Archive for the ‘Nutrition’ category

Can more vitamin D improve the health of nursing moms and babies?

February 11, 2016

The Pediatric Insider

© 2016 Roy Benaroch, MD

“Breast is best” is a simple, catchy phrase—but to be honest, it’s one that should be followed by a bunch of asterisks and qualifiers. Some mother-baby pairs have a hard time with nursing, and need support and understanding (rather than a simple dismissal of their concerns.) And breast milk, we know, isn’t a great source of absorbable iron, which is especially an issue for premature babies. But the biggest drawback of human breastmilk, compared with commercial formula, is that it is an inadequate source of vitamin D.

A new study shows that this doesn’t have to be the case. Perhaps insufficient vitamin D isn’t really a fundamental problem with breast milk, but a problem with mom’s vitamin D intake.

Backing up a second – we’ve known for a long time that breast-fed babies are much more at-risk for nutritional rickets than formula-fed babies. This is especially true for families with dark skin. Rickets is caused by insufficient vitamin D, and can lead to poor growth, bowed limbs, and other health problems. For most of human history our vitamin D came from sunlight exposure. The skin of babies and mothers can manufacture vitamin D, though it requires sunlight to do it. Darker skin is less efficient at making vitamin D than lighter skin.

To combat the risk of insufficient vitamin D in breast-fed babies, the AAP has recommended a daily vitamin D supplement, starting from birth. In practice, this recommendation is followed maybe 20% of the time. Parents don’t like to give their newborns medicine, and I think pediatricians are reluctant to focus on the possible inadequacies of human breast milk.

In the current study, researchers sought to determine if giving higher doses of vitamin D to nursing moms could result in enough vitamin transfer in their milk. 334 mother-infant pairs were recruited, and randomized into three groups. In group one, moms were given an ordinary vitamin supplement, and their babies a vitamin D supplement (400 IU/day, matching the current recommendation.) In group 2, the babies were given no extra D, but moms took 2400 IU/day; in group three, moms were given 6400 IU each day. Babies and moms underwent regular blood and urine tests to see if these doses resulted in good vitamin D levels in the babies, and to see if these doses caused any metabolic problems with vitamin D, phosphorus, or calcium metabolism.

There was a relatively high drop-out rate—of the original 334 pairs, just 148 stuck with the plan for exclusive breastfeeding, and were thus able to complete the trial (families who discontinued breastfeeding or added formula supplements were not included in the final analysis.)

All of the babies who received regular supplementation had robust vitamin D levels and normal biochemical testing – we know, if that 400 IU a day for babies is given, it works. That was group 1. Group 2, where moms were given vitamin D 2400 IU/day,  was a failure—they actually stopped this arm of the study early, because many of the babies in this group did not have adequate vitamin D levels on their blood tests. But the babies in group 3 – who themselves received no direct vitamin D supplements, but whose moms got 6400 IU/day—did as well as group 1, with perfectly good vitamin D levels and no evidence for any side effects or problems. And, bonus, their moms also benefitted, with normal vitamin D levels and no side effects.

A reasonable question, though—is 6400 IU of D a day safe for moms to take? A prior guideline from the Institute of Medicine had suggested an upper limit of 2000 IU/day (though that has since been increased to 4000); the Endocrine Society now sets their upper limit at 10,000. During the past decade many studies have used adult D supplementation in the range of thousands of units per day, and according to the authors of this paper not a single adverse event was observed.

This study supports a safe alternative for families, and perhaps one that’s easier to do. Moms are used to taking prenatal vitamins, and continuing to take them while nursing. Adding 6,000 IU of D to the typical 400 in a prenatal isn’t expensive, and seems to be safe and effective at making sure their babies get enough D. Breast milk can have enough D – but only if mom gets her own supplement.

Bear and sun

More water means slightly less weight in New York schools

February 1, 2016

The Pediatric Insider

© 2016 Roy Benaroch, MD

A simple, safe, and cheap intervention looks like a good way to help fight obesity in our schools. But not by very much.

