Wednesday, May 31, 2017

WELLNESS WEDNESDAYS: Building a Culture of Health - and Hope

"Given the downside of all the available drugs, many people with diabetes would prefer not taking medication and wonder if there is an option.  In fact, reversing type 2 diabetes is very possible-if it is not too severe.  Every person with diabetes should focus on a careful diet, one that limits concentrated sweets or sweeteners and is high in fiber and vegetables.  Optimal weight should be the goal, as excess weight and obesity makes control of blood sugar more difficult."
                   --Dr. Andrew Weil, M.D., from Mind over Medicine, 2017

Image result for purple vegetables

I invest a lot of time teaching kids in afterschool programs.   It is always gratifying, not for the lessons I teach the kids, but for the lessons they teach me. 

The lesson I regularly receive is that kids want real food.   When given a choice and educated about their choices, kids almost always choose the healthy foods.  When kids are allowed to “play” with food and learn to cut, chop and grate things without fear of being judged, they will try new things, contrary to what many parents believe.   By teaching kids to read food labels, how to identify unhealthy ingredients and to choose foods with ingredients that build healthy minds and strong bodies, they learn how to take control of their own health. 

Organic yellow peppers from the Fort Pierce Farmers Market

Unfortunately, many afterschool programs in this country are given free snack foods from their local school districts.  What the kids are given for snacks are simple carbohydrates.  No fresh fruit.  No fresh vegetables.  No whole grains.  No healthy fats like nuts.  No protein like yogurt. Just lots of carbohydrates, lots of added sugars.  These foods feed inflammation of disease and contribute to childhood obesity and obesity-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes.  
Blackberries make a delicious snack!

Recently I was talking with the children’s director at a homeless shelter, one of Growing Healthy Kids’ partner agencies.  The director shared a story of how kids living at the shelter who attended our Nutrition Scientist program have been teaching younger children there about reading food labels and teaching them to avoid foods high in sugar.  These kids have learned how to make salsas, whole grain quesadillas, vegetable soups, hummus and healthy vinaigrette dressings for green and pasta salads.  These are kids living in a large group home environment for up to 2 years where they have no control over many aspects of their lives due to their parent(s)’ situational poverty. 
Yet these amazing kids living in a homeless shelter have soaked up the lessons from our program, such as reading food labels, using organic vegetables when available, and avoiding processed foods by being given a nonjudgmental place to learn about healthy foods.  These kids are not only gaining control over their lives; they are teaching and inspiring others.  Perhaps we can mitigate stressful living situations by empowering more kids about healing foods and consciously creating a culture of health.  

 Image result for walnuts
Lessons like this that make all our work worthwhile.  Kids, once educated, know that too much sugar is not healthy.  Now it is up to us to ensure that all kids have access to healthy foods such as fresh vegetables and fruits, nuts, and whole grains. 

Please pass the walnuts and a dish of hope.

With love and gratitude,
Nancy L. Heinrich, MPH

Founder, Growing Healthy Kids, Inc. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

WELLNESS WEDNESDAYS: Mediterranean Foods for Life

"I have never felt that anything really mattered but the satisfaction of knowing that you stood for the things in which you believed, and had done the very best you could." 
                                                                                                          –Eleanor Roosevelt

 Image result for green vegetables
I have always found the Mediterranean way of eating (lots of vegetables, whole grains, beans, herbs, fresh seasonal fruits, olive oil, nuts and fermented foods like yogurt) to be the healthiest way to eat.  This time of year there is an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables at the local farmers markets, with lots of colorful choices.  Choosing what to eat always depends on what is in season, especially in the #GrowingHealthyKids #Test Kitchen, where teaching kids to eat fruits and vegetables that are the colors of the rainbows is one of our key messages. 

