Tag Archives: Nutrition

Review: ‘Feed Yourself, Feed Your Family’ by La Leche League International; London: Pinter & Martin, 262 pages, RRP £20

11 Sep

Book Review, Feed Yourself, Feed Your Family, La Leche League International, Pinter and Martin

This is a very pretty book: lots of pink and bright colours with many full-page photos of delicious-looking food and healthy happy families of various ethnicities.

The book is divided into five sections of about 50 pages each: pregnancy, the first few months post-partum, the new normality between 6 weeks and 6 months, starting solids, and family life with a toddler. It is a La Leche League book, which means it obviously takes into consideration the nutritional requirements of breastfeeding mothers, and is pro-breastfeeding throughout. Its premise seems to be that by breastfeeding your child you are giving them the best possible start in life, so once they start solids it makes sense to continue this by providing healthy meals and snacks, and demonstrating a healthy attitude towards food.

While the book might seem like an indulgent glossy-paged tome which only first-time mothers can find enough time to read, it does not forget the challenges of returning to work by including helpful tips on how to manage pumping and sorting out your lunch at the same time. La Leche League is a mother-to-mother organisation, so perhaps that is the reason the book solely seems to address mothers, and I suppose women grow babies and breastfeed them, so the final responsibility for their own nutrition during pregnancy and exclusive breastfeeding rests with mothers. Nevertheless, the title seems to imply that feeding one’s family is exclusively a mother’s domain, even after exclusive breastfeeding.

It felt really strange to read the first chapter as it seemed to assume mothers will be absolutely ravenous during early pregnancy: there are frequent references to wanting to eat all the snacks at the shop till, buying energy bars while out etc., which is of course what some women experience I, on the other hand, spent the first half of my pregnancy avoiding food to the extent that I was hospitalised three times with Hyperemesis, and four years on, the idea of feeling hungry while being pregnant is still incomprehensible to me. But if that is not your experience (which I hope is the case!), this chapter contains useful advice when you are bombarded with ‘don’t-eat-this-eat this-instead’ advice from all angles and trying to stick to a sensible diet.

The chapters are full of common-sense reminders: rather than presenting parents with fixed guidelines regarding their child’s nutritional requirements, the book takes a relaxed approach. From common worries like when to wean, to how much and what babies are supposed to eat, the book encourages its readers to look at the whole picture, so wean when it’s right for you and your baby, “don’t fret about fat”, and take the emotion out of eating. At the same time, it’s full of informative facts: did you know the size of a mother’s heart increases by 12% during pregnancy?! This is just one way in which we gain weight during pregnancy, so don’t worry too much if you’ve been putting on the pounds.

There is also a table which tells you why you need certain nutrients and how to eat the recommended amounts. This looks a bit daunting at first, but it’s reassuring to have this information in a handy format from a reliable source (all recommendations in the book are based on guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and others), just in case you ever want to check if you’re meal-planning along the right lines.

At the same time as providing reliable science-based advice, the book is also written in a friendly, warm, approachable tone, and seems solidly grounded in real life: there is an emphasis on easy-to-prepare meals which take into account the pressure under which mothers are pretty much constantly, and many recipes are fine to cook in the slow cooker, make ahead or freeze. In addition, the book also contains plenty of all-round advice, e.g. safety considerations when looking after your small baby while cooking, how to include older siblings in cooking, which food to take for quick energy bursts when you go out, how to get exercise when you have little baby-free time etc.

This generally friendly and easygoing approach extends to the recipes. There are those which have the potential to become family staples (such as the versatile La Leche League Baking Mix which can be turned into muffins, pancakes, corn bread and waffles!) as well as recipes for each season (stir fries, quesadillas, soups, various pot pies). The recipes encompass a range of cuisines, including curry, different kinds of salsa, pasta accompaniments, even a split pea soup for the Germans among us. I would say that there is something in there for everyone, vegetarians (Quinoa Pilaff, anyone?) and meat fiends (e.g. Pork Tenderloin and various chicken and fish recipes), and easy treats have their place too (One Bowl Chocolate Cake, clearly thinking of frazzled and tired parents here).

I haven’t tried many recipes as a result of being thoroughly stuck in a food rut at the moment in combination with lots of uni work, so this book arrived just in time. However, the recipes I did try out, such as the Homemade Macaroni Cheese, Celeriac and Potato Puree, the aforementioned Chocolate Cake, and Apple-Pear Sauce, were very easy to follow. Most of the recipes seem utterly simple, and many of them are what I would call modular: you can substitute your own choice of vegetables if you want to mix things up and the recipes function as suggestions as to how you could prepare them to make them more interesting.

What I really like about this book is its no-nonsense ‘don’t panic’ message. There are so many books out there urging mothers to stick to routines and strict guidelines, from how much weight they should gain during pregnancy to how much their children should eat at what age, and when they absolutely must wean. Feed yourself, feed your family reiterates throughout the five chapters that as long as you employ common sense and practise moderation, it’ll all be fine. It is a very comprehensive book, regarding both the information and the recipes: if you have this book, you won’t need another nutrition-related or recipe book.

