles like a zombie (well, okay… sometimes I am part-zombie, but most days not).

And a cute little upside of this is… Kai and I have been looking forward to blowing Anya’s mind and her taste buds by introducing her to her first taste of ice-cream – an experience she might even be able to remember when she grows up! Incredible. So the idea is not to restrict, but to eat consciously and yes, still have fun. Indeed, we want her relationship with food  to be natural and effortless; for food to be viewed not just as fuel or comfort but as health-giving, nourishing, uplifting and for her to value the opportunity for social connection that comes with it.

Still, a healthy relationship with food is at least as important as a healthy diet, per se, in my view.  I hope Anya’s nutritional life will be driven by the heart, by a passion for fresh, home cooked food; not just by a rational understanding of what is good for you or a fear of what is bad for the body. Hmm… perhaps I need to do some work on this myself, after all she will learn first about food by watching us, so I need not to preach this stuff but to live it. I want to eat foods which make me feel alive, full of vitality and rearing to go and to re-kindle the joy of cooking. Lived like this, motherhood is good for your health.

NB The photos are vintage Anya… but convey the whole ‘happy eater thing’ quite well, no?

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14 thoughts on “Is my toddler’s gluten-free, dairy-free diet ‘restrictive’?… or a start to a life of passionate, conscious, healthy eating?

  1. I think that what your doing is fantastic. I wish there were more of you around where i live so i would have a like mind to talk to. We went vegan last year my son has been dairy free since 2. I had a whole host of health problems the doctors couldnt fix so i fixed myself by fixing that blasted american diet of mine. Now were vegan and slowly going gluten free. None of us have celiac but i just dont feel all that whet is good for us. We get alot of critics but im with you. And were used to it we never vaccinated our children either so we have always been the odd ball. Why would i believe anything the medical field says about diet when they dont even know your supposed to poop 3 times a day or more. My doctor thought i was nuts when i told him one meal in and one meal out. Stay strong girlie your not alone

    • Thank you.
      We don’t vaccinate either. Odd balls are us :)

      Taking responsibility for our own health can be very empowering. I still respect doctors, as consultants, advisors with expertise in particular areas (such as diagnosis and treating acute conditions) but I read widely and consult many experts in other fields, too.

      Love, joy and continued, ever-improving natural health to you,
      Gauri

  2. Pingback: Conscious eating (take II) « The Blessing Tree

    • Hi,

      I hear you, making big changes to one’s diet can be a daunting process, to say the least. It can affect everything from our finances to our social life and our self-identity…

      So, first, what leads you to this point? Why do you need to change your kid’s diet? Have you done an exclusion diet and found some bothersome symptoms when you re-introduced one of the foods? or were they diagnosed with an allergy, sensitivity or an illness that you know is aggravated by certain foods?

      Also, what foods are you going to exclude – some are much easier to substitute or ‘eat around’ than others?…

  3. I have celiac, my sister’s allergic to casein… excellent genes to start with, right? My son has my sister’s issue of severe eczema, which we discovered once he started consuming dairy and gluten. Now we are both on a gluten-dairy free diet; since he wants everything off my plate I figured that was an easy step to make. I’ve been preparing more fish as a healthy alternative to meat and poultry, too. Our son has a wide repertoire of healthy delicious foods that he enjoys, whereas many of our friends’ children tend towards being excessively picky eaters. I do wonder if there’s a connection? Anyway thanks for your blog, it’s nice not being the only ones in this predicament.

    • Little do you know… since this post, as Nica turned one I decided she was way better and started to let slip in a lot of these foods. She is still 100% dairy free and no sugar (except the odd birthday party treat :) but some wheat and other things started to creep in, occasionally.

