When you hear the words “baby food,” what comes to mind is probably something along the lines of a small glass jar of pureed sweet potatoes or carrots purchased from a grocery store shelf. Or, maybe you’re thinking of a slice of toast with the crusts cut off.
You almost certainly aren’t envisioning a quarter of an avocado, a scoop of sauerkraut, eggs fried in coconut oil, and a small serving of steamed vegetables…but that’s exactly the sort of breakfast that Brisbane, Australia, mother Shan Cooper serves her infant daughter on an average morning.
Eating Like a Caveman
Grace, Shan Cooper’s daughter, has eaten according to the paleo diet since birth. The controversial diet, originally created in the 1970s, but more recently popularized in Australia by celebrity chef Pete Evans, centers around eating the sorts of foods that “cavemen could scavenge for,” as Cooper tells the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail.
The idea behind the diet is that human genetics haven’t yet caught up to the changes in our diet caused by agriculture and industry. So, according to Evans’ logic, humans should eschew the foods that have come about as the result of these technological advances.
Foods to avoid include those such as cereal grains, dairy, refined sugars, legumes, refined vegetable oils, and salt—basically anything that couldn’t have been hunted or scavenged by our ancient ancestors. Instead, Evans’ diet tells us, we should consume only foods that were available during the Paleolithic era (the prehistoric era of history which lasted from the first use of stone tools by humans roughly 2.6 million years ago, until the dawn of the Mesolithic Era, about 12,000 years ago). This includes foods such as grass-fed meats, fish and other seafood, fruits and vegetables, eggs, nuts and seeds, and a small set of non-refined oils like olive and coconut oil.
Proponents of the diet claim that it presents a slew of advantages to those who follow it, including weight loss, reduced the risk of disease, increased energy levels, reduced sensitivity to allergies, and and even improved brain functioning, among a variety of other boons.
Critics of the diet point to factors including increased grocery bills, negative effects on energy resulting from lack of grains and dairy, and the diet’s lack of protein sources for vegetarians. Cooper has decided to press on.
A Day in the Life of a Baby Caveman
Considering the fact that an infant’s teeth can’t exactly handle a regular diet of raw vegetables and steak, you may be wondering to yourself, you may be wondering exactly what Grace does eat. So what does the paleo lifestyle look like for a 13-month-old child?
Cooper says that when it comes to feeding Grace, she does deviate from the usual paleo diet restrictions in one small, but enormously important way: She violates the restrictive diet’s strict prohibition on dairy consumption by breastfeeding Grace twice daily. Aside from breastmilk, Cooper gave the Daily Mail an example of what Grace’s meals might consist of on an average day.
Cooper says that breakfast usually starts with a couple of eggs cooked in coconut oil (generally fried, scrambled, or poached). Alongside the eggs, Cooper serves Grace leftover vegetables from the previous evening’s dinner—this might include roasted sweet potatoes, carrots, potatoes, and steamed broccoli. On Thursdays, Cooper supplements the eggs and roasted vegetables with a small scoop of sauerkraut and quarter of an avocado.
For lunch, Cooper says she feeds Grace organic roasted chicken, and more leftover vegetables from the previous night’s dinner.
When it comes to the daily afternoon snack, Cooper feeds Grace a small serving of fresh fruit. While she says she aims for variety, Cooper admits that Grace’s favorites are strawberries and bananas.
For dinner, Cooper says she feeds Grace spaghetti Bolognese prepared with organic beef. Zucchini noodles take the place of traditional grain pasta noodles, and the tomato sauce is all organic.
In case you were wondering about dessert, Cooper says that Grace generally doesn’t eat dessert, though Cooper did make her a strawberry panna cotta with coconut cream for her first birthday.
Cooper, who has a degree in agricultural science, has written an e-book of healthy recipes—in addition to maintaining her popular healthy-eating website, “My Food Religion.” She claims that the diet she serves her daughter has strengthened Grace’s immune system and prevented her from getting sick as frequently as other children whose parents feed them a more conventional diet. According to Cooper, Grace has only been sick once in her life, and that even then, it was a minor cold that passed quickly.
