Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Tale of Too Much Protein

This month my daughter is a vegetarian. It’s hard for me to write that with a straight face because she has never really eaten much meat, unless you count hot dogs. And even hot dogs are mostly just a spoon with which to eat ketchup. Impressed by her Catholic friends who were giving up something for lent, she announced at the beginning of the month that she was giving up meat for the month of April. (“Not for lent Mom, for April!”) I bit my tongue and did not say what I was really thinking which was “how convenient – giving up something you already don’t want to eat! And why does April demand this kind of sacrifice?” I didn’t launch in to a lecture on the meaning of Lenten sacrifice. I just said, “Hmm,” which caused her to glare at me and march out of the kitchen.

As the month progressed, she sat smugly at dinner passing the steak, chicken, or pork and reminding us, “remember, I don’t eat meat.” We stressed to her that she still needed to take in enough protein and worried that her sullen mood was caused not by her impending hormones, but by her lack of protein.

Somewhere along the line I’ve become as brainwashed as the rest of America in to believing that meat = protein. The meat industry has worked hard to hammer home that thought. In fact, bring up the American Meat Institute’s nutrition site and the first words that greet you (surrounded by pictures of happy, healthy people and deliciously luscious meats) are: “Protein. Fuel for the body and mind.” Which doesn’t come close to the “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.” But I’m sure it’ll grow on us.

As Mark Bittman points out in his book Food Matters (great book – informative, entertaining, and even has 75 recipes!), “per calorie, cooked spinach has more than twice as much protein as a cheeseburger.” Meat is not the only, or necessarily the best, form of protein. He goes on to say, what quickly becomes apparent when you read the stats on protein (see below) that Americans eat way more meat than they need. “If the American high protein diet were the ideal, you might expect us to live longer than countries where meat consumption is more moderate. We’re the second-to-last in longevity among industrialized nations.”

So is my daughter getting enough protein? Here’s the math on the body’s protein requirement for children (and the rest of us):

Ages 1-3: 0.55 grams of protein per pound of body weight

Ages 4-6: 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight

Ages 7-14: 0.45 grams of protein per pound of body weight

Boys ages 15-18: 0.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight

Girls over 15 and boys over 18: 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight.

How does that play out for my daughter? She is 11 years old and weighs about 75 pounds (soaking wet), so she needs somewhere in the neighborhood of 34 grams of protein a day. She can get that from any of the following non-meat sources:
1 oz cheese = 7 grams protein

1 cup milk = 8 grams protein

1 egg = 6 grams protein

2T peanut butter = 8 grams of protein

Throw in some whole grain breads and cereals (2-4 grams) and a few veggies (1-3grams) and there’s every reason to believe that my daughter is doing just fine on her protein intake despite her meat protest.

And what about the rest of us? I need about 55 grams of protein. Am I getting enough or too much? Well, the typical 8 oz steak serving has 50 grams of protein and the yogurt I eat each morning for breakfast has about 18 grams. Throw in the ridiculous amount of vegetable matter I consume and my fondness for cheese and I’d say I’m getting more than my fair share most days.

And what happens when you eat too much protein? According to protein expert, Gail Butterfield, PHd, RD, and nutrition lecturer at Stanford University, too much protein can lead to a build up of ketones in your system which will put your kidneys in to overdrive trying to flush them. This not only stresses out your kidneys, it can also lead to dehydration, bad breath, and weakness. Lovely. I would guess it can also lead to weight gain and cholesterol issues. Apparently excess protein can’t be stored so we either break it down and burn it as energy or we store it as fat. I like to run, but even my long runs couldn’t possibly require the amount of protein I’m taking in. Other researchers believe that eating too much protein can lead to calcium loss and to the immune malfunction that causes food allergies.

So what’s a person or a parent to do? Pay attention. Reduce the portion sizes of the meat you eat which will save you money and calories. Plan more meat free meals. Try to break the strangle hold that meat has on our understanding of a healthy meal. We don’t need to eat it every meal, let alone every day. Just reducing your family’s meat intake slightly will have a substantial impact on your health and your budget. And teach your children that protein can be found in many other sources beyond meat.

Even Janet Riley, Senior Vice President of Public Affairs for the American Meat Institute, agrees in her response to the new 2010 dietary guidelines for Americans, “I think we can all agree that Americans need to increase their fruit and vegetable consumption, but they can continue to eat meat and poultry at the same rate they’re eating it – 5-7oz a day…” I guess she’s assuming you won’t eat any other protein sources because 7 oz of meat a day is just about the protein limit for most of us.

My daughter does plan to go back to eating meat in May. I’m not really sure what that means. I’m guessing it means she’ll go back to eating hot dogs and nibbling around the edges of a small piece of chicken on occasion. Like I said, giving up meat wasn’t a huge sacrifice. I’m glad she did it though; it gave me a chance to educate myself about our need for protein. I’m convinced we don’t need to eat meat at every meal – our bodies don’t need it. But growing up an American, it will take some re-wiring to change my habits. How about yours?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Corks and Caps and Kids

We have a currency of corks and caps in our house. When someone treads dangerously close to the line of bad behavior, my husband or I caution, “That’s your warning. Do it again and it’s a bottle cap.” And sometimes when we see stellar behavior, as in when one sibling actually helps another, you’ll hear us say, “Aww, that was great. You get a cork for that.”

