The ‘got milk?’ advertisements were ubiquitous in my childhood. They were everywhere. Park benches, side of buses, billboards, in magazines and even television with celebrity endorsements. We were all told that milk is a good source of calcium (a claim that’s since been disputed) and to encourage our kids to drink milk. Schools give it out with their lunches and breakfasts and poor kids get it for free. What we are never told is excessive consumption of milk can lead to severe anemia, because milk itself is iron bare and over consumption of milk can even block iron absorption from other foods. A fact that is not widely known.
Almost all children, and specifically toddlers all go through a fussy eating phase. Arguably one of the most frustrating phases for parents. This is where the bargaining and negotiating begins at the dinner table. The fussy eating vary in severity, some children just refuse to eat certain foods but will eat most other foods and you have some toddlers who refuse eat most foods except for the few that passes through their very selective palate. Most parents wait out this ‘phase’ as it is really just a phase, and before you know it they will wake up one day and eat everything in sight. This is the approach I took with my son. He is an exceptionally fussy eater. I’ve had a few rays of hope where he ate what I presented in front of him, but they were fleeting. Within a couple of days, he resorted back to his fussy ways. The good thing is, the few things he did eat were obscure but healthy like brown rice, quinoa, occasional broccoli and carrots, some white fish and LOTS OF MILK. He refused to eat any red meat, poultry or beans. I would try ‘trick’ him into eating some of those but it rarely worked.
My boy loves milk. His nickname (one of many) is Milk Monster. I was not concerned because I loved milk too and I drank an obscene amount of milk as a child and I never went anywhere near a hospital never mind an ICU for drinking too much milk. So, I let my boy have as much milk as he liked, continued to introduce different foods to him, prepared the staples that he would eat and left the rest to the toddler-gods. This was a recipe for disaster. All that milk he drank blocked any of the receptors in small intestines from absorbing iron, and over the course of a few months, he became anemic and a routine wellness check up landed him in the ICU. It is still a shock I am yet to process. I can see a headline, ‘Toddler In ICU Because of Milk’.
Over the recent years, with the popularity of healthy eating and veganism; the supposed good qualities of milk have been disputed and the current nutritionist recommendation today for toddlers over the age of 2 is no more than two 8 ounce glasses per day. Children are encouraged to get the rest of their nutrition elsewhere, preferably from fresh fruits and vegetables and whole unprocessed foods.
As I poured out my whole week’s menu and meal planning and my frustrations to the nutritionist who was assigned to me by the hospital, lamenting the fussy ways of my boy; she calmly said, ‘if you take away his milk, he’ll be hungry and he will eat the other foods you prepare, he’s currently getting all of his calories from milk.’ And just like that a lightbulb went off in my head and I thought ‘stupid me, why didn’t I think of that?’ I was so programmed into thinking that children must have milk that removing it from their diet never even crossed my mind. The team of hematologists (yes, the team came to see my son everyday because it’s a research and teaching hospital, when they get a ‘special case’, they get very interested) which consisted of two doctors from India, flat out told me to not give my children any more milk, they don’t need it. Then it dawned on me that a whole subcontinent of over one billion people rarely drink cow’s milk as their diet and they are just fine. Since my son’s major diagnosis was severe iron deficiency due to severe anemia, the hematology department has been assigned as his follow up treatment and care. And the lead attending physician, who is from India, an older motherly figure, said unequivocally ‘no more milk’. So, since his admission into hospital, my son has not had a drop of milk.
Since he’s been force weaned off milk, his appetite just exploded. He’s eaten almost everything in sight. He still won’t eat red meat, it must be the taste or texture, but he’s been eating chicken, spinach, broccoli, carrots, yams, spinach pasta and brown rice. His favorite snacks now are cashews. He chose cashews over potato chips, his usual snack of choice. I am beyond relieved but also quietly reflective at how things got to this point. I take pride in the fact that I feed my family home cooked meals. In fact, I put time and effort into planning my menu and preparing the meals. I spend far too much time in the kitchen for a mom in the year 2016. I avoid processed foods, we have almost no junk food. My children do not eat candy, my daughter still doesn’t know what to do with a lollipop, she threw out the last one she ate because it was so sweet and it tasted like nothing I’ve ever given her. Someone once gave her a Jolly Rancher candy and spat it out, I was never so proud. I am one of those insufferable mothers who monitor what her children eat so they don’t develop a palate for sweets and processed foods. They can eat anything they like, no matter how calorie laden as long as it’s freshly cooked and not processed (carbonara pasta is a good example). Yet somehow, my son ended up needing a blood transfusion.
His pediatrician said it was a perfect storm of events. His milk heavy diet notwithstanding, he also just got over a cold which he caught from my daughter, one of the germs she brought home from school. While she got over it with the sniffles and a few sneezes, my son got a fever and later a cough before it fully went away. The pediatrician said if he was already anemic to begin with (which he was), any virus he gets can put his hemoglobin levels below safe levels. She suspects this is what happened here, as there is no way to confirm this because his levels weren’t checked prior to his cold.
With some new blood (very grateful for blood donors) and a new diet, he’s resuming the healthy bouncing boy in the throes of his Terrible Twos (almost Three) again. There is a new spring in his step, he’s playing tug of war with his sister again; it’s as if none of this even happened whilst I am still ruminating the events of the last week.