Children's Health: Food for Health (Part 1 in a Series of 3)
By Kumuda Reddy, M.D. and Linda Egenes
Nutrition plays an important role in the developing human immune system. This is especially true during gestation. Undernourished, low-birth-weight babies show persistent immunological impairment for several months, even years.
Food is especially vital for the growing child. Every day your child is building bones, muscles, and brain cells at a rapid rate. Food gets converted into the seven dhatus (tissues) and becomes the flesh, bones, blood, and muscles of the body. The more fresh the food is, the more consciousness it has, and the more quickly it is converted into ojas, the most refined and nourishing product of digestion. And remember, ojas is directly related to immunity. The more wholesome the foods your child eats, the greater his immunity will be. Because the amount of ojas is directly linked to the level of immunity, offering children ojas-producing foods should be the highest priority for parents. Here are some ways to increase the amount of ojas in your child's diet to boost immunity.
Choose fresh foods
In order to create ojas, food must be fresh to start with — the fresher the better. In Maharishi Ayurveda, there is the concept of prana or "life force." Some foods contain more prana than others, and these are the foods that nourish both the body and mind.
Frozen, canned, packaged, and processed food has very little prana, and is therefore difficult to digest. If your child eats a steady diet of these foods, the result will be ama.
As a physician, it is easy for me to see which children are eating fresh, home-cooked meals and which children are eating processed, frozen, or canned foods. Signs of digestive toxic buildup (ama) in children include drowsiness, fatigue, a pale color, and lack of enthusiasm. Children who eat fresh foods tend to have rosy cheeks, sparkling eyes, and buoyant energy, not to mention less sickness and disease. Just by converting your child's diet to fresh foods, you can increase his health and vitality immeasurably.
Foods that are packaged are not only old and lacking in prana, but they likely have many harmful additives and preservatives. A rule of thumb for choosing food: the more natural, whole, unprocessed, and unadulterated the food is, the healthier it will be for your child.
Serve regular meals of warm, cooked food
Raw food is difficult to digest and can cause a Vata imbalance. Although many people believe that there are more vitamins in raw foods than in cooked ones, the problem is that the raw foods are hard to digest and assimilate. A preliminary study presented at the American Chemical Society showed that the antioxidant beta carotene — which exists in carrots, broccoli, and spinach and has been found to combat tissue damage and plaque in arteries — is absorbed 34 percent more easily in cooked and puréed carrots than in raw ones. The researchers concluded that cooking vegetables softens the plant tissue, allowing antioxidants to be released.
It's better to serve children warm, delicious, attractive, and wholesome meals that have been cooked by someone who loves them. The warmth is essential for proper digestion, and helps avoid the buildup of ama. Children, being in the Kapha time of life, find warm foods especially soothing and helpful to the digestive process.
Avoid serving your child food straight from the refrigerator. It's better to serve warm drinks or warm water, fresh-cooked foods, and room-temperature fruits. Fresh salads made with grated carrot, ginger, fresh parsley, and cilantro are fine in small quantities to tone the appetite before the meal, if the child has strong digestion. (Grating makes vegetables more absorbable.)
Whenever possible, provide home-cooked meals for your child
There is no better medicine than mother's home-cooked meals. Just as fresh food has more prana, so does food that is lovingly prepared without rushing. And the most important element of food is preparing it with love. As a mother, you put so much love into a meal. The mother's love is pure ojas to the child. A mother's food is, for that reason, recognized as the most nourishing in every culture in the world. I'm sure many of you are thinking, "But I don't have time to cook elaborate meals using all-natural ingredients!" Many of you are working mothers, and as a working mother myself, I know how difficult it is to prepare a hot supper after a long day on the job.
I would suggest that you start by adding just one more home-cooked meal a week. If you already cook twice a week, try cooking three times. If you don't cook at all, try just one meal. Instead of picking up food at a restaurant, instead of popping a frozen pizza in the oven, try to cook a simple meal of fresh vegetables, grains, and legumes.
Then see how your family reacts. Do they appreciate your efforts? Are the children more satisfied, more settled after eating? How do you feel when you eat fresher, more lovingly-prepared foods? How do your children feel? Are they more relaxed, more focused?
Then gradually add another home-cooked meal, and another. One thing I know about cooking — the more you do it, the easier it gets. If you just have in your mind that you are committed to cooking more, you will find ways to do it. Once you are committed to the idea, then it just becomes a matter of finding the easiest way to carry out your plan. For instance, you can enlist your older children and husband to help. Some families enjoy cooking together, and make the preparation of meals a family project.
The other problem is school lunches. If your child is eating institutionally-prepared meals at school, the fact is that he or she is eating food that is not fresh. It may even be harmful. School cafeterias are notorious for using canned, frozen, and packaged foods, which are often laced with preservatives and other chemicals. Children usually complain about such food, calling it all sorts of unpleasant names. Most adults would not eat the food that is served in many school cafeterias.
I am not bringing this problem up to make you feel guilty. I am bringing it up because I know that if parents get passionate enough about something, they can do amazing things. You can band together with other parents and get the food in your child's cafeteria changed. Or you can try to provide your child with a thermos of nourishing soup or other hot food from home. The main point is to first recognize the problem. The solution will make itself known.
Excerpted with permission from the newly-released book Super Healthy Kids: A Parent's Guide to Maharishi Ayurveda by Kumuda Reddy, M.D. and Linda Egenes, Maharishi University of Management Press, 2010.
The sole purpose of these articles is to provide information about the tradition of ayurveda. This information is not intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, cure or prevention of any disease. If you have any serious acute or chronic health concern, please consult a trained health professional who can fully assess your needs and address them effectively. If you are seeking the medical advice of a trained ayurvedic expert, call or e-mail us for the number of a physician in your area. Check with your doctor before taking herbs or using essential oils when pregnant or nursing.