No need to go whole-hog in making healthier food choices

By Petula Dvorak
Friday, January 29, 2010; B01

One of the first words Nina Elliot wanted her daughter to learn was "hydrogenated."

As in: "No, thank you. I don't eat foods with hydrogenated oil."

Um, okay. So much for "Mama" and "Dada."

"See, we are the weirdos who don't let our kids eat Goldfish crackers," Elliot, 29, explained.

Elliot -- an Arlington personal trainer who looks frighteningly fantastic just a few weeks after giving birth to her second child ("I had him at home! It was amazing!") -- is just the kind of person you don't want to talk to when you know that the bottom of your purse has a fine layer of Goldfish cracker crumbs.

But I also believe wholeheartedly in first lady Michelle Obama's campaign to fight childhood obesity -- one of the few points in the president's State of the Union speech Wednesday that was met with raucous, bipartisan support -- so I thought I should go meet people like Elliot who are at the extreme end of the healthy-eating spectrum.

They are the Holistic Moms Network in Alexandria and Arlington.

And they can be intimidating.

"Oh, Jessica -- she's just terrific. She's all the way. She washes her oatmeal and her beans," Natalie Molfino, 37, told me while we grazed the snack table that included black bean brownies (not so good) and organic chèvre (too good).

Molfino was talking about Jessica Haney, who organized the chapter a year ago after feeling alone and unsupported in her decision to cut sugar, gluten and general junk out of her child's diet.

For Haney, a former English teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, the change in philosophy came after dramatic changes in her diet helped cure a host of health problems, including depression, acne and digestive issues.

That's how many folks discover and champion healthy and organic food.

Lifestyle approach

The Holistic Moms Network, which has more than 130 chapters across the country after beginning in New Jersey in 2003, also extends that ethos to cloth diapering, what their children play with, what they wear, how they are born and whether they watch television.

The problem with hearing about the way these people eat and live (Pasture-fed meat! Homemade vinegar cleaner! No toys with batteries!) is that it seems totally impossible.

In my household, "holistic" means my husband will take the whole burger-meal-deal, fries and all, at the drive-through.

In the past, I made attempts at organic, healthy and holistic. I fed my husband homemade muesli once, and he crunched and scowled and asked whether I got the ingredients off a factory floor.

Then he checked his watch to see whether he still had time to make the McDonald's breakfast.

But then came kids (and, let's face it, Whole Foods, farmers markets as entertainment, and organic options at even the biggest supermarkets to make healthy and pesticide-free eating possible), and I tried to renew a campaign to make our home more healthy.

The striking statistics that one-third of American children are overweight or obese and that the same proportion will probably suffer from Type-2 diabetes are shocking and a great motivation to make a change.

The national epidemic seems even more daunting when you realize that for African American and Latino children, it rises to half.

Pick your battles

So the question is, how do we make a change when we live in a fast-food culture and when, especially during tough economic times, feeding a family healthy food can be pricey and time-consuming?

The families of the Holistic Moms Network are primarily middle class and white and, in many cases, work outside the home part time or not at all. Many of their children are young, and they haven't had to try to keep their kids from diving into bowls of Goldfish at soccer practice and birthday parties and in the classroom.

There are some battles I'll go all the way with. This is not one of them.

And then comes the question of cost.

Haney said that yes, it is more expensive to eat this way. "But that's the choice we make in our budget. We don't take fancy vacations, we cut down on other costs, we don't go out," she explained.

Okay, that'll work for some families.

But there's not a lot of fat to cut in Brittney Walker's budget. The 22-year-old day-care worker is counting every cent as she walks down the pasta aisle of the La Grande supermarket in Riverdale.

She's got some pork in her cart, along with her two kids, who are 4 years old and 16 months. The fresh meat is a luxury today, so she'll have to skimp elsewhere. When cash is running low, she relies on ground beef and spaghetti.


"I just don't like them. And they're expensive. But the kids eat fruit. They like oranges, and those are cheap," she said.

She never reads a label to check for hydrogenated oils. "The only thing I read is the price tag," she said.

A high price

Finances play a part, for sure.

A truly ethical and healthy lifestyle remains a luxury out of reach for many American families, whether it's because of culture, finances or physical access to better choices.

The first lady acknowledged that during a speech at the Department of Health and Human services in October.

Families "struggle to find time to make a home-cooked meal. Maybe they live in a community that doesn't have access to a supermarket where there's good fresh produce, and maybe the best thing that they have available is a food stand or a gas station or a convenience store to get their food," she said.

She is right.

Somewhere between bathing your beans and just passing on the fries is a sensible answer that can help Americans get healthier.

I was inspired by the holistic moms and the first lady to do a better job of reading labels and building on some of the healthy choices we've already made.

"It's about taking small steps," Elliot told me. "Make one change at a time."

That makes sense. I'll clean the cracker crumbs out of my purse tonight.

The Goldfish, however, won't be set free just yet.

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