      Now, age two and a bit she has developed (still to be confirmed) eczema. Sucks. She has woken herself up scratching a couple of nights :( So, now, it is back to VERY clean diet with all major suspects removed, adding in lots of good fats and keeping her hydrated and lots of coconut oil on her skin, bless her. So, yeah, I hear you… it is tough. I am pretty bad at it (despite being mostly meat, wheat and dairy free for about 10 years). I guess I struggle because I am not a natural home-cook, I mean… I like eating out or eating in ‘lazy’, a lot. Ah well. Life pushes you in the direction of what you need to learn, right?

      Hugs, thanks for commenting and hang in there!
      Gauri

  4. My 11 month old daughter has been on a gluten free, dairy free, and meat free diet since we started solids because of candida and possible allergies. I finally think we may be beating the candida, and her diaper rash looks the best it has in the last 11 months! But she’s starting to refuse foods, I think mainly because its not much variety. I need some help with ways to cook up the foods and such so they are different while still maintaining the restrictions, so she’ll start eating again. I’m considering introducing some meats, such as healthy fish and some organic chicken. Our naturopath suggested maybe some dips or sauces but a lot of what I find online uses dairy products to make those. I’m trying to stick clear of soy based products as a substitute because of some of the negative things I’ve read regarding soy products not being as healthy as many think. So between dairy and soy, any suggestions?

    • Hmm… I am no expert, that is for sure, but I can share some of the things that work for us. Nica is actually egg free, too, although we do eat some soy (especially in ‘traditional’ forms). We also eat fish. Plus her dad eats (organic) meat so I let her share some poultry, too, when she is interested.

      Of course I don’t know what you are already doing, so these might be repeats but… dips she loves include humous and guacamole. She used to like green salsa but has gone off it recently (too spicy for her, now).

      Also do you do juices or smoothies, those can be great ways to balance out a taste kids love with nutritious veg like spinach, chard or kale. She also used to love those kinds of veg chopped into her scrambled eggs (which are now, again off limits, sadly).

      At 11 months, are you doing baby-led weaning or is she still on purees, I wonder. Nica loves what we call baby ‘shmorgishborgs’, which are a bit like this (but less fancy): http://www.flickr.com/groups/muffintinmeals/pool/ – and obviously only include foods she likes and can eat. Faves to go in her ‘muffin tin’ (which is actually a divided plate, in our case) include nori (the sheets for sushi-making, which have no seasoning but are still yummy and super nutritious), avocado, mini-carrots, artichoke hearts, palm hearts, rice cakes, gluten-free crackers, nuts (she is fine with those). She also loves all kinds of fruit and frankly could live on just that, now that she is a picky toddler.

      One of our stand-bys, especially when she was little was roasted yam with coconut oil and cinnamon, so yummy!

      From age two (when they can digest it better), I introduced her to rice-milk, too. So, breakfast is often millet cereal with blueberries or something like that and rice milk – but I guess that is still a way away in your case. She also has gluten-free bread and honey or avocado or humous…

      We got a lot of inspiration from this book: http://www.amazon.com/Super-Baby-Food-Ruth-Yaron/dp/0965260313/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1339027514&sr=8-1 which is super healthy (although NOT gluten or dairy free).

      Any of this new or useful to you? Feel free to steer me in the direction of what you’d really like to know, if you wish. I am sure you will have lots of fun with it, in the long run. Real foods ROCK!
      ~Gauri

  5. Amazing blog! Is your theme custom made or did you download it
    from somewhere? A design like yours with a
    few simple adjustements would really make my blog shine. Please let me know where you got your theme.
    Thanks a lot

    • Aww, thanks. It is a ready-made one from WordPress. Actually though I like it, I don’t LOVE it. I would change the font and add a search box, for one. But I am a technical dunce… so just going with what I am given for now. Cheers!

  6. Just had my son’s 15 month check up and found out he’s allergic to… Wheat, milk, soy, eggs, peanuts and walnuts. And he apparently hasn’t been tested for it yet, but after an unfortunate experience with some kale chips, I guess we can add cashews to the list.

