Thursday, January 3, 2013

Brain Foods

Like many, I am a firm believer that nutrition plays a tremendous role in health, both physical and mental. I've been vegan for a long time but it wasn't until recently that I really got it that what I ate contributed to how I felt. In my adolescence, I was a vegetarian who ate primarily Apple Jacks and bagels. As a young adult and new vegan in a world that was decidedly not vegan friendly, the only salads I ate came from Yaffa Cafe in the East Village, drowned in their oily (but so delicious) carrot ginger dressing, with more dressing on the side that I dipped French bread into like a kid dunks cookies into milk. Gross (but so delicious). But because that stuff was technically vegan I let myself make the leap that I was eating health food all the time. That went for cupcakes, cookies, breads, butter, whatever. It's vegan, so that must mean it's healthy. Around the time I turned 30, it started to sink in. If I drank a lot of alcohol, I would feel sick the next day. If I drank a lot of caffeine, I would not sleep. If I ate a lot of sugar, I would get hyper and then fall apart. If I ate or drank a lot of anything, especially bread, pasta and baked goods, I would feel uncomfortable, bloated and lethargic. Yeah, sometimes I'm slow.

Let's just say I'm a little wiser about food now. I know how to get plenty of protein from vegan foods (in case any omnivores were worrying) and I know how to get basically all the nutrients I need from foods and not supplements. That said, I do take a few supplements every day. Call it an insurance policy.  And by the way, supplements for vegans have come a long way in a short amount of time so it's not the arduous, nausea-inducing, nose-holding and gulping process it once was.

When I was pregnant with Bee, a friend scared me into taking DHA by telling me it would raise my baby's IQ and prevent post-partum depression. It sounded like the unicorn of supplements and it was almost as hard to find in vegan form. An internet search yielded one lone brand; I ordered it. I could smell the swamp from the box before I even opened it. These veg caps were truly foul. Instead of fish oil, the DHA was from the algae that the fish eat, and it smelled and tasted like someone had scraped up the bottom of the sea and put it into (and all over) a veggie capsule. Seven weeks pregnant and deep in the throes of morning sickness to the degree that even brushing my teeth made me throw up, I could not bear them. And yet I took them, the fear of a baby with a low IQ looming. The first few times I took them, I threw them right up. Soon I wised up and took them either with a giant glass of orange juice or, what the hell, with a bowl of vegan ice cream. For breakfast. Sometimes even that didn't keep them down.

Johnny thought I was exaggerating so one day I held the pill bottle under his nose. He actually gagged, and I felt validated. "You see?!" He couldn't believe that something so vile was being marketed as healthy, but I kept at it. And sure enough, we had a smart baby and I did not have postpartum depression. I don't credit the DHA for either, but it definitely didn't hurt.

But when I got pregnant with Teeny, I was much less of a pregnancy nazi than I was with Bee. A true first-time pregnant mama with Bee, I'd eschewed literally everything for the sake of my growing baby. But this time, I'd been there, done that. I was so tired from chasing a toddler that I couldn't think of giving up caffeine, in the form of at least one daily cup of PG tips, (soy) milky and sweet. I didn't work out as much, I didn't get as much sleep. Though I generally eat well, I wasn't as rigorous about my diet. And when I thought about DHA, I said to myself, I am NOT taking that nasty pill again. This baby's IQ will be fine. By the time my morning sickness subsided, a different friend told me about a few new brands of vegan DHA, all of which marketed themselves as having "no odor, no flavor." Still a skeptic, I ordered them. To my surprise, not a hint of the swamp, so at about 6 months along, I started taking them.

Generally speaking, my second pregnancy was unremarkable, if unpleasant. I gained a lot of weight and the summer was very hot. I had a lot of back and shoulder pain, I was working too much and carrying a toddler everywhere. My birth mother died suddenly and unexpectedly when I was 18 weeks along, adding a sense of profound loss and sadness to the general stress I was feeling. We found renewed hope when we learned we were having another girl, and decided she would be named for my birth mother. As my due date approached, my midwife checked her position at every visit, hoping that she would not be posterior (sunny-side up) like Bee was. She wasn't. So I thought everything was fine. But then the midwife started telling me the baby was very small, which struck me as odd because Bee was gigantic. She recommended that I eat more protein, which I did half-heartedly, mainly because it felt like the typical omni health-care provider response to a vegan's health concerns. I knew I was getting plenty.