A study published January 2016 in JAMA Pediatrics, “Effect of a school-cased water intervention on child body mass index and obesity”, looked at the effects of installing new water dispensers in New York City school cafeterias. 1227 schools, including 1 065  562 students,  participated in the observational study, which tracked student weights and BMIs, comparing trends before and after the new equipment was installed.

Those new dispensers are called “water jets” in the study, and I *think* they’re just those typical water cooler things that offices use, with a big jug of water on top and a little flappy valve to get cooled water into a cup below. The study description says they both chill and oxygenate the water “to keep it tasting fresh”, and cost about $1000 bucks each. Furthermore, they “are relatively easy to use” (pretty clever, those New York kids.) The authors pointed out that participants were weighed and measured by PE coaches, whose scale-using skills have “previously been found reliable” (pretty clever, those New York coaches.)

The results: after these water jets became available, there was a statistically significant drop in BMI of about 0.025 points (it was just a touch more effective in boys than girls), and the percentage of children in the schools who were overweight dropped by .6-.9%. (from about 39% to about 38%).

I know, not very impressive. The statistics are solid—whether the authors looked at trends over entire schools, or at trends among individual students before and after water jet availability, these weight parameters did drop. And the drop is, technically, statistically valid and real. That’s how it’s been reported in the media. The New York Daily News said “Water machines available in schools can help kids lose weight.”

But the drop really wasn’t very much. Going from 39% to 38% overweight is good, but I think we ought to try to do better. You can lead a student to water, but studies like this show it’s hard to make them actually lose weight.

What should we do with all of this yellow paint?

Should you buy vitamins from your friends?

September 3, 2015

The Pediatric Insider

© 2015 Roy Benaroch, MD

Alison wrote in:

 

It seems like every time my (almost 6 year old) child gets sick, a line forms of sales-friends who try to convince me that ‘ever since they gave their child Juice Plus+, they haven’t been sick.’  Could you give your opinion from your medical perspective?  Personally, I prefer to give Flintstones vitamins with the iron, but I’d love to have a better understanding of the best vitamins to give.

 

Vitamins are an interesting psycho-sociological phenomenon. We know that we need them—if you don’t get any vitamin C, you’re fairly quickly going to suffer a fairly horrendous death—but we barely need much of any of them. Just a few milligrams, here and there, not even every day, will keep you and your children chugging along just fine. But, of course, being the creatures that we are, many people seem to view vitamins as having magical abilities. If a tiny bit is good, a whole lot more is better. Or, since some  vitamins are involved in energy metabolism, taking a whole lot of them will give you more energy. Or cure a hangover, or make you invulnerable to colds, the flu, and presidential debates. Magic!

The truth is, vitamins are just chemicals. Like any other chemical, once you swallow it your body doesn’t know or care if it came from a leaf or a pill; and it certainly doesn’t care if it came from a cheapo pill or an expensive, name-brand pill sold by one of your “sales-friends.” A vitamin is a vitamin. If you think your child needs one (and he probably doesn’t), take an inexpensive one and save up some money to buy more yummy fresh fruits and veggies. Because those, he could probably use. A pill that claims to be a replacement for real fruits and real veggies? Sold as part of a multilevel marketing scheme? Please.

What about vitamins for parents? Several good studies in adults show that people who regularly take multivitamins have poorer health. Makes you wonder about all of that vitamin marketing.

A preschooler wants to be a vegetarian. And Simpson quotes!

August 20, 2015

The Pediatric Insider

© 2015 Roy Benaroch, MD

 

Leslie wanted to know:

 

 Dr. Roy, do you have any advice about a preschooler who wants to be a vegetarian? A few days ago at a family party an older cousin decided to tell my four-year-old aspiring veterinarian, who loves animals so much she sobs if she accidentally steps on an ant, what her hamburger was made out of. She…did not react well to the information, and has since steadfastly refused to eat any type of meat. Thankfully she’s too young to know that veganism is a thing so she’ll still eat dairy products and eggs and such, just not meat, which I’ve always heard is a pretty important part of a growing child’s diet. Is it safe for a kid so young to *never* have meat? Should I get her on some special vitamins or supplements or make sure she eats plenty of certain other foods to make up for it? Or do I just need to put my foot down and insist that she eats whatever I make? All of the advice I’ve found so far basically boils down to that, but it seems like that would be so traumatizing and send her the message that I don’t care about how she feels or what she values. I just want to keep her healthy, physically AND emotionally, but I don’t know what to do!

