Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
1 Feb

Dear Mark: Raising Healthy Children

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!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Richard and Hugh

    Yes, bringing up children with healthy attitudes and good templates for living is all part of good parenting, sure.

    However, I would like to add a cautionary message here – this topic has come at a time when I’m only just coming to terms with what I perceive as a ‘failure’ as a parent on my part with regards to my children.

    I set out to be a full time homemaker because I thought that was important, I also went about setting what I considered to be a proper and important set of values. However, what I’ve had to learn, and learn the very, very hard way is that nurture doesn’t happen in isolation, they are independent beings, with their own unique genome ready to express itself, with their own personalities and it simply isn’t possible to do more than set and example.

    Just be prepared for them to have very different attitudes. Part of my theory was to bring them up questionning and taking decisions for themselves, developing a sense of independence, ironically these were just the skills my daughter used to head off in a quite different direction than one we thought sensible!

    The watch word – flexibility in all things. If I hadn’t started out with unrealistic goals I would not now be dealing with what I perceive as a failure! Maintaining communication is the ultimate key.

    Kelda wrote on February 3rd, 2010
  2. I am new to the Primal Lifestyle and loving it, my wife and daughters 15 and 13 are starting to follow along as they see the change I am making. Probably the biggest is eliminating grains for the last 6 weeks from my diet which has greatly reduced, almost eliminated the inflammation I have lived with in my left ankle for 13 years after breaking my Talus. I cook 95% of the meals my family eats and I have simply begun cooking and serving Primal meals for them and allowing them to add whatever they see fit. My kids still eat cereal for breakfast some mornings when they don’t want eggs or breakfast meats, but my thought is at least I am providing them with healthy meals and snacks. I have also been keeping fresh and frozen berries available with heavy cream in the fridge, it amazes me to see them grabbing some berries and cream and skipping the cookies and chips on there own. I believe that I am watching their natural instinct kick in, I am getting fewer and fewer request for junk food and more and more “Daddy that was a really good dinner” comments from them. I know they are still going to eat pizza or cake at a party, but I think just by preparing the healthy meals they are really nearing 80% primal overall.

    Kev wrote on February 3rd, 2010
  3. I have a 2 1/2 year old and a 7 month old. The older one had no idea what a lollipop was until this summer when my husbands co-worker offerred her one. She didn’t know what to do with it and I was nearly in tears I was so pleased! It’s so much easier because all of our friends with young children eat well, so the peer pressure is non-existent. I know it is a whole new ball game in school though.
    I feel good about our food choices, and I wonder about first foods for babies. We do baby led weaning so my 7 month old nibbles on what we are having, but I do get some flak for not doing the cereals, then purees… what is everyone else doing with new eaters?

    laurie wrote on February 3rd, 2010
  4. I have a related but tangential issue. I have recently converted to this eating style and have no doubt it is the healthiest way to eat. My wife however is not so convinced(she is a former life long vegetarian). We have a two year old son and have had recent disagreements on his eating. In the interest of not getting divorced I decided that her compromise to cut out gluten was better than nothing.

    Since she won’t agree to cut out his bread/cracker consumption completely we have been purchasing gluten free (mostly rice based) breads, pastas, crackers. This has had the effect of worsening my sons constipation problems. The only way we have been able to fight this is by increasing his fruit consumption to levels I’m not entirely comfortable with either.

    I think the true culprit may actually be the whole milk. He consumes quite a bit and I am not sure either my wife or I are ready to restrict that as that is where he is getting alot of essential fat as it is pretty tough to get him to eat enough meat/fat.

    Is there another way to deal with his constipation? If not then what is the worse of the two evils gluten or increased fructose from extra fruit?

    Marc wrote on February 4th, 2010
    • Dairy is very constipating, as are bananas. My daughter is a cheese-addict, so we have these issues, too. One thing I’ve found is that my daughter loves greek style yogurt with fruit (try Chobani with pineapple). The yogurt, being cultured, has less of a constipating effect, plus the healthy bacterial cultures in the yogurt promote digestive health. You can use it to make a smoothie that your kid will love – just add frozen berries and blend. Milled flax seed can be blended in for extra fiber, which is helpful.

      Corn is a natural stool softener. Popcorn works, too. I make a brownie with milled flax seed and almond flour and my daughter loves it. All the fiber really gets things moving.

      Kate M. wrote on July 20th, 2011
  5. Thank you so, so much for your post! Is there anything you don’t cover on this website? I am in a very similar situation, except we are a fully primal household, regardless of what he gets fed at his other house. I, too, had worried about the negative effects that this could have. This just confirmed that we are doing the right thing. I totally agree that leading by example and educating them to make their own decisions someday is the only thing we can do. And that isn’t nothing.

    Amy wrote on July 22nd, 2010
  6. My boys are 4 and 2. They eat primal 100% of the time. Both have terrible digestive issues and if my older son eats anything sweet (even fruit) or starchy, his stomach blows up like a balloon, he cries at night, and sometimes gets gushing nosebleeds. It is not worth it to me to just let him have an occasional treat when it will cause a week or more of physical and behavioral issues.
    At preschool, he gets deviled eggs made with guac, HB eggs, or kale chips for his snacks. If we go to a birthday party, he brings a thermos of homemade meatball and veggie soup and an egg or two for when the other kids are eating cake. He is perfectly happy with it, because he knows he feels so much better and can sleep so much better when he eats this way. I talked to the prechool about how crucial it is for strictly following his diet before I enrolled him, otherwise I would have kept him at home. I care so much about it that I am considering homeschooling to get a few more years of healing food and healthy indoctrination under my belt.

    momof2groks wrote on January 3rd, 2011
  7. We have lots of fun things that run in our family genes that my 2 young sons inherited: autism, ADHD, sensory integration disorder, and food sensitivites, allergies, etc. I am slowly guiding them to a modified version of the Paleo diet, and I notice on mornings they eat low carb/ high fat/protein the days seem to go better. It’s alot of work to cut out the packaged food, but I notice many of the stomach issues and tantrums they have are now going away or more manageable.
    Anyone out there feeding their kids Paleo also doing dairy free? We are gluten and dairy free due to food allergies and I am concerned with them getting an adequate fat/vitamin A intake.

    RM wrote on February 2nd, 2011

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2016 Mark's Daily Apple

Subscribe to the Newsletter and Get a Free Copy
of Mark Sisson's Fitness eBook and more!