Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Road Food

The holidays always mean extended car trips for us and, despite grand intentions, we never seem to have all the food or snacks we need to get us through. Plus, traveling with the kids and two dogs also means everyone needs a break and a chance to move around. Although a little compromise always seems to be in order to keep everyone happy, road food is not exactly filled with great options for holistic-minded families. Rest stops are desperately in need of some healthier options, although I have to say we have come across a few random farmers markets set up at highway rest stops much to our surprise. While we couldn't make a meal out of the offerings, we were excited to pick up organic garlic, local apples, and winter squash for our destination.

Although McDonald's feeds more than 27 million people a day, an astounding figure, even on road trips it remains out of the question for our gluten-intolerant, health-oriented family. Yes, you can make "healthier" choices at the fast food locales that you will find at the average rest stop but even these may be pretty significant compromises. Those of you who are organized or high-tech do have some options: you can map out your trip in advance and locate healthier places to eat, coordinating your route accordingly or if you have an iPhone, you can search out restaurants along the way. Unfortunately, I am neither. But, there is a resource that should not be missed by those of us lacking organization, planning, or technological savvy: Healthy Highways: The Travelers' Guide to Healthy Eating by Nikki and David Goldbeck. This handy little guide, perfect for your glove compartment, lists nearly 3,000 stops across the U.S. where you can locate vegetarian, natural, or health food eateries or stores en route to your destination. Each chapter maps out a state marking the locations of health food stores, markets, restaurants, and other places to find organic, fresh, whole foods options. Addresses, phone numbers, and directions will guide you there even without a GPS and keywords will tell you if it is an eat-in, take-out, cafe, self-service, or other type of establishment. Non-smoking and handicapped accessible notations can also serve as useful guides.

Thanks to the Goldbecks, you can eat healthier on the road and also support greener, more sustainable options. Enjoy the holidays!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Personal Touch

My kids are snugglers. They love to curl up on your lap, to be held and carried, and to cozy up to their parents, our pets, and to each other. I am always surprised when people remark at how affectionate they are because it is so natural. Nothing can calm an upset or help an ill child better than personal touch.

Science backs up the importance of being close to our kids. Touch advocates recount the work of Dr. Fritz Talbot who visited a children's clinic in Dseldorf in the 1940s and discovered that children who received regular touch and mothering grew and thrived, even when all medical possibilities had been exhausted. A 2001 study by Dr. Lynda Harrison showed that very brief (10 minutes twice a day) touching of premature infants significantly reduced stress behaviors. Yet another 2003 study of orphaned Korean infants demonstrated that an extra 15 minutes a day of stimulation (personal touch, auditory simulation, and eye contact) improved weight gain, head circumference, and overall health. "Kangaroo Care" has been adopted in many hospitals, encouraging skin-to-skin contact between mothers and their newborns, helping to regulate the infant's temperature and promoting better physiological outcomes and greater success with breastfeeding. The University of Arkansas even has a fun worksheet about hugs and their importance to share with friends and family!

So why is touch so controversial? Parents lament that they are spoiling their children by carrying them too much, being too affectionate. Plenty of websites back this up, advising that we should be able to walk away and set boundaries, even at the tender age of six months! Inappropriate touch and media reports of child and sexual abuse have created a rather touch-phobic culture, with devastating results. More than 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders, including aphenphosmphobia, the fear of being touched. Early social experience and the deprivation of physical touch can have a long-term impact on future development. A 2005 Natural Academy of Sciences report shows that "the social attachments formed between human infants and their caregivers begin very early in postnatal life and play a critical role in children's survival and healthy adaptation."

As parents we instinctively want to hold, hug, and snuggle our children, and with good reason. A simple hug is a vital component of physiological, emotional, and social health both over the short and the long term. Parents should trust their instincts, and snuggle away, no matter the age of the child. Personal touch benefits extend way beyond childhood and may help overcome some of the disconnection of future generations. New research on a variety of touch therapies are showing positive results with geriatric patients, including improving communication and overall health with those suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Physical interaction is a simple and vital aspect of well-being and a cornerstone for overcoming our detached social order. Sometimes getting back to basics is the most powerful thing we can do.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

How Clean is Too Clean?