 

This reminds me of a Simpsons episode…

 

Lisa: “I can’t eat this. I can’t eat a poor little lamb.” [pushes her plate away]

Homer: “Lisa, get a hold of yourself. This is lamb, not a lamb.”

Lisa: “What’s the difference between this lamb and the one that kissed me?”

Bart: “This one spent two hours in the broiler!” [takes a big bite]

 

From a nutritional point of view, meat is a great source of easily-digested protein and bioavailable iron. But, really, very few American kids have a problem with not getting enough protein in their diet. All dairy products are complete proteins, as are eggs and peanut butter and delicious bacon. I mean tofu.

 

Homer: “Lisa, honey, are you saying you’re never going to eat any animal again? What about bacon?”

Lisa: “No.”

Homer: “Ham?”

Lisa: “No.”

Homer: “Pork chops?”

Lisa: “Dad! Those all come from the same animal!”

Homer[chuckling] “Yeah, right, Lisa. A wonderful, magical animal.”

 

Iron, though—iron might be another story. Iron can be found in some vegetables, especially those dark leafy green ones that Lisa loves, and beans and grains. But that kind, called non-heme iron, isn’t easily absorbed. The heme iron found in meat and seafood really does get into your body better. Absorption of non-heme iron can be increased by consuming foods with vitamin C (like citrus fruits), eating your non-heme iron with a little meat (not Lisa’s first choice), or cooking with a cast-iron pot. If none of that is practical, it’s easy enough to get an iron supplement to replace the iron in meat.

 

Lisa: “Uh, excuse me? Isn’t there anything here that doesn’t have meat in it?”

Lunchlady Doris: “Possibly the meat loaf.”

Lisa: “Well, I believe you’re required to provide a vegetarian alternative.”

[Doris picks up a hot dog, shakes the wiener out, and slaps the bun down on Lisa’s tray]

Doris: “Yum. It’s rich in bunly goodness.”

Lisa[dryly] “Do you remember when you lost your passion for this work?”

 

I’m assuming, here, that the child is willing to continue eating dairy products—without those, it’s difficult to get enough calcium and vitamin D. I think a family can easily follow a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet (including dairy and eggs) without much worry, and in fact such a diet is almost certainly more healthful than that of many families. But strict veganism, with no eggs and no dairy, is tricky, especially with younger children. I suggest any family who’s raising vegan kids spend some face-to-face time with a registered dietician (NOT a “nutritionist”! Don’t get me started on nutritionists.) That way they can learn what they need to know to ensure an adequate diet and correct use of supplements. It can be done, but it requires some work and planning.

 

Paul McCartney: “Linda and I both feel strongly about animal rights. In fact, if you play ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ backwards, you’ll hear a recipe for a really ripping lentil soup.”

Lisa: “When will all those fools learn that you can be perfectly healthy simply eating vegetables, fruits, grains and cheese?”

Apu: “Oh, cheese!”

Lisa: “You don’t eat cheese, Apu?”

Apu: “No, I don’t eat any food that comes from an animal.”

Lisa: “Oh, then you must think I’m a monster!”

Apu: “Yes, indeed, I do think that.”

 

Leslie asked if she should just put her foot down, to force her daughter to eat meat. I don’t think that’s the way to go. I can respect her daughter’s wish to not harm animals, and she can have a perfectly healthful diet that fits her own moral philosophy. Yes, even four year olds can and should have a sense of right and wrong, and I’m not so sure we meat eaters are in fact morally superior to a vegetarian preschooler. Or Lisa Simpson.

An overweight infant: Time to worry?