May is International Mediterranean Diet Month.  For healthy recipe ideas, one of my go-to sites is  In 1993, Oldways, in conjunction with Harvard School of Public Health and the World Health Organization, created the Mediterranean Food Pyramid. 
Oldways Mediterranean Diet Pyramid

Next time you are at your favorite market, pick up a nice bottle of extra virgin olive oil and locally grown greens like peppery arugula. Make arugula pesto to serve on chick pea-lentil pasta or to top a simple and delicious white bean and Swiss chard soup.  Here’s my recipe for arugula pesto:

GROWING HEALTHY KIDS: Our Recipe Collection
Arugula Pesto

  • 2 cups fresh arugula, lightly packed
  • 1/2 cup walnuts, lightly toasted
  • 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/3 cup Parmesan, grated
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • Pink Himalayan sea salt
  • Squeeze of fresh lemon juice
  • Pinch of lemon zest

Place all ingredients in food processor and blend well.  Serve on whole grain pasta and sun-dried tomatoes.  Top with freshly grated parmesan and pepper.
Image result for arugula 
If you have any leftover pesto, place it in a zip lock bag and freeze it for another day.

Image result for arugula

With love and gratitude,
Nancy L. Heinrich, MPH

Founder, Growing Healthy Kids, Inc. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

WELLNESS WEDNESDAYS: Marketing Energy Drinks to Kids

"Learn to get in touch with the silence within yourself and know that everything in life has purpose. There are no mistakes, no coincidences, all events are blessings given to us to learn from." 
                                                             --Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

May is Mental Health Awareness Month.  This article is about kids, caffeine, and energy drinks.  


Asking questions is a great way to learn from kids about what they think is normal.  Recently, while teaching a class to 10 year olds in an afterschool program in Indian River County, Florida, I asked the kids if they knew anyone who drinks energy drinks like Red Bull and Monster.  They ALL raised their hands.  Then I asked if they drank energy drinks and more than half raised their hands.  I asked the kids why they drank them and this is what they said:
  • “They give you energy.”
  • “They give you protein and minerals.”
  • “I like them.”
  • “They help you lose weight.”

I couldn’t believe that these 10 year olds were telling me they needed these highly marketed energy drinks to lose weight.  I was stunned to think that their parents must approve of kids drinking energy drinks for so many of these kids to accept them as normal. 

Image result for energy drinks

What followed was a lively discussion about healthy ways to improve your energy (eat breakfast, don't skip meals and snacks).  We talked about foods that improve your moods (eat some dark chocolate) and tips for staying at a healthy weight (get enough sleep and eat foods containing dietary fiber (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes).  We talked about reading food labels and not consuming something if you can't pronounce the ingredients.  

Then I told the kids a true story about a 16 year old boy named Davis Allen Cripe in South Carolina who died in April 2017 from excess caffeine intake.  Officials have said his death was from "probable arrhythmia” or abnormal beating of the heart.  Within 2 hours Davis drank approximately 419 mg of caffeine consisting of:

Large diet Mountain Dew            135 mg caffeine
McDonald’s Latte:                       142 mg caffeine
(unnamed) energy drink:             142 mg caffeine

Energy drinks, in addition to caffeine, contain sugar and stimulants.  Energy drinks are not tested on kids, yet kids are consuming them every day.  Energy drinks are highly marketed to kids.  At my favorite grocery store, there are fully stocked refrigerators of energy drinks and sodas at every checkout intentionally placed so they are easy to grab as an impulse item.  The fact is that a teenager died from ingesting high doses of caffeine, a legal drug, within a 2 hour period.  

My condolences go out to the Cripe family as they now educate families about the dangers of energy drinks for kids while grieving the loss of their son, Davis.  My hope is that parents will talk with their kids about the dangers of energy drinks and parents will choose to not buy these drinks for their kids.  More than 50% of the 10 year olds I was teaching thought it was perfectly fine to drink these every day.  It’s not.  Dare to care.  Let’s not allow food manufacturers to put profits ahead of our chidren’s health – and lives. 

Please pass the water.  

In gratitude,
Nancy L. Heinrich, MPH

Founder, Growing Healthy Kids

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

WELLNESS WEDNESDAYS: Good Food for Your Brain

“As you know, the brain controls behavior.” 
      --from The Alzheimer’s Prevention and Treatment Diet by Richard S. Isaacson, MD and Christopher N. Ochner, PhD, 2016

Image result for berries

May is Mental Health Awareness Month.  On a daily and weekly basis, some of the mental health issues I encounter include:
  •  Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD)
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Autism Spectrum Disorders
  • Bipolar (manic-depressive)
  • Borderline Personality Disorder
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Social anxiety
  • Schizophrenia

Image result for leafy green vegetables

Ten years ago, if you would have asked me about my knowledge of the above mental health issues, I would have told you I knew very little about them.   In my work today, I am surrounded by clients with all these diagnoses.  