This system is the latest evolution of discipline in our long line of creative solutions to the age old problem of how-do-you-make-your-kids-act-right. It’s very simple really. Each of the kids has a large mason jar in a basket on the piano. Whenever we catch our children doing something good we put a cork in their jar. And whenever we catch our children doing something bad (or neglecting to do something good when the option is there to do, say, their assigned kitchen chore), we put a bottle cap in the jar.

Let me explain about the corks and caps. For this new system we needed something small that we already had lying around. As I’ve explained before I have difficulty throwing out things that can’t be recycled and could one day prove useful. Hence, the caps and corks. The colorful plastic caps from bottles were collected for sorting games for my toddlers, but once they outgrew the thrill of hundreds of small bright plastic disks, I couldn’t give up the compulsion to stock pile them. Lucky for me, the art teacher at the elementary school loves caps and puts them to use in beautiful mosaics. The corks have been collecting since I first attached myself to the man I call my husband. We used to write the occasion and date on the corks, but now we just toss them in a drawer. I have plans to make something useful out of them someday, but that day hasn’t arrived. So corks and caps we have in great abundance. Perfect for the latest parenting endeavor.

When any child accrues 8 corks, he or she may trade them in for a prize (see below). The corks continue to accumulate until they reach 15 corks and then the prizes get even better (see below). After that, the corks get dumped back in to the cork drawer. The bottle caps work a little differently. If a child manages to garner 5 bottle caps, he or she loses all screen privileges (ALL screens) for the following weekend. They may give up 2 corks to remove 1 bottle cap but only until they reach 4, but on that 5th cap there is no escape. (This was a technicality quickly developed by my youngest and wiliest child.) Each Sunday night all caps magically disappear and Monday morning begins with a cap-free jar.

Maybe this seems like a little too much effort, but it sure beats yelling and threatening and then trying to remember what you threatened. It helps us reward the good stuff like running up to shut the chicken coop in the dark when it’s raining, helping your brother with his homework, carrying in the groceries, or doing something thoughtful without being asked. My daughter recently spent an evening helping her little brother (the very same child who that morning she proclaimed she would hate FOREVER!) to master the hand brakes on his bike – 2 corks for that one!

Amazingly, no one has yet earned 5 caps. In fact, the mere threat of a cap usually causes the offender to turn the other cheek. Even I didn’t think this system would work so well. We are six weeks in and all I’ve had to give up is a couple sleepovers and a cherry cheesecake. Mostly they choose the extra time on the computer.

Just in case you’d like to adopt this system for yourself, here are the details on ours. We think it's only fair to spell out exactly what earns you a cap or cork. I’m sure yours might be different, but this’ll get you started.

Expectations - Consequences
1 Treat each other with respect and kindness. Consequences: One Cap  (One warning)

2 Do not hit, kick, or in any way physically harm each other or the pets. Consequences: One Cap (no warnings)

3 No Back-talk or deliberate lying. Consequences:Two Caps (no warnings)

4 No Hurtful Words: “freak”, “idiot”, “shut up”, “hate” or others TBD. Consequences: One Cap (One warning)

5 Get yourself ready for school (fix breakfast, pack lunch, pack up back pack, take vitamins, brush teeth, and remember the things you need to have for the day like sneakers, instrument, etc.)  Consequences: One Cap (One reminder)

6 Do your kitchen chore each weeknight. Consequences: one Cap (one reminder)
7 Take care of your pet (Raisin, Hans, Cody). Consequences: One cap  (one reminder)

8 Put your dirty clothes in the laundry room sorted by color in to the separate bags by Monday morning.
consequences: no clean clothes  (one reminder)

9 Put away your clean clothes the same day they are returned to you. Consequences: No Clean Laundry (one reminder)

10 Do your weekend chore each weekend. Consequences: Two Caps (one reminder)

11 Keep your room reasonably clean and vacuum it once a month. Consequences: No Friends In/out (one reminder)

Five caps in one week: Lose all screens for the following weekend.


1. Doing something nice for someone else.

2. Cleaning something you don’t have to clean.

3. Good grade on a test/project. (eventually clarified to A+ as we were bleeding corks on this one)

4. Feeding dogs

5. Taking care of Kernel [our blind chicken] -clean cage & change water or walk her

6. Helping with barn chores

7. Cleaning up yard

8. Unloading the dishwasher

9. Anytime mommy or daddy thinks you’ve done something deserving of a bonus

10. Writing a letter to a relative (real letter, not e-mail)

When you earn 8 corks, you can choose from the following rewards (keep adding corks to get to 15)

1. pick the movie night movie

2. decide the menu for one dinner that week

3. choose a special dessert or snack for one time that week

4. earn an extra ½ hour on the computer

5. propose a reward for approval

When you have 15 corks, you can choose from the following rewards:

1. sleepover

2. date night – movie, dinner out with parent or friend

3. new book from Amazon or Scholastic

4. watch an extra movie that you pick

5. earn an extra hour on the computer

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Don't Know Nothing 'Bout History....

