As we all know, our Primal lifestyles don’t exist in a vacuum or (more than likely) even a very compatible environment. That goes double for our kids. However committed and exacting we might choose to be at home when it comes to their diets, the minute they walk out the door they encounter a whole world of competing interests and influences: grandparents and other family members, friends’ houses, school lunches, social outings, even sports team trips (ah, the big yellow buses pulling up to McDonalds…). While some of us might keep our Primal commitments more personal, all of us want to see our kids eat and be healthy. That’s easier said than done unfortunately. Sometimes the challenges hit closer to home, as in this reader’s email.
I have what I feel is an interesting question that I don’t see addressed anywhere on the site. I’m pretty sold on the notion of the Primal Blueprint and I’m ready to jump in full force to change my lifestyle. I’m about to get married to a wonderful lady with 2 kids and she’s on board for herself as well. The question has come up though about the kids. While we both agree that eating healthier is a wonderful thing for them (and the Primal Blueprint way seems to be the best thing I’ve found in years of reading and searching), the problem arises with the differences between households. The kids basically split time with her and their father, and their father is pretty much a couch sitter who doesn’t adhere to a very healthy lifestyle at all. His diet is pretty typically American, although not even typically “healthy” American (whole grains, etc.) The kids would have weeks of low blood glucose followed by weeks of bombardment with high GI type foods. A week with us with controlled insulin production and a week at their dad’s without control of insulin production. This seems like it could cause more harm than good. My question is this…. Will switching over to a completely primal diet in our house and then sending them off to their dad’s house – to relapse back into a carb-centric eating pattern every other week – do them more harm than good?
Thanks to reader Jason for this one. The basic principle here applies to a whole heap of scenarios, but let me respond directly to the particulars of this situation first. It’s great that you and your future wife have found a common appreciation for Primal living, and kudos for sharing those benefits with the kids. Let me say this first: don’t sweat the diet back and forth too much. You’re not talking about a meal to meal shift. A full week of good eating at a time is nothing to shake a stick at. Sure, one half of their food intake should change, but it isn’t the half you and your fiancée offer them. I know what you’re getting at with the swinging and spiking glucose, but I firmly believe that the “break” those kids’ bodies are getting with the Primal eating strategy does them good. Although a week doesn’t allow time for a full metabolic resetting, so to speak, it does give the body a good stretch with stable hormonal balance. It gives the pancreas a rest from producing as much insulin, the liver a rest from (I’m imagining) filtering assorted junk foods, and the adrenal system a rest from coping with, well, the biochemical circus of carb overload. Rest assured, it’s better to be half Primal than not at all.
That said, I still think it’s worth trying to soften the blow of the alternating weeks. I don’t know what kinds of conversations your fiancée has had with her ex about the issue, but it’s a discussion worth having and even revisiting if there’s any chance for understanding or accommodation on his part. Obviously, these conversations can be emotional minefields, and I don’t pretend to know the particulars of your fiancée’s rapport with her ex. If it’s possible for her to have the conversation with him, keep it 100% focused on the kids and their health. After all, their well-being is a mutual concern. If he feels his role as caretaker is respected, he’s more likely to listen and engage. Just start by letting him know about the changes you’re both making for yourselves and the kids. Give him a chance to offer to make an accommodation or to at least show interest. If your fiancé thinks he’ll take the sharing as a personal affront to his own habits and intelligence, she can focus on the (basically true) “kids are still growing and need solid nutrition more than adults” angle. Even if he thinks the kids deserve some “treats,” it’s important to point out that the more unhealthy food they eat, the less healthy food they have room for. That said, it’s good to limit any negotiation/requests to a few carefully chosen foods/practices. It’s probably safe to say that the kids won’t ever eat Primally at his house. Pick your battles, as the saying goes.
And, again, the kids’ benefit isn’t dependent on the ex’s compliance. You and your fiancée are offering them Primal foods to fuel their physical and cognitive development. You’re boosting their immune function and promoting the healthy functioning of literally every bodily system they have. Another important point: you’re also increasing their insulin sensitivity as well as (I’d venture) their threshold for carb satiety. Although you probably don’t have the chance to observe it (and the kids the ability to realize it), they’ll probably choose to self-limit their sweet/carb intake more than they would if it were standard, full-time fare.
Ultimately, you and your fiancée have the opportunity to strongly and positively influence the children’s long-term choices as well as their understanding of overall health. No Primal parent can control every meal or outside influence. To some degree, we’re all in the same boat. I think the key isn’t to sweat the kids’ detours or derivations on Primal eating but to focus on the big picture. My son is a long-time vegetarian. It’s not the choice I would’ve made for him, but I respect his commitment. Over the years I’ve shared my perspective with him, and we’ve come to a middle ground that is considerate of his values and accommodating of my biggest concerns for his nutritional needs. I feel good knowing that he has the right knowledge about nutrition and a thoughtful approach to his diet.
At the end of the day, the best influence we can have over our kids’ diet (and overall health) is the model we present. They see us respect our bodies and make the time and effort to eat well. They see us make good nutrition a personal and financial priority. Although our particular choices might not always transfer at a given time, it’s the basic principles that definitely do set in over the long haul. It’s not about forcing Primal foods or manipulating them emotionally with warnings or judgments that will inevitably backfire (e.g. “You’ll get fat if you eat that.”). If they see us consistently value our physical health, they’ll learn to place value on theirs. With time and maturity, they’ll put those health values into practice on their own.
In the meantime, we can maximize their healthy choices in the here and now by stocking the house with only good Primal stuff and by engaging them in ways that make the “lessons” fun. We all know about the positive influences of eating together as a family, but consider taking it a couple steps further. Let your children cook with you and even shop with you. I know this can be an undertaking, but it can have big payoffs. Even better, grow a family garden or at least some window sill herbs and greens. Make the endeavor a family affair. Let the kids choose what to grow, and put them in charge of their own crops. Sure, all this lets them see how you make Primal choices from start to finish – seed packet/shopping list to dinner table, but it also gives you a chance to bond over food selection and preparation. They learn to enjoy food and see it as something to invest time, thought and enjoyment in. They gain pride in their efforts and accomplishments in the garden/kitchen. They have fun, and they get to spend quality time with you. In this way, you’re not just imposing your choices on them: you’re inviting them to participate in feeding and caring for the family. You’re sharing an experience with them. Put in this context, the “lessons” will teach themselves.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on going Primal with dual households as well as going Primal with kids in general. As always, thanks for the great questions and comments, and keep ‘em coming!
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.