What’s making our children sick?
How industrial food is causing an epidemic of chronic illness, and what parents (and doctors) can do about it
Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” –Hippocrates
“Pill for ill” medicine is how pediatrician Dr. Michelle Perro describes most of the training that occurs in medical school. After 15 years in pediatric emergency medicine, she concluded that the medical system is devised to treat acute rather than chronic problems and is not addressing root causes. This led her to pursue “integrative medicine.” She is now a “food-focused, food-forward” clinician helping patients with chronic illnesses improve through an emphasis on dietary changes.
The American Board of Integrative Medicine defines integrative medicine as “the practice of medicine that reaffirms the importance of the relationship between practitioner and patient, focuses on the whole person, is informed by evidence and makes use of all appropriate therapeutic approaches, health care professionals and disciplines to achieve optimal health and healing.” Although many major medical institutions have integrative medicine centers, food is not often a major focus.
Perro is an integrative physician at the Institute for Health and Healing at the Sutter Pacific Medical Center in California. She co-authored What’s Making Our Children Sick with Dr. Vincanne Adams, professor and vice-chair of Medical Anthropology at the University of California, San Francisco. The book is about the relationship between food and chronic illness. They argue that industrial food is contributing to the increase in chronic illnesses in children, and this is not only due to diets high in trans fats, sugar and processed food. Hidden ingredients and toxic chemicals in foods are also a significant issue. They are strong advocates for eating organic foods and believe there are potential adverse health impacts from genetically modified foods.
Gastrointestinal issues are one of the most common reasons children see pediatricians. There is increasing evidence of the importance of the human microbiome to a healthy immune system and the relationship between gut health and overall health, including mental health. The microbiome is a collection of microorganisms in the exterior and interior lining of the human body, and different sections of the digestive tract have different colonies of microbes. Although gut health is related to what people eat, few doctors focus on food as either a remedy for, or cause of, gastrointestinal problems.
Parents often come to Perro in frustration after months or years of their children having significant unresolved health issues with no clear diagnosis. In many cases pharmaceuticals have been used to mask or suppress symptoms but not resolve the root cause. Perro’s typical approach is to conduct a wide range of diagnostic tests related to blood, stool, food sensitivity, genetics, infections, Lyme disease, nutrient levels, environmental toxicants and more. She also has patients complete detailed food diaries.
Therapeutic strategies start with clearing out foods the body is having a hard time digesting due to food intolerances or allergies, repopulating the gut with helpful biota and helping digestion and absorption to occur normally. She incorporates homeopathy into treatment strategies. Many of her patients have successfully improved their health through adjustments to their diets. This is not easy. Getting people to change their diets is difficult. Many would prefer to ask for a pill rather than change their diet.
Perro argues that even foods thought to be healthy can be problematic, due to the industrialized nature of food. She is a strong advocate for eating organic foods. Antibiotics are known to impact the gut microbiome, and they can enter the gut unintentionally through antibiotics contained in food.
The authors have a lot to say about genetically modified (GM) foods. They argue that GM technologies have changed the composition of many foods, which in turn can have an impact on human health. Furthermore, they argue that genetically engineered foods have not been tested for safety on human subjects before being introduced to the food supply. They acknowledge the controversy over GM foods and say that 88 percent of the scientific and biomedical community believe that GM foods are safe; however, only 37 percent of the public agrees and 67 percent believes scientists don’t have a clear understanding of the health effects.
Examples highlighted in the book are Roundup Ready crops and Bt toxin crops. Roundup Ready crops are genetically modified to withstand the spraying of glyphosate-based herbicides such as Roundup so that Roundup can be used to kill weeds without killing the crop plants. Bt is a naturally occurring bacterium. The protein toxin derived from the bacterium has been used by farmers for decades to get rid of unwanted pests. Through genetic modification, Bt genes have been inserted into the DNA of crops, making the plants resistant to insect pests.
The cornerstone of food-focused medicine is eliminating foods that don’t support gut health. For Perro and Adams this involves getting rid of foods with pesticides, toxicants and genetic modifications with unknown consequences. They argue that people must pay attention to not only the nutritional composition of foods, but also to how they are grown. Regardless of one’s views on GM foods, at the heart of what the authors advocate is that changes in diet can lead to significant improvements in health. Foods can’t fix everything, and health issues are complex. But, foods are a key ingredient and should be a starting point in healing the gut, which in turn can improve overall health and cognitive health. It is surprising how often food is absent from consideration as a core ingredient for chronic disorders.
What’s Making Our Children Sick? How Industrial Food Is Causing an Epidemic of Chronic Illness, and What Parents (and Doctors) Can Do About It, by Michelle Perro, M.D., and Vincanne Adams, Ph.D. Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont, 2017.
Karen Ackerman Witter is a freelance writer whose goal is to connect people, organizations and ideas to achieve greater results. She was introduced to this book by a member of her Crossfit Instinct Longevity class, which emphasizes how both food and exercise impact physical and mental health.