The Healthiest Kid in the Neighborhood

Ten Ways to Get Your Family on the Right Nutritional Track


By William Sears, MD, FRCP

By Robert W. Sears, MD

By Martha Sears, RN

By James Sears, MD

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America’s foremost childcare experts present a practical, appetizing, easy-to-follow eating plan for shaping children’s tastes and metabolisms toward optimal health.


Copyright © 2006 by William Sears, M.D., Martha Sears, R.N., Robert Sears, M.D., and James Sears, M.D.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

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First eBook Edition: September 2006

ISBN: 978-0-316-05567-3

Sears Parenting Library

The Baby Sleep Book

The Premature Baby Book

The Pregnancy Book

The Baby Book

The Birth Book

The Attachment Parenting Book

The Breastfeeding Book

The Fussy Baby Book

The Discipline Book

The Family Nutrition Book

The A.D.D. Book

The Successful Child FAQ Books

The First Three Months

How to Get Your Baby to Sleep

Keeping Your Baby Healthy

Feeding the Picky Eater

Sears Children's Library

Baby on the Way

What Baby Needs

Eat Healthy, Feel Great

You Can Go to the Potty


Getting on the Right Track: Ten Nutritional Changes to Get Your Child on a Healthy Path

Parents, we have a nutrition crisis in America. Children are feeding their growing bodies alarming amounts of junk food. Parents worry about the consequences. As pediatricians, we see the consequences. Junk-food diets are associated with serious health problems in childhood and in future adulthood. Consider these scary statistics:

•  Diabetes is on the rise. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the government-funded research agency that tracks health trends in America, warns that unless American families change the way they eat and live, one in three children born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes. This is a sobering statistic. Diabetes can lead to heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney failure, foot and leg amputations, pregnancy complications, and death related to influenza and pneumonia. Pediatricians predict that for the first time in American history, children will have a shorter, sicker lifespan than their parents have.

•  American kids are getting sicker. When I (Bill) was in pediatric training, conditions such as Type 2 diabetes (high blood sugar) and cardiovascular disease (high cholesterol and high blood pressure) were known as adult-onset diseases. Since these conditions rarely appeared in children, pediatricians didn't need to learn much about them. Not so anymore. Doctors are seeing so many children with high blood sugar and high cholesterol levels that we no longer think of these conditions as beginning in adulthood. Even during the writing of this book, we saw kids with these "highs" along with other early signs of cardiovascular disease. In fact, in autopsy studies of children, fatty deposits have been found in the coronary arteries of children as young as one year of age. We know that these diseases are linked to certain ways of eating. It is indeed serious to see the effects appearing so early in life.

•  American kids are becoming sadder. The number of children on mood-modifying drugs to perk them up or calm them down has increased drastically over the last ten years. Approximately 10 percent of school-age kids are now labeled as having A.D.D. (Attention Deficit Disorder) or various other types of learning disabilities. The reasons for this are many. As you will learn in chapter 7, Eleven Ways to Feed Growing Brains, the brain is the organ most affected (for better or worse) by nutrition.

•  American kids are getting fatter. The surgeon general of the United States now ranks excess weight and obesity as the number-one public-health concern. The disease consequences of obesity are greater than those of any infectious disease. Obesity-related illnesses kill almost as many Americans each year as tobacco. You warn your children about the health risks of smoking. Being overweight carries similar risks.

What's the cause of this health crisis? Food, glorious food! In America, food — or the abuse of it — is making kids sick. Over and over again, research reveals that poor eating habits put adults at risk for serious illnesses including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, some cancers (including breast and colon cancer), and the "-itis" illnesses (e.g., arthritis, colitis, bronchitis). Eating habits are formed in childhood. Children who eat healthily are much more likely to be healthy, both as children and as adults. Kids who live on junk food are more likely to get sick and to become victims of these diseases in adulthood—if not sooner. It's as straightforward as that.

Hippocrates once said, "Let food be your medicine." The ancient physician was right. Good food keeps people well. We eat food for three reasons: for growth, for pleasure, and for "medicine." While most processed foods get a passing grade for being pleasurable and providing energy, most make a failing grade for their medicinal or health-promoting properties. In a nutshell, that's the most important difference between real, wholesome fresh foods and processed ones.