As a parent, I gave up on serious cleaning a long time ago. But then I have never been blessed with a penchant for cleaning. Commercials of sparkling kitchen floors, shimmering countertops, and spotless bathrooms always fascinated and repelled me at the same time. And now, thanks to Women's Voices for the Earth (WVE), I feel better about lacking the clean gene.

WVE's new report, Disinfectant Overkill, demonstrates the dangers of overuse of antimicrobial chemicals in the home and beyond. Despite the report's contention that "old-fashioned cleaning with soap and hot water has been scientifically proven to keep most homes sanitary," many of us are on a quest for something stronger, more powerful, or more thorough to rid our homes of dirt and germs. As a result, we are welcoming products into our home that were intended for sterile hospital settings, with a great deal of risk to our own health and well-being.

More than 5,000 antimicrobial products are currently registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and many of them are classified as pesticides. However, recent efforts to "streamline" the approval process for such products may remove the more stringent warnings about these chemicals and expedite their approval for public use, allowing even greater numbers of antimicrobial products to flood the market. Of concern is that these products are not only dangerous to human health, but may be ineffective and may lead to "increasing acquired bacterial resistance" while also polluting groundwater.

A number of conditions, from asthma to skin rashes, are associated with antimicrobial chemicals. Newer studies indicate that antimicrobial agents may act as hormone and endocrine disruptors and may mimic both estrogen and testosterone in the body. These pollutants are also passed through breastmilk to babies and are stored in fat cells among women.

Of course, the cleaning industry is big business. According to WVE, "analysts project that the global disinfectant market will reach $2.5 billion by
2012." As consumers continue to demand cleaner, germ-free environments, the number of products containing antimicrobial agents will continue to grow. Estimates show that nearly 70% of all liquid soaps currently available contain antibacterial agents, despite the research indicating that they have essentially no benefit over plain, standard soaps.

Reducing our exposure to these chemicals is as simple as using or making your own natural cleaners. Simple, safe ingredients such as baking soda, castile soap, and vinegar can become your primary tools for effective home cleaning. Both HMN cookbooks, Growing Healthy Families and Many Paths, One Journey to Health include easy recipes for natural cleaners to use in your home. Gather your friends or fellow holistic parents and host a green cleaning party - it's easier and more fun than you might think!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus

The holiday season is rapidly approaching and despite tough economic times and a year filled with personal challenges, many of us sense building excitement as twinkling lights and decorated trees begin to appear.

As holistic-minded parents, we may view the season's arrival with both anxiety and happiness. We may dread the commercialism of the holidays; the wastefulness of the cards, trees, and wrappings; and the unhealthy temptations that creep into our diets. But we may also celebrate the sentiments in which this season is embedded: generosity, family, love, and giving. Embodying these virtues is the jolly figure of Santa Claus, a legend of the season that is hard not to embrace. My eight year old puts us on the spot regularly about the existence of Santa Claus, looking for evidence to demonstrate that he is real or any indication of a total commitment to the fantasy in either of his parents.

Our response? We wax poetic about jolly old Santa Claus, leave him gluten-free cookies (and organic carrots for his reindeer), and insist upon the veracity of his being. Although we may be roundly criticized for telling tall tales or being dishonest with our children, we believe that Santa Claus is, in fact, a part of all us. Yes, we know that the legend is grounded in the benevolent Saint Nicholas and his penchant for giving to children and those less fortunate and that there may well be some truthful historical roots for the character we celebrate today. But our certainty about the existence of Santa Claus is an acknowledgement of our personal philosophy that people are essentially good and generous at their cores, and that love and giving are values we all want to live by.

So when asked by my older son "Mom, do you really believe in Santa Claus?", I can honestly say "yes" because I have seen people who give of themselves every day, people who anonymously reach out to help someone who is struggling, people who dedicate their lives to making the world a better place for all of us, people who radiate love and generosity, light and passion. I believe in the magic that Santa can create by bringing smiles and love to families, opening hearts, and how his presence (real or mythical) inspires us to give and to share. I believe in the Santa in all of us and celebrate the season that allows us to bring forth that positive, loving energy. Besides, who can resist a good belly laugh?