Get the white rice out of baby’s first foods
Almost every child care book offers the same advice about a baby’s first meal.
When infants are ready for solid food, experts say, start them first on rice cereal, available in a box, mixed with breast milk or formula. Babies have launched their eating careers this way for 60 years, says Alan Greene, a pediatrician at Stanford University’s Lucile Packard Children Hospital.
In the 1950s, Greene says, baby food companies trumpeted the benefits of white rice cereal, telling mothers that it was easier for babies to digest than anything they could make at home. “The ads said, ‘You can’t feed children as well as we can,’ ” says Greene, author of Feeding Baby Green.
But David Ludwig, director of the Optimal Weight for Life program at Children’s Hospital Boston, says “there’s no scientific basis for this recommendation. That’s a myth.”
Concerned about increasing childhood obesity and growing rates of diabetes, some pediatricians want to change how babies eat.
Greene is encouraging parents to abandon white rice cereal in favor of more nutritious brown rice cereals or even a homemade brown rice mash or vegetable purée. “They won’t mind,” says Greene, who launched a “WhiteOut” campaign last week. “They’ll thank you for it.”
He is concerned that babies are getting hooked on the taste of highly processed white rice and flour, which could set them up for a lifetime of bad habits, such as a weakness for cakes and cookies.
White rice — after processing strips away fiber, vitamins and other nutrients — is a “nutritional disaster,” Ludwig says. It’s “as processed as anything in the food supply” and “the nutritional equivalent of table sugar.”
White rice and flour turn to sugar in the body “almost instantly,” Ludwig says, raising blood sugar and insulin levels “while providing virtually no other nutrients.”
The USA Rice Federation, which represents the rice industry, counters that white rice has no fat, cholesterol, sodium or gluten, a protein in wheat to which some people are allergic, says spokeswoman Stacy Fitzgerald-Redd. Even fussy babies can tolerate white rice without an upset stomach.
It’s “as nutritionally sound as any other carbohydrate,” she says.
Babies certainly eat a lot of it.
It’s “the No. 1 source of calories for kids in the first year of life, other than breast milk or formula,” says Greene, noting that, “by 18 months, most children get no whole grains each day.”
Greene says parents don’t have to abandon instant rice cereal, which offers the advantage of added iron, an important nutrient for babies, especially those who are breast-fed. Most cereal manufacturers already offer a brown rice alternative.
Though offering whole grains seems like a smart idea, nutrition expert Walter Willett says white rice is far from the only culprit in childhood obesity. Most kids also drink too many sugary beverages, such as fruit juice, punch and soda, says Willett, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and co-author of the June diabetes study.
“I don’t want people to feel guilty,” Greene says. “I have four kids and I figured this out just recently. But it’s time to change.”