Book Review! Gabrielle Palmer: Complementary Feeding: Nutrition, Culture and Politics, London: Pinter & Martin (128p., £9.99)

2 Mar


Having helped established Baby Milk Action, co-directed the International Breastfeeding: Practice and Policy Course at the Institute of Child Health in London, and served as HIV and Infant Feeding Officer for UNICEF New York, Gabrielle Palmer can speak with authority on infant feeding. At just 128 pages (including appendices and references) her 2011 book is much briefer than the impressive Politics of Breastfeeding (Pinter & Martin 2009; originally Pandora Press 1988), but no less thought-provoking.

The book is divided into three sections. Part one, ‘The Big Picture’, covers aspects such as entitlement to food and water, as well as an explanation of what Palmer means by ‘Complementary Feeding’: she decided against the use of the word ‘weaning’ as this suggests that food replaces breastmilk in the baby’s diet – ideally, babies continue to receive breastmilk while trying out their first foods.

Part two, ‘A Closer Look’, gives an overview of the industrialisation of food systems: how brand power exploits consumers’ trust, and de-skilling and poor access to healthy food leads to dependency on processed products.

Part three, ‘Processes For Change’, discusses the importance of clearly-worded legislation (‘fresh’ and ‘natural’ can be used in surprising ways) and the benefits of eating primarily locally grown food. This section also contains a brief overview of Great Britain’s food distribution policy during the Second World War which led to remarkable improvements in mother and child health. The success of this policy is contrasted with the US Special Supplemental Programme for Women and Children (WIC) which despite preventing undernutrition in economically disadvantaged people, Palmer states, is likely to have had a negative effect on breastfeeding rates and contributed to obesity problems in the US.

Particularly fascinating was how Palmer neatly linked a discussion of the complexities of Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Foods in developing countries with children’s malnutrition in richer countries due to marketing and misinformation: in developing countries babies starve when breastmilk is replaced with substitutes which cannot be prepared safely because of inadequate water supply or watering down; in developed countries babies are overfed when breastmilk or formula are replaced too early with baby rice or mashed food.

Palmer repeatedly highlights the fact that healthy and adequate nutrition is not simply achieved through the provision of food: complementary feeding is also a learning process for the child during which she becomes part of the community, forms taste preferences and learns appetite control. An astonishing fact mentioned by Palmer is that our oxytocin levels increase and the digestion and metabolism of food becomes more efficient when we eat together with others.

Palmer states several times throughout the book that her aim is not to be prescriptive, but rather to stimulate thought. In this she is certainly successful. At no point does she admonish parents for their feeding choices; instead she places blame for both starvation and obesity on political decisions and companies’ unethical behaviour. The tone of the book is factual: it is for information purposes rather than an attempt to make mothers feel good about their choices, thus I would imagine that, for example, puree-feeding mothers would be uncomfortable with hard-hitting facts such as “[p]ureed, semi-liquid and diluted foods are unnecessary, because if a child cannot chew, he is not ready to have anything other than breastmilk (or the best possible breastmilk substitute)” (49).

I was pleased to see Palmer repeatedly mention the benefits of delayed cord-clamping as this is a rare practice whose benefits do not seem to be widely known outside ‘earth mother’ circles. The volume of blood a baby receives when the cord is cut only once it has stopped pulsating provides a vital amount of iron. While babies are born with sufficient iron stores to see them through ca. the first six months of their life and breastmilk provides a large percentage of a baby’s micronutrient requirements throughout the first and even second year of her life, delayed cord clamping makes a significant difference to the baby’s long-term iron stores: Palmer notes that 100ml of blood from a newborn is the equivalent of taking over a litre from an adult.

All of Palmer’s statements are backed up by a solid grounding in research, details of which can be found at the end of the book, together with an index. This makes Complementary Feeding a good choice for readers who have a special interest in nutrition and its politics.

One aspect of the book about which I’m not quite sure is its structure. First, the purpose of the appendices is not clear: they are written in the same style as the main part of the book and contain information which simply could have been included in the chapter to which they pertain. Similarly, the inclusion of both an introduction and a foreword is confusing, especially as they are separated by the acknowledgements.

Second, although Palmer’s arguments in general are very clear, I find that in some instances the chapters’ internal structure is not strict enough for my taste which makes it difficult to understand the particular chapter’s aim (e.g. why are the benefits of fermented milk products included in the chapter on cereal?). I suppose the book’s great strength, the wealth of information it contains, means that it is sometimes difficult to separate interlinked facts in favour of structure.

I can’t help the impression that most of the book consists of the paper which Palmer wrote for the International Baby Food Action Network mentioned in the introduction with added black and white photos of eating children to make it marketable to the average reader. This is not necessarily a bad thing though, as thanks to Pinter and Martin we can have access to this information too. It is worth having a look at the other books by this publisher, by the way, as they include influential works by Grantley Dick-Read, Sheila Kitzinger and Ina May Gaskin.

All in all, then, in my opinion Complementary Feeding is a great book: Palmer’s accessible style, as well as the short chapters and lists of key points at the end of each of the three sections (both presumably leftovers of the book’s original purpose), make it easy to read in short bursts while Palmer’s arguments and the way in which she questions public policy makes it particularly satisfying.

Although the style of Complementary Feeding is very matter-of-fact, Palmer occasionally uses humour in a way which reminds us that, despite being fact-heavy, this is not a book about dry biological processes, but about children – small vulnerable people with funny quirks who need our protection to let them develop into strong adults with healthy attitudes and access to good food.

Disclaimer: I was sent this book for free by the publisher as part of their reviewers’ book club. (But I probably would have bought it myself at some point anyway as I enjoyed The Politics of Breastfeeding!)