History was never my strong suit. I think the turning point was the overly enthusiastic teacher I had in 7th grade who scared me so much. I struggled with the requirement in college, garnering my only C. Whenever I find myself at a historic battlefield or museum, the sight of all those plaques makes my eyes glaze over. But in the interest of making up for lost time and setting a good example for my children I do try to drum up some enthusiasm.

I recently spent five days in Williamsburg, Virginia. I will admit up front that it wasn’t my idea and I went there for reasons having nothing to do with history. The trip was a Christmas gift from my husband. He (and a bunch of other incredibly thoughtful hubbies) gave me (and four other women from my book club) five days on a beautiful plantation. So, being honest, I went there to eat, drink and be merry with friends. Oh, and of course we read a book. One of the husbands (shout out to Mark, here) picked the book, “Dark Enough to See the Stars in a Jamestown Sky” for us to read and discuss (we really did!). Despite the verbose title and somewhat dry writing, the book brought history to life. It was the journal of a woman named Joan who journeyed across the Atlantic to settle in the first Jamestown settlement, survived the “starving time” and hostile Indians, and lived to tell.

Joan’s story raised a lot of issues about self-reliance, food preservation, and just how easy we have it these days. Most of us have never been truly hungry and we’ve certainly never been in danger of starving. Reading about the struggle for sustenance and the possibility of death on a daily basis was a foreign concept for me. But it is a very present reality for many on our planet. The desperation that rearranged priorities and perspectives was clear. The plight of a mother unable to adequately feed her child was heart-wrenching. I was glad I could close the cover. While it was a lesson in history, it made the present real.

What will history say about us? The house where we stayed was built in the 1700’s - the first time. It had only resided at its current location for 30 years. The owner had painstakingly moved it, piece by piece in his Ford Pinto. (Yes, really!) It was restored beautifully and we delighted in the details we discovered – dishes, carpentry, art work, weaponry, books. The grounds were gorgeous. The whole place looked like it had been plucked right from the center of Williamsburg and placed there in the forest across the river.

In between the revelry (no kids!! no where to be!! No one will ever know!!), I managed a few trail runs. Some of the trees I passed were enormous and I wondered if they had been there while Joan was across the river starving in Jamestown. Knowing the settlers had survived by eating acorns, I had new respect for the tiny nuts as they crunched under my feet. Maybe it was my hangover, but I really felt those woods were hallowed.

Which makes me wonder – what kind of history are we making? There have been huge changes in my lifetime. The world has become a different place. I’m not sure that all of it is for the better. But what kind of history am I making here in my family? I know so little about my own grandparents, and even less about my great-grandparents. I don’t know what their lives were like, what they held as important, or what kind of dreams they had. That’s only two generations removed. What will my own grandchildren know about me?

Because I write so much, I’m guessing my grandchildren might know more than they want to know about me. I trust that my journals will prove much too boring for any of my children to ever wade through. But I hope they will know something of me. How will you be remembered? Have you given the idea any thought? Will it be for the beautiful collection of art or stamps or books? Have you preserved your stories in scrapbooks or journals? Will you leave jewelry or furniture that has been infused with your spirit? I realize that the “stuff” we leave behind isn’t as important as our impact on the lives of the people we leave behind, but being in that historic house and wondering about the stuff that was left behind made me wonder about the people who left it. It made me want to know who they were.

Most of us don’t stay long enough in one place to allow our gardens to be our legacy. Our first house was 150 years old. The garden in the foundation of the old carriage house was probably at least 75 years old. I loved to work in that garden and wonder if the peonies (there were hundreds) were descended from peonies planted by someone who gardened at the turn of the century. We found a collection of old tobacco cans in the crawl space and my husband and I laughed at the idea that someone used to hunker down in the pump room for their daily fix. What are we leaving behind?

I do believe we will leave some kind of history, however sketchy. If we don’t want our legacy to be the hours we spent watching reality TV or reading profiles on Facebook, it would behoove us to consider what we will pass down. I hope my grandchildren get a few of my freckles, but I also hope they use my bone china and mismatched pottery. I hope they read this blog. I hope the tomatoes I grow this summer will pass along their seeds in to the next century. Imagine.

Like the settlers at Jamestown, we need to prepare. Maybe we don’t have to crush acorns for flour, but we do need to think carefully about what we teach our children. What we arrange our lives around. We are living history. As I read the story of Jamestown, it wasn’t so much the survival of Joan, but the thousands that didn’t survive that haunted me. So many people traveled so far, only to perish. We know nothing about them but a name on a roll, and sometimes we don’t even have that since many women and children tagged along unaccounted.

Make sure someone remembers your name. Think about the legacy you will leave behind, including the “stuff”. This is the only life you get, don’t squander it. Start collecting acorns.