Our bodies function best when they are well nourished. We want you to value food not only for the pleasure it brings and the energy it provides but also for its ability to keep your body functioning at its very best. That's the theme of this book — how choosing the right foods can make your children (and you) healthier. The sicker, sadder, fatter picture described above is not inevitable. By following the advice and making the changes we suggest in this book, your children can be the healthiest kids in the neighborhood.


During my thirty-five years as a pediatrician, I've learned a lot by studying my patients. I think of my office as a sort of research laboratory, where I can look for connections between what children and parents do in the early years of life and what happens when these kids become teens and adults.

I conducted studies in my "laboratory." My first "study group" was composed of the children of parents (usually moms) whom I dubbed "pure moms" — those who never let a morsel of junk food pollute their children's growing bodies. In my less-informed years, I referred to them as "health-food nuts." As I followed these "pure children" of "pure parents" through childhood and adolescence, I noticed that these kids were not sick as often as most children. And when they did get sick, their illnesses were less severe, and they recovered sooner. These "pure" kids had fewer of the usual childhood illnesses such as ear infections, colds, and intestinal upsets, and usually they recovered from these illnesses with little or no help from me.

I also noticed that these kids had healthier brains. When they entered school, they were less likely to be tagged with such labels as A.D.D. or learning disabled. Rarely was I called upon to prescribe behavior- or mood-altering medications for these "pure" kids. I eventually grew convinced that these kids were biochemically better off because of what their parents fed them. What was going on inside these kids at the cellular or even molecular level? I wondered. (On page 29 you will learn how "pure" kids are biochemically and molecularly better off.) Initially I dismissed as just a curiosity the connection between food and health that I observed. And then the subject became personal.

Cancer caused me to care. Even though I was beginning to see the connection between food and mental and physical health, I was not yet motivated to change my own eating habits, much less to write a book about nutrition and health. It wasn't something I could get excited about, because I hadn't yet experienced the food-health connection personally. Then in April of 1997 I was diagnosed with colon cancer — and not just early-stage colon cancer, but the kind serious enough to threaten my life. I had surgery and underwent both chemotherapy and radiation. It was a very difficult time for me, for Martha, and for our entire family, and I vowed that I would do whatever it took to help my body fight the cancer and to prevent its return.

As I learned more about colon cancer, I had to acknowledge that my lifestyle had put me at risk. A lack of physical activity and a low-fiber, high-fat diet are known risk factors for colon cancer, along with obesity, alcohol consumption, and tobacco use. I didn't smoke or abuse alcohol, nor was I much overweight, but I had to confess that my eating habits were far from ideal, and they had been that way since my childhood. While fighting the cancer, I made big changes in my lifestyle to prevent its return. If I hadn't made the changes described in this chapter, I might not have lived to write this book.

Nutrition became my mission. Getting parents and children excited about good nutrition has become part of my mission in life. After my battle with cancer, I wanted every family in our pediatric practice to be a "pure family." Soon, every well-child visit included a minicourse, or even a loving lecture, on what parents should feed their kids. I shared what I had learned about healthy eating with all my patients, because my studies had shown me that the same nutritional program that cures old colons grows healthy kids.

In this book, we will describe ten nutritional changes that every family can make — must make — to help their kids live longer and healthier lives. What a difference I've noticed in myself, my family, and our young patients when these changes are made!

How to Get Started

When I began my own eating program, I had two powerful motivators: love and fear. I loved my family and feared the return of cancer. Certainly these motivating factors were enough to get me started. Many people start diets, plans, and programs with equally strong motivation. Yet it's hard to change old habits, even when there are good reasons for doing so. What made it possible for me to stick with the program? Here are a few tips.

Become obsessed! In order to change your body or your child's body, you first have to change your mind. Early on in my new eating program, I realized that change doesn't come easily. During the first few months, I felt a strong urge to let go and settle back into my old lifestyle. Yet my motivation to change was also strong. The result of this conflict? I became obsessed with good eating. I knew that the first few months of a lifestyle change are the hardest part for most people, because the new way of doing things has not yet become part of how they live. To counteract that all-too-human resistance to change, I put all of my energy into being fanatical about health and well-being. For a while, nutrition books and scientific journals were all over the house, and not one, but two juicers took up space on our kitchen counter. I feel that this initial obsession was like my way of paying my dues before being admitted into the lifelong club of healthier living.