July 20, 2015

The Pediatric Insider

© 2015 Roy Benaroch, MD

Megan wrote in: “My son is 6 months old, weighs 10.1 kg and 70 cm long. I am concerned about his weight as he doesn’t seem to eat and drink excessively. He can’t roll over and my GP said this is probably due to his weight. What do I do? Cut back on protein and replace with extra veggies? Could he have a health issue?”

For those of you more used to traditional units, that’s about 22 pounds and 27 ½ inches. For comparison, the average for a 6 month old boy is about 17-18 pounds and 26 ½ inches.

Megan wants to know, first, if there’s really a problem here. My definitive answer is:  Maybe. Or, more accurately, no… but there might be later. Having a few extra pounds, now, isn’t hurting Megan’s baby. If he’s otherwise healthy and his development is normal and he’s being fed appropriately, I think it would be very reasonable to wait and see.

But if there are some habits starting now that in the long run might increase his risk for obesity, now would be a good time to address those. Megan said he doesn’t seem to eat and drink excessively, but I’d want to take a better history of his intake over a few days to see exactly what’s meant by that. Is he getting excessive calories? Is he drinking an excessive amount of mother’s milk or formula? Does he get cereal added to his formula, adding calories he doesn’t need? Megan asked about cutting back on protein and increasing vegetables, but is a good idea—though I wonder where he’s getting extra protein from. I’d try to use mostly veggies as complementary foods at mealtimes.

Another thing to ask about, and this can be a difficult question: has eating become the main pacifier or soothing activity? Some babies are temperamentally more difficult to soothe, and sometimes parents fall into a rut of always soothing with food—which can sometimes contribute to a lifetime habit. Many adults eat when they’re worried or upset, and sometimes we get our babies used to doing this, too. I’d ask Megan, what do you do when your son is upset or worked up?

Megan also said he cannot roll over, which to me is unexpected. I see plenty of chunky babies, but almost all of them roll by 6 months. I’d want to do a careful physical exam and developmental assessment, here, before blaming the lack of rolling over on his size.

The question was also asked, “Could he have a health issue?”—meaning, could he have some kind of medical condition be causing his excessive weight. There are some conditions that can do this, but they’re fabulously rare. Incredibly rare. Incredibly as in most-doctors-will-never-ever-see-a-case-of-this rare. So without other history or physical exam findings to suggest something like this, I don’t think it’s very likely.

The most important steps when I evaluate a baby whose growth is not as expected—too big or too small—starts with a careful history and physical exam, and then continues with following the baby closely. Watch those numbers over the next few months to see if they level out. Though there are no immediate dangers here, overweight babies are more likely to become overweight children who are more likely to become overweight adults. Now may be the time to make a few dietary adjustments to prevent a whole lot of trouble later. It’s not time to panic, but it is time to pay attention.

A tired traveling two-year-old, exercise and weight loss, and a big-tonsilled tooth grinder

May 6, 2015

The Pediatric Insider

© 2015 Roy Benaroch, MD

I’ve been writing a follow-up course to my first video lecture series, and falling behind on blogging. Never fear! Once this baby is taped I’ll be back here, full time. Or nearly full time—I have a job, too, you know. For today, I’ll post a bunch of brief answers to questions that have been sent in lately. Keep the questions coming, I’ll get to them eventually!

 

“Graham is 2 ½, and every time we travel and he sleeps somewhere other than his crib, he goes crazy. Even if we do his same routine at home (and have even tried packing up his crib to bring with us!), he takes hours to go to sleep, and usually wakes up in the middle of the night screaming and nothing will calm him down. My husband usually ends up driving around with him in the car all night. I keep thinking he will outgrow it, but at almost 3, it is still happening. Any ideas of what we could do to help him sleep so we can still travel?”

Graham sounds like he likes his routines. And I’m not so sure you’ll be able to perfectly recreate his home setting and routine when you’re on the road.

Instead, it might help to start the process even before you travel. Have him start sleeping in his travel crib or pack n play a week or so before the trip, or mix things up in other ways—maybe move his crib to another part of the room, or even into a different room. Try to make it a fun adventure! Let him choose what “crazy place” to sleep at night. Maybe then the broken routine when you travel won’t seem as jarring.

