03 Nov

Book Review: Complementary Feeding: Nutrition, Culture and Politics, by Gabrielle Palmer

Palmer’s ‘The Politics of Breastfeeding’ was a hugely influential book for me as a breastfeeding counsellor, opening up a far wider picture of the subject than I had ever seen before. ‘Complementary Feeding’ has done the same thing with the subject of introducing solid food and feeding infants and young children on food other than milk.

The title itself raises the huge issue of what we call this process, which many people refer to as ‘weaning.’ As Palmer explains, this is in fact the term for cutting down on milk, which may well be a consequence of introducing solid food, but is not, in fact, the same thing. This confusion of the terms leads to parents and healthcare professionals having a drive to reduce a baby’s milk intake long before he or she is developmentally ready to do so.

I particularly enjoyed the book because it reinforced my own approach to talking about the introduction of solids, with the focus being on education and exploration rather than on filling the child up with non-nutritious cereal-based or pureed foods to the exclusion of milk. She even pinched my throwaway remark that food is a great, cheap educational toy that comes in lots of lovely colours and textures, and can be played with at the table while the rest of the family gets on with their meal!

The book starts with an overview of the inequalities in global food entitlement, a subject I had not considered before, but which became highly topical this morning when research comparing the average English diet with diets in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, suggested that if they all stopped eating deep fried Mars Bars, they would, amazingly, live longer. Of course, the research does not say this at all, but identifies food entitlement inequalities in less affluent populations in the UK, but that does not make such a good headline.

It goes on to look in greater detail at the evolution of the human diet, and cultural variations, as well as innate factors such as the drive for nutrient-dense food (hence the preference for salty, sweet and fatty foods), and the inbuilt appetite control mechanism that allows baby-led complementary feeding to become the natural progression from baby-led breastfeeding. I learned some interesting facts about human consumption of animal milk (most humans do not produce the necessary enzyme to digest milk, beyond infancy, but northern Europeans have evolved to do so), and was interested, but (I admit) slightly revolted by the discussion of feeding insects and molluscs to small children. My cultural prejudices are pretty well embedded!

Finally, Palmer suggests some processes for change, including an examination of the language used around feeding children; and compares the effects of wartime rationing with a frankly disempowering US initiative to provide poorer families with food but not with information about nutrition or food preparation.

For me, one of the most important conclusions of the book is that malnutrition exists in affluent cultures as well as in the developing world, because parents are driven to cut back on milk and give commercial or home-made processed foods to their children, often before the children are ready to move on to a solid diet. Also, that spinach is not particularly good for children; as Palmer writes, how wise they are to refuse it!

This book was a free copy kindly sent by Pinter & Martin publishers, and can be obtained from them here.

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