Make a project out of your problem. As I began my "I don't want to get cancer again" program, I became interested in the specific health strategies of people who have survived major illnesses or tragedies and gone on to live healthier and richer lives. What I learned was that survivors make a project out of their problem. They study their problem. They find the best resources available and learn from them. As much as possible, they take control of their problem. Together with their health-care providers, they participate in decisions about what changes they need to make. So this is what I did, too — I turned my problem into a project, into an opportunity to learn and to change. You can do this as well. Take your concerns about your family's health and your children's future and turn them into a serious project. This will help you make healthy changes in your family's eating habits and lifestyle.

Show me the science. I realized I had to get smart before I could get healthy. I'd be more likely to stick with a nutritional change if I knew the reason for making it. So I became a student again. I read hundreds of books and articles on health and nutrition, and I found that many fascinating nutrition studies lie buried in obscure medical journals that are read only by university professors. The results of these studies get little public attention, and if they do, they are often contradicted by other results, leaving the public wondering what to believe. I quickly realized that I had to separate fact from fiction and make judgments about which studies were credible and important and which ones were less conclusive or perhaps even wrong. As a doctor, I am trained to think critically and to base the advice I give my patients on strong scientific evidence. So "show me the science" became my motto — for my own lifestyle changes and for the eating plan suggested in this book. Because few parents are able to be so discerning about nutritional science, throughout this book I've done it for you. My life depended on accurate nutritional information, and so does the health of your children.

In search of the perfect diet, I quickly learned that few of the popular diet books are based on sound science, and most are nothing more than quick-fix fads whose popularity fades when the next diet fad comes along. I wanted a diet that stood up to scientific scrutiny and that I could follow for the rest of my life. Besides, weight loss was not my main goal; lean and healthy was my goal. It made no sense to be at an optimal weight without enjoying optimal health. And eating is supposed to be pleasurable. Most diets fail because they take much of the pleasure out of eating. Who wants to spend so much time counting carbs, fat grams, or calories only to wind up feeling deprived? I wanted an eating plan that was healthy and that I would enjoy following.

Better Ways to Eat

My quest for scientific information on healthy eating styles led me to population studies — research on correlations between the eating habits and the health of certain groups of people who share a culture and an eating style. I believe that population studies are some of the most meaningful, because they study a lot of people over a long time, not just for months or years, but for decades.

So what was my new diet going to be? When I began my quest for the perfect way to eat, the low-carb craze was regaining popularity. But I knew from population studies that Asians eat a relatively high-carbohydrate diet — and they are some of the leanest and healthiest people in the world. Unlike in the typical American diet, however, with its heavy emphasis on processed, packaged foods, the carbs in the Asian diet come mainly from fresh vegetables, grains, and legumes. It seemed that low-carb wasn't the answer. I needed a right-carb diet.

What about a low-fat diet? Population studies show also that some of the healthiest people in the world and with the lowest incidence of heart disease, such as Eskimos and people of the Mediterranean, don't eat a low-fat diet. The fatty foods they eat are high in certain kinds of fatty acids, especially the group known as omega-3 fats. Again, I found myself rejecting the concept of a low-fat diet in favor of a right-fat diet.

Besides a right-carb and right-fat diet, what about protein? I discovered a curious quirk about protein. It's not just for muscle builders. Of all the nutrients, protein satisfies the appetite most quickly and with less than half the calories of fat. And it's very hard to overeat protein. My healthy diet would have to include enough protein.

My eating habits have rubbed off on my kids. Dr. Bob shares his experience:

My wife and I were sitting in our living room the night before Easter, filling our kids' baskets with candy and chocolate in every form possible. It suddenly dawned on me: I'm going to eat about ten pieces of chocolate tonight and several pieces each day for the next two months (the kids never seemed to notice that their Easter treats disappeared faster than they were eating them). It shocked me. I was already getting a stomachache from just the thought of it. Then I wondered, Do I have the willpower to just say no for this Easter season and to go off all candy and sugary food? I went for it, and now I don't even put sugar in my coffee anymore. The only vice I allow myself is homemade desserts. Two years later, I'm 15 pounds lighter, feel great, and am still candy free. It's amazing how much my mom's healthy eating rules have influenced me. All those years as a kid without junk food in the house seem to have paid off.