 

“I’ve seen reported in the media recently that exercise doesn’t help with weight loss so there’s no point in even trying.”

 Whether or not exercise helps with weight loss, it’s still a good thing to do. People who exercise improve their cardiac and metabolic risks—think less diabetes and fewer heart attacks– whether or not they lose weight. Exercise helps sleep, prevents depression, decreases stress, and has turned me into the glistening man-hunk that I am (OK, I may have exaggerated that last point a bit.)

And: exercise can help you lose weight, too. You just have to not eat more when you do it.

 

“My 10 year son has been a super nighttime teeth grinder for as long as I can remember.  He also has very (naturally) large tonsils.  The dentist today said that the grinding is likely because his airway is partially obstructed when he sleeps and he’s trying to get air, and referred me to an ENT to have his tonsils removed.”

 There does seem to be an association between sleep-disordered breathing—loud snoring and pauses caused by upper airway obstruction—and teeth grinding (AKA “bruxism”). In a 2004 study from Brazil, about half of 69 children referred to an ENT group for adenotonsillectomy had bruxism; after surgery, the percentage dropped to 12%. If your child has large tonsils and sleep-disordered breathing, tonsillectomy may improve the teeth grinding. An ENT eval is a good idea.

Food allergy “testing” is usually a bad idea

March 23, 2015

The Pediatric Insider

© 2015 Roy Benaroch, MD

People like tests. You get numbers, and maybe a printout, and there’s science and blood and things just feels more… serious, when testing is done. You can picture Marcus Welby  (or perhaps a more modern physician), looking solemn, declaring “We’d better run some tests.”

Are medical tests magical and mysterious, and can they unlock the secrets of life? Usually, no. And among the worst and most misunderstood tests we do are food allergy tests.

A few recent studies illustrate this well. A review of about 800 patients referred to an allergy clinic found that almost 90% of children who had been told to avoid foods based on allergy testing could in fact eat them safely. The study, bluntly titled “Food allergen panel testing often results in misdiagnosis of food allergy” also found that the positive predictive value of food allergy blood tests—the chance that a positive test accurately predicted real allergy—was 2.2%. That much, much worse than the odds if you flipped a coin, and much, much worse than your odds of winning at a casino. If someone told you that a positive test was only correct 2% of the time, would you even do the test?

What about the other way of food allergy testing, with skin scratch or prick tests? A recent study about peanut allergy made big news when it turned out to show that early peanut exposure can prevent allergy. (This isn’t new news, by the way—I’ve written about that before. But I get fewer readers than the New England Journal of Medicine.) But hidden in the methods and statistics of that paper was another gem. The authors tested all of the enrolled babies for peanut allergy, at the beginning of the study. And most of the babies who “tested positive”, whether or not they then ate peanuts, did not turn out to be allergic. A true statement from the data from that study would be: If your baby tests positive for peanut allergy, your child is probably not allergic to peanuts.

Read that sentence again. Kind of makes your brain hurt, doesn’t it?

It is true that positive-tested kids were more likely than negative tested kids to be allergic—among the group with more allergies later (those who avoided peanuts), 35% of those who had positive tests developed allergy, versus 14% who had tested negative. But still, in either case, most of the kids who tested positive did not turn out to be allergic, whatever they ate or did.

The fundamental problem, I think, is that doctors either don’t understand or can’t seem to explain the difference between sensitization and allergy. None of these tests can actually test for allergy—they test for sensitization, which is different. We gloss over that distinction, and end up giving out bad advice. People should not be told to avoid food based on the results of allergy testing alone.

Bottom line: if you child eats a food without having a reaction, he or she is not allergic, and you should not do any testing for that food as a potential allergen. You should never do broad panels of “allergy tests”—they’re much more likely to mislead and confuse than to give useful information. Any food allergy testing that is done should only look at foods that seem to have caused reactions in the past, and even then any positive testing should be confirmed by what’s called an “open challenge.” Under safe conditions, usually under an allergists’ care, give the child some of the food to eat to see what happens. That’s the only real way to “test” for allergy.


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