    Fortunately it’s probably not ALLERGIC allergic, but probably the reason his eczema is bad, and I suspect these sort of allergies cause all sorts of subtle unknown problems over time. Having a bit of a panic attack about how I’m supposed to feed him now. I have hopes that he’ll outgrow most of the allergies, but I suspect the wheat will be a long term problem- most of the people in my husband’s family end up having gluten issues.

    So I mean, is it restrictive? Well yes, obviously. It’s literally restrictive, every food ingredient list needs to be carefully scruetinized, there’s so much that just has to be crossed off as a possibility. Then there’s the gluten free stuff with dairy, the dairy free stuff with gluten, and in our case, the gluten free, dairy free stuff with soy. So far eggs and peanuts are a lot easier (and walnuts is practically irrelevant) but that needs to be watched and checked when eating out.

    But restrictive doesn’t mean unhealthy. It’s only been a couple of days for us, but I’ve already found I’m feeding him better since there’s fewer easy *kinda* healthy-but-not-really things I can default to (my kid was living on cheese, I swear), and I have to be a lot more thoughtful about making sure he gets enough. He’s eating much more fruit, because relatively speaking its now one of the fastest things I can prepare for him.

    Fortunately my son is also a very enthusiastic eater and he’s so far pretty willing with new foods. He was actually grabbing for more of the kale chips even as hives were breaking out across his face…

    • Dear Meagan,

      So sorry to hear your son is not well. Sad. Glad to hear you are coping so well and he is bouncing back and willing to try lots of new foods – hooray!

      As for ‘restrictiveness’, my point was that most people’s diets is pretty restrictive, not because it has to be for health reasons, but because it becomes so, out of habit. I studied nutrition and used to advise people on health and the fact that people deflate when you mention the possibility of cutting out wheat or dairy for a few weeks, even, is a huge sign of how reliant they are on these foods. Many of us (them?) eat these foods literally at EVERY meal – bread, pastry or wheaty cereal with milk for breakfast, sandwich or pasta for lunch (with cheese?), pizza for dinner?? Most people’s diet is overly reliant on wheat, dairy and soy and some say that is part of why more and more people are becoming sensitive to these foods (that and modern farming practices) – and that is a different kind of restriction, a hidden, unconscious restriction that comes from just conforming and eating what everybody else is eating and selling…

      But yes, of course, especially when we first start out, eating a ‘clean’ diet feels very restrictive – but as you say, it is almost always healthier, too, because it automatically means much of our food is fresh and home-cooked :)

      I hope your kid does grow out of it and is able to eat everything (or most things, at least) in moderation AND that he learns to love a wide spectrum of fresh, healthy foods – many of which most kids don’t even know exist. May this cloud have a definite, shining silver lining.

      Gauri

  7. My 3 year old has high cholesterol and is now on a low fat diet. High cholesterol. At 3 years old. I didn’t even know that was possible. Her pediatrician said its clearly genetic (thanks to my father– his family is an ad for how NOT to live) and not lifestyle since she is nowhere near being overweight and didn’t eat terribly to begin with.
    My 16 month old has a dairy allergy- specifically whey. He can have goat milk because the whey protein in goat milk is different than cow milk. I figured it out when he was about 8 months old. Eliminating dairy cleared his eczema up almost overnight. His reflux went away. It’s not an anaphylactic allergy but n allergy nonetheless.
    Both of my kids are now on restrictive diets for health reasons and I have to constantly tell people not to give them random food. Sure, he will not get super ill ingesting dairy but his skin flares up and I’m certain it causes some internal distress. Even before the new diets, I was pretty selective in what they eat. Weight is a huge issue in both my family and my husband’s– I’m trying to establish good eating habits and choices before weight ever becomes an issue for my kids. Everyone thinks I’m weird anyway– healthy eating, limiting medicines unless absolutely necessary, cloth diapering and partial attached parenting methods. I hardly even care anymore- I’m so used to being ‘made fun of’.

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