In an interview with Daily Mail Australia, Cooper is quoted as saying of Grace, “She spends a lot of time around other kids who are sick all the time—who have snotty noses, coughs, colds—but she just doesn’t pick it up.”
She continues, “It’s certainly not because I’m shielding her from any of that stuff. I absolutely think a nutrient-dense diet is giving her a strong immune system.”
Cooper, while she’s always been health-conscious, didn’t adopt the paleo diet herself until around five years ago, when she read a book on the subject. She had been suffered ongoing problems with food allergies for years and, as a result, had already imposed many of the paleo diet’s primary restrictions on her diet, including avoidance of dairy, gluten, and eventually all processed foods.
“I just got sick of not feeling great,” Cooper says of her decision to go paleo. “That had been my normal and (I decided) that wasn’t going to be normal anymore.”
When Grace was born a few years later, Cooper felt that it only made sense to not only continue to eat according to the paleo diet, but also to extend her paleo lifestyle to her newly born child.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
While more than the first year of Grace’s dietary life has been spent either breastfeeding exclusively or abiding by the strict meal plan her mother has set up for her, the prospect of friends’ birthday parties filled with cakes, candy, and sugared-up soft drinks looms just over the horizon for the Coopers. In spite of the fact that preparing the diet she feeds both herself and her young daughter takes a ton of time and effort, Cooper says that she’s not too worried about the inevitable day when Grace is exposed to non-paleo foods.
Questioned on the subject, Cooper says, “I’m not going to not let her go to kids’ parties,” according to Daily Mail Australia. “I’m never going to go to Grace, ‘You can’t eat anything at this party—but I packed you some Kale. Here you go.’”
All jokes aside, Cooper seems surprisingly laid-back about Grace’s diet in the future, considering the tightly regimented meal plan by which the two currently abide at home.
“(What she eats now) is not anything strange, that normal people wouldn’t eat. She loves it,” Cooper tells Daily Mail Australia. “I don’t feed her toast or cereal or anything like that. Again I think, ‘Sure that stuff is not going to kill her.’”
Cooper says that by the time Grace is old enough to go to parties, “She’ll be old enough to know she can choose whatever she wants to eat,” continuing, “She’ll probably come home all jacked up on sugar and cake and say, ‘Mum I don’t feel very well.’” Cooper continues, “And next time instead of eating 12 cupcakes she might only eat three.”
A Philosophy of Food
Cooper has her own distinct way of thinking about how humans learn to interact with food. Her reasoning is that kids are purely intuitive eaters, eating the things that make them feel good physically and avoiding the things that don’t, since they haven’t yet had the opportunity to develop emotional associations attached to food. Cooper also believes that humans begin to eat more emotionally as they reach adulthood, consuming foods that make them feel a certain way emotionally, rather than physically.
When you consider ubiquitous childhood experiences like receiving a lollipop as a reward for a doctor visit or being rewarded with ice cream for good grades, the idea does begin to make some sense. Cooper says she hopes to teach her children what foods to eat to make themselves feel good by both providing a positive example and setting up positive habits early on.
Despite how strict the diet Cooper curates for herself and her daughter seems, she says that there is a certain level of flexibility. Cooper says, “I don’t think eating a piece of bread is going to kill me. When I go out to dinner with friends…I’m just going to eat what’s on the menu. I’m not going to be a jerk about it.”
Cooper also tells Daily Mail Australia, “I don’t want there to be any disordered eating around here,” continuing, “Females particularly have enough problems with eating disorders. I want Grace to eat what makes her feel good.”
When it comes to Grace’s dietary development Cooper says that, with the dietary foundation she’s provided, Grace will “also learn what makes her feel good and what doesn’t.”
“That’s the reason I eat this way,” she says.
What the Experts Say
While Cooper’s confident that her dietary decisions are the right choice for Grace, at least one dietician has some reservations about her feeding Grace according to the paleo diet.
