Do kids instinctively know what a healthy diet looks like? Maybe — but a little parental prodding never hurts.
Humans are hardwired to eat well. If we follow our innate instincts, we will generally do the right thing when choosing food. It’s an evolutionary thing: You avoid healthy food and your species disappears — at least that’s what I try to tell my kids. But, as most parents know, children are not known for their receptivity to parental advice.
I bring this up for a reason that may appear to have little to do with food: We now share our home with two guinea pigs. The kids have wanted them for years, but I’ve done my best to delay the inevitable. Last Christmas, I bought them robot guinea pigs, with little wheels for hind legs, with the hope that mechanized versions would suffice. Robot guinea pigs, for those who don’t know, are called Zhu Zhu Pets, and they race around robot-guinea-pig tubes. To these grownup eyes, they seemed indistinguishable from nonrobot guinea pigs.
Robot guinea pigs did not suffice. The clamor continued. The kids started carving “I GPs” into scraps of dough while we made pies. Eventually they wore me down.
After persuading my 10-year-old to read every guinea-pig book in and out of print and making it completely clear that Mommy would never, ever, under any circumstances, clean a guinea-pig cage, we rescued a pair from a local family who had apparently tired of the thrill we were about to experience. It turns out there’s a lively guinea-pig trade on Craigslist involving families looking to give up their guinea pigs but who want to make sure they go to the right home before bidding them farewell.
We gratefully passed inspection and now are part of what seems to be a rodent version of open adoption: We regularly send the former owners photos of the guinea pigs romping happily in their new playground, which consists mostly of robot-guinea-pig tubes bordered by colorful Lego walls.
They’re cute and, more importantly, the kids are devoted to them.
What’s remarkable — aside from the fact that this is working out at all — is how thrilled these little furballs are when confronted with a bit of lettuce. Put a leaf in front of them and sproing! They hop 6 inches into the air, like they’re riding tiny, invisible pogo sticks.
“See?” I tell the kids. “They’re just like me about healthy food. They’re so happy because their bodies are telling them that this is the healthiest thing for them. Just like giraffes think leaves from the treetops are delicious, and orcas are crazy about the taste of seals.”
My children promptly inform me that I am mildly to entirely insane, because: Duh, candy. And, duh, soda. Also: French fries, white rice, doughnuts, and everything else I am constantly trying to get them to avoid in my efforts to teach them about healthy eating. If creatures are really hardwired to love what’s healthy for them, they argue, why aren’t doughnuts the perfect food? Because, given the choice, that’s all we’d eat.
“But wait!” I cry, as they each depart with a hat full of guinea pig. (They’ve decided their winter hats are the best containers for carrying the pets around the house, which will no doubt lead to some aromatic discoveries during the next hat-wearing season.) I was going to tell them that humans are, in fact, calibrated to love sugar because it appears oh-so-rarely in nature: in berries and tomatoes, in apples, pears, and oranges, in fresh milk and winter squash.
I was going to tell them that, until about the time of the Civil War, sugar was so prized that people kept it locked up in a piece of furniture called a sugar chest. I was going to tell them that high-fructose corn syrup, the ubiquitous sweetener in soda, didn’t really show up in human diets until the 1960s. And I was going to tell them that while life since the Civil War might seem like all of human history to two kids who can count their years on two hands, it is like the blink of an eye in evolutionary time.
But they were gone, lost in guinea-pig land.
My instincts tell me that they’ll come around to my way of thinking eventually, given that scientists continue to publish research showing the benefits of a diet rich in unprocessed, whole foods. Just the other day, while my kids and their guinea pigs were ignoring me, I read about a study comparing the nutritional makeup of conventional and organic milk. Researchers found that levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which help prevent heart disease, are 50 percent higher in organic varieties.
I was happy to read this for a couple of reasons: I’ve always felt that grass-pastured milk tastes better — fresher, creamier, more floral — and now I can throw another healthy-eating argument at the children when they rush back with their hats full of friendly rodents.
It also reminds me why European cheese laws are so important: Roquefort, the French blue, must by law be made from the milk of sheep who graze outdoors whenever possible; L’Etivaz (the original Swiss cheese) can be made only from the milk of cows grazing high in Alpine pastures; fontina cheese from Italy follows similar rules. And there are many more.
These ancient rules for food production were both instinctive and strategic: A group of premodern farmers were simply trying to make sure that the quality of their products wasn’t undercut by any of their fellow farmers using inferior ingredients or taking shortcuts. Now that we are thoroughly modern, we have to go to great legal lengths to uphold the quality — and inherent healthy aspects — of what those farmers intuited.
No one really needs to investigate the why behind the results. One of the federal organic standards for organic milk requires that cows spend time outside. This tends to mean that they are eating grass — just like all ruminants always have — and not corn, which has been a standard part of conventional dairy cows’ diet since the end of World War II. Omega-3 fatty acids are more abundant in grass than in grain, and that’s why organic milk has more omega-3s. It doesn’t take rocket science to make that connection.
Neither is rocket science required to understand why children love guinea pigs and ignoring their mother’s advice about healthy eating. They’ll figure out the food thing eventually . . . I think. Like the rest of us, they have instincts to eat well, if only they’d listen to them. And, every so often, to Mom.
Illustration by Paul Hostetler