The population studies I read, along with other scientific information about specific kinds of fats and carbohydrates, helped me understand what nutrients my body needed to stay healthy. But we don't buy, prepare, and eat nutrients; we eat food. It was up to me to turn the information about good nutrition into a healthy eating plan. This was where the fun began. As I sought out the nutrition that would help me stay healthy, I gained a new appreciation for all kinds of good food — fresh fish, brightly colored fruits and vegetables, and a variety of whole grains. I changed the way I ate by seeking out the foods that contained the important nutrients my body needed. Over the years, as I have shared this eating style with family members, friends, and patients, it has evolved into the eating action plan that we outline in the chapters of this book.


Our eating plan for healthy kids and parents is summarized in the ten changes listed below — changes we believe every family must make in order to raise healthy kids. We will show you more science about this eating plan in the chapters ahead. (Look for the boxes headed "Science Says.") For now, here's a summary of what we have learned about the healthiest way to eat. Making these changes will keep your child from becoming one of those unhealthy statistics you read about at the beginning of this chapter.

1. Shape young tastes early.

2. Feed your family the right carbs.

3. Feed your family the right fats.

4. Feed your children grow foods.

5. Feed your family fill-up foods.

6. Begin the day with a brainy breakfast.

7. Raise a grazer.

8. Feed your child's immune system.

9. Raise a lean family. Get active as a family.

10. Teach your children to be wise supermarket shoppers.

Is this just another diet plan? Yes and no. Yes, if you understand the word "diet" in its original meaning in Greek: a way of living. No, if your concept of diet implies deprivation. A diet that is mostly "don't eat this" and "don't eat that" will be hard to start and even harder to stick to. In the chapters ahead, we will accentuate the positive — all the good foods your family will enjoy with this new way of eating.


Within a few months of following this new eating program, I (Bill) noticed big changes, literally from head to toe. I had more energy, craved healthy foods, shunned processed stuff, and generally felt better than I had in my whole life. Because I had personally experienced the connection between eating well and feeling well, I eventually got our whole family, including sons Jim and Bob and their families, to a whole new level of awareness. Jim and Bob began to experience the same wonderful results, so I then had two partners who were also passionate. Now all three of us share our program with the families in our medical practice. Here are the changes that parents report in their kids:

Healthier food cravings. When I was six weeks into my new eating program, I noticed that I was beginning to crave the things that made me feel better. I still had a sweet tooth, yet I preferred to satisfy it with the good carbs in fresh fruit, with the occasional bit of dark chocolate, rather than with the junk carbs in cakes and cookies. I craved seafood and veggies and ate only whole-grain bread and pasta. In the early stages of my new eating plan, my mind had to dictate to my body what to eat. But after my body began to get the nutrients it needed, it started to ask for more of the good stuff. There is evidence that food cravings have a biochemical basis, and, indeed, something about my biology had changed. After several months of eating healthier food, my body started reminding me, "Gotta have it!" It kept me on the right track.

The same thing happens now in our practice. Parents frequently report, "Now he seems to want to eat healthy food like vegetables. Before, I couldn't get them into him." Their children started asking for seafood and veggies and ate less bread and pasta. As we mentioned above, this makes biochemical sense. This is called metabolic programming, which you will learn about later.


At first holidays were a challenge for me. All the traditions about festive food tempted me to revert back to my precancer diet. But I quickly realized I had developed what I call AFI — artificial food intolerance. A glass of corn syrup-sweetened eggnog left me feeling yucky. The "brain" in my gut seemed to be telling me, "Don't go there. Don't drink that stuff again." That "stuff" never used to bother me, but it should have. The list of ingredients on the eggnog carton read like a chemical formula!

Our eating program will change your kids' cravings! Those four magic words will make this style of eating work for your family. Many makeover programs don't go far enough to bring about lasting change in a person's basic biochemistry. The great thing about our program is that once you get to a certain point, your body craves whatever it needs in order to stay there. You'll find that even if you crave a cookie, you want a healthier cookie — and just one! (You can read more about changing children's cravings on page 40.