Dr. Rosemary Stanton, a respected dietician says that she would offer a word of caution to other parents considering following Cooper’s lead, telling Daily Mail Australia, “It’s really not usually a good idea to put a child on such a restricted diet, particularly when there’s no grounds for it.”
Stanton goes on to say that she hopes Cooper “knows an awful lot about nutrition.”
Stanton says her greatest concern about Grace’s nutrition centers around two specific types of foods not included in the paleo diet: “Depriving her child of grains and legumes will make it much more difficult to achieve a balanced diet.”
Dr. Stanton does approve of Cooper’s choice to breastfeed her child despite the dairy restrictions of the paleo diet, saying that it “helps a lot.” Cooper also says that she may introduce other dairy into Grace’s diet further down the line.
While Stanton doesn’t outright denounce the dietary choices Cooper is making for Grace, she does have a few words for other parents thinking about doing the same for their your children, saying, “I’d certainly sound a note of caution [to other people considering following her].” Stanton emphasizes that parents looking to feed their children according to a diet as restrictive as the paleo diet should first consult with an accredited dietician.
In response to such criticism, Cooper reacts with a mixture of indignation and confusion. “(Why) eating real food is such a scandalous topic is just bizarre,” she says, questioning why those who feed their children fast food aren’t subject to the same criticism.
“If you want to feed your kid one of the most nutrient-void pieces of crap ever, knock your socks off.”
Another Controversy in Child Nutrition
While Shan and Grace Cooper provide an interesting example of tension between different ideologies when it comes to parents’ responsibilities regarding child nutrition, they’re far from the only difference of opinion about making sure that kids are getting all the nutrients they need for healthy development.
Back in the U.S., controversy about kids’ nutrition has even involved high-profile figures such as First Lady Michelle Obama. In 2012, in a move championed by the first lady, the USDA rolled out new requirements for school lunches which required students taking part in the federal lunch program to choose either a vegetable or a fruit alongside the rest of their meal.
Critics of the program anticipated that those students with pickier eating habits would just throw away the fruits and vegetables, contributing to greater waste. Supporters of the program, on the other hand had greater confidence in children, saying that opponents should give the kids more credit and that they believed children would make good dietary choices when presented with the opportunity and a gentle push in the right direction.
Unfortunately for the program’s supporters, a study completed and published by Public Health Reports in 2015 confirms the fears of the plan’s detractors. According to Sarah Amin, the study’s lead author, “The basic question we wanted to explore was: does requiring a child to select a fruit or vegetable actually correspond with consumption. The answer was clearly no.”
In fact, while children took nearly 30 percent more fruits and vegetables than before the program’s implementation, consumption of those same items actually went down by 13 percent. Perhaps even more worrisome was the fact that students were throwing away 56 percent more food than before.
A Problem With Unclear Answers
According to most studies on the subject, the prevalence of childhood obesity as measured by body mass index (BMI) has been steadily rising since 1999. The World Health Organization says that a minimum of 41 million children throughout the world are currently obese or overweight, approximately 10 million more than a quarter-century ago.
Experts also emphasize that there are numerous negative consequences of childhood obesity. In a recent statement, Sania Nishtar, co-chair of the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity says, “Overweight and obesity impact a child’s quality of life, as they face a wide range of barriers, including physical, psychological, and health consequences,” going on, “We know that obesity can [have an] impact on educational attainment too and this, combined with the likelihood that they will remain obese into adulthood, poses major health and economic consequences for them, their families, and society as a whole.
There is some cause for optimism, though. While childhood obesity rates both in the United States and around the world continue to grow, some progress has been made on the small scale. According to one report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, some U.S. states and cities are displaying declines in overall childhood obesity rates. The study specifically cites the cities of New York and Philadelphia, along with the states of Mississippi and California as leaders in the downward trend.
The study also illustrated, however, that there are still significant disparities between racial and socioeconomic groups when it comes to progress on childhood obesity.