Fast forward almost two years and here I sit, writing about my second daughter, who is most assuredly not fine. It did occur to me way early on and somewhat absurdly that her problems were because I didn't take that awful DHA in the early stages of my pregnancy. From the very moment we recognized that something was going on with Teeny, we started playing the Blame Game, asking ourselves questions of all kinds, ranging from plausible to utterly far fetched. It flitted across my mind that perhaps I was too cocky during my pregnancy, assuming at the time that how I treated my body and the fetus within could have little lasting effect on her development. Johnny was busy beating himself up over that time he tossed her high into the air and I screamed at him what are you doing she's tiny she almost hit the ceiling and I could not stop thinking about that time when I was seven months pregnant that I slipped and fell on my bum on the wet sidewalk in front of a fancy schmancy luxury high rise on the Upper East Side and the porter who was hosing it down just watched. (He didn't even turn off the hose or offer to help me up.) I thought about all the times Bee bounced on my growing belly, trying to nurse on my dry-as-a-bone, painfully sensitive nipples. And of course, I was kicking myself for not downing the disgusting DHA the very second I saw the little blue plus on the pee stick.

We still aren't sure what caused Teeny's neurological impairment, but we do know it wasn't tossing her in the air, slipping on the street, nursing a toddler or skipping the world's nastiest vitamin. Still, that doesn't keep me from screaming at Johnny every time he tosses her in the air (even though it makes her wild with laughter), avoiding puddles, and taking DHA in multiple forms every day.

I am now working hard to complement Teeny's many services, therapies, appointments, etc., with a delicious and healthy diet. As it is, I don't feed my kids (or my husband or myself) a ton of junk foods, but I've become even more interested in making sure that Teeny eats a healthy variety of foods that will nourish her brain and her body, support her mentally and physically, and fuel and encourage neuroplasticity. But I made this process way more difficult than it needed to be.

 Already so underweight that she's in less than the first percentile for weight for her age (18.14 oz at 15 months), our Teeny is still pretty teeny. This worries me not because she looks especially skinny (she doesn't) but because she eats a lot and because her sister is almost in the 100th percentile for weight and I can't help comparing them. Bee is so big that a few months ago her pediatrician gently hinted that we should maybe ease up on the peanut butter and other high-fat foods. So on top of wanting to heal Teeny's cerebellar hypoplasia with foods that stimulate brain development and growth, I just want her to gain weight. But this kid already eats avocado, hummus, peanut butter, nuts, yogurt, tofu, bananas, and so on, every day! So I needed to develop the perfect nutrient-rich diet that would stick to her bones and make her brain as happy and healthy as possible.

First I googled "brain foods" and I saw basically the same list of a dozen or so things on every link I clicked. Brain foods: blueberries, flax seeds, nuts - especially walnuts, avocados, broccoli, tomatoes, pumpkin seeds, chocolate, raisins, berries, apples, grapes, cherries, prunes, olive oil, and spinach. Brain supplements: omega 3s, vitamin C,  L-Carnosine, b-complex. Blah blah blah. We already do all that. In our house we rarely eat out and I try to buy as little processed food as possible. Johnny or I prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner for all of us almost every day. I pack my food with me 95% of the time, even my snacks. I prefer to cook for friends over going out to eat (mainly because we can't afford to go out a lot but also because I like to know what I'm eating).