One reason why mental health issues are more prevalent today is due to increased recognition and awareness.  In some disorders, however, there may be other reasons why they are increasing:  too much intake of added sugars, artificial sugars, food dyes, and convenience foods containing highly processed and artificial ingredients.

Image result for olive oil

As a lifelong student of nutrition, I know there is a connection between physical and mental health.  The foods we eat are key to both.  When was the last time your physician – or your kids’ pediatrician - asked you about sugar intake, including the artificial sugars found in diet sodas? When was the last time your doctor prescribed eating whole grain foods, fruits and vegetables and avoiding added sugars and processed foods? 

Image result for walnuts
As we learn to feed our brains (and bodies) daily doses of anti-inflammatory foods (such as green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale, purple and blue vegetables and fruits containing the pigment anthocyanin such as blueberries, blackberries, black rice, and red cabbage) and foods high in omega-3 fatty acids (such as wild salmon, walnuts, and flax seeds), we provide our brains (and bodies) with the fuel to prevent diseases and in some cases, I strongly believe, improve outcomes of some mental health disorders.  I believe there is a key role in mental health services for talking about how eating whole foods (whole grains, vegetables and fruits) and avoiding processed foods and high sugar foods can improve our brain health and our behaviors. 

Image result for walnuts
Walnut-encrusted salmon

Image result for walnuts

Image result for walnuts
Notice how the walnut looks like the brain?  God's Pharmacy!

Here are 12 foods that contribute to a healthy brain – and body:

  1. Avocados (these contain unsaturated fats, the “good” fat)
  2. Blueberries and other blue and purple fruits and vegetables (blackberries,
  3. Cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, and watercress)
  4. Eggs
  5. Leafy greens (such as spinach, kale, swiss chard, arugula)
  6. Legumes (beans, peas, lentils, and peanuts)
  7. Olive oil
  8. Quinoa (this seed is known as the “Mother Grain” and is a complete protein)
  9. Seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, sesame, hemp)
  10. Walnuts (and other nuts such as pistachios, pecans, and hazelnuts)
  11. Wild salmon (and other fatty fish)
  12. Yogurt

Image result for berries

With love and gratitude,
Nancy L. Heinrich, MPH

Founder, Growing Healthy Kids, Inc. 

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

WELLNESS WEDNESDAYS: Mental Health Awareness

"We all need each other, none of us is an island, an autonomous and independent "I" separated from the other, and we can only build the future by standing together, including everyone."  
                                                                                 --Pope Francis, 2017

May is Mental Health Awareness Month.  Every day I work with clients with mental health issues such as bipolar and schizophrenia.  At every Growing Healthy Kids event, we work with kids on the autism spectrum, kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or eating disorders, and kids whose parents have bipolar disorder.   

Recently, I was teaching a Growing Healthy Kids class for 12 year olds attending an after-school program.  We talked about processed foods and food additives such as food dyes and why they should be avoided.  One of the questions I asked of the kids was, "How many of you have family members who have ADHD?"  Not surprisingly, about 25% of the kids raised their hands.  Several kids volunteered, "I have ADHD." We talked about why foods such as blueberries, which contain anthocyanin, the pigment that makes some foods blue or purple, are good foods for brain health. 

Being able to talk about our health and the health of our children includes talking about mental health issues faced by all families at one time or another.  When someone is diagnosed with cancer, it affects the entire family; the same thing happens with a mental health diagnosis.  All families need to know that when someone is sick, you go to the doctor, whether it is a physical illness like cancer or diabetes, or a mental illness like depression or autism.  Being aware of a problem is the first step towards diagnosis and treatment.

In 2015, the National Institute of Mental Health estimated that 43.4 million Americans age 18 and older had a mental illness in the prior year.  This number represented 17.9% of all adults in the US (see figure below). 

Prevalence of Any Mental Illness Among U.S. Adults (2015)

Supporting family members with ANY health issues they may be facing is a priority to ensure that we have healthy children, families and communities.  

To learn more about mental health topics, go to the National Institute of Mental Health or click here.  For some great personal and workplace screening tools from Mental Health America, click here.

Together, we can improve the health - and lives - of America's children. 

With love and gratitude,
Nancy L. Heinrich, MPH

Founder, Growing Healthy Kids, Inc.