I asked everyone I could think of for help starting with famous vegan medical doctors who have written books and cookbooks and who claim to know how to feed your vegan baby right, or how to disease-proof your family. I emailed them all. None of them replied to me with anything other than a form letter. Dieticians and nutritionists who were either vegan themselves or who had a pediatric specialty were next. I reached out to many of them too. Some of them replied but most did not, and no one who got back to me wanted to take us on. I got discouraged and frustrated. Already essentially gluten-free myself, I got the unfounded notion that perhaps going gluten-free might help Teeny in some way. After three weeks of trying to stuff pure oatmeal with flax meal and ground walnuts into her - a perfect breakfast if you ask me - then having her clamp her lips together and shake her head and me obtusely musing aloud, "Huh. Do you think she's saying no?" and Johnny saying patiently "I don't think she likes oatmeal" followed by another week of me begging her to eat it, drowning it with agave nectar and then brown sugar and thereby completely defeating the purpose of feeding her this amazingly healthy gluten-free vehicle for brain supplements, having her not only continue to refuse to eat it but also to grind her teeth at me, I started to panic that her cerebellar hypoplasia was making her behave weirdly and that she would starve. But then I noticed she was only doing grinding them at breakfast. I tried another gluten free cereal and got the same reaction. Truly bewildered and worried, I Googled it. Turns out that teeth grinding is a toddler technique to deliberately piss off mom and dad. Johnny was right. She just didn't like oatmeal. For someone who has a speech delay and can't talk, she sure can get her point across (to everyone but me?). Kid 1, Mama 0. I conceded that maybe I was getting a little out of hand, and I backed off.

I asked our pediatrician about helping her gain weight and she made the very logical point that in her mind, babies with motor delays should be on the leaner side, because the heavier they are, the more difficult it can be for them to move around. She said she was fine with Teeny's growth (1 inch and 1.5 pounds in the last three months) so while she's still very little, her growth is consistent with how it's always been. Kid 2, Mama still 0.

Then I reached out to a friend of mine who blogs beautifully here about nutrition, with a focus on pregnant women and mothers. I asked her all the same questions, and she reiterated what I'd been hearing and sent me a list of how to use some of the "brain foods" and "brain supplements" in more subtle and appetizing ways than just dumping the whole kitchen sink of supplements into a bowl of cereal and expecting my kid to gobble it up. That was enormously helpful and it made me feel like I might actually be on the right track already.

In the end, there's nothing that tells me that Teeny should be gluten-free. About this too, I have asked everyone I know who might have an opinion. The most convincing argument for that I've gotten is from one pediatrician friend who said "Can't hurt!" but the arguments saying it's unnecessary are stacking up. I am about 90% gluten free anyway, so I'm sticking with it for myself for now and I think if we reduce the amount of gluten we eat as a family, it can't be a bad thing. I am still nursing her -- that can only help get her necessary nutrients -- but I'm focusing mainly on just feeding her more foods that I know she likes, in a wide variety of colors and textures. We work "brain foods" and "brain supplements" into whatever we can, like adding spinach (and ground walnuts) into our red sauce, serving it over brown rice pasta, and marketing it as special green red sauce. Miraculously both kids agreed to try it and they loved it. Mama 1, kids 0.

This also means that I've reintroduced gluten as necessary, so Teeny is back to her wheat cereal. The day I did this was the day I stopped hearing the insufferable crunch of her grinding her teeth. I still do my best to hide some ground walnuts and flax meal in it, and she actually eats it. Most of the time.


  1. That pic of her with the broccoli really cracks me up :-)

    Sorry you were rebuffed by so many experts. The good news is that there's no better expert on Freyja than you. And you will only gain more expertise. Some of it will be trial and error, but no one will work harder for her health and happiness than you will.

  2. Aimee , my first born, Brenda, was very small too. As small as Teeny at the same age. There is a range because there is a continuum. When I had Nancy, she was 28lbs at 8 weeks. As the previous commenter says, you on your kids.

  3. Why are you unwilling to try eggs or fish? No salmon? Is it for ideological reasons or do you really think your daughter is healthier without them?

    1. Katie, we are vegan. We follow a vegan diet for ethical reasons and also because we believe that we are just as healthy or healthier without them.

  4. Vegetable foods are good for the body, eating them daily would definitely healthy and sickness free. For brain, nootropic supplements are important because they supply enough amount of oxygen to the brain through the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Nootropics are available in the market and online store.

    Joseph @ Nootropics

  5. Brain food for the strength and such effects. The grain and brain in connection with each other are for the besstdissertation service in softened and primal means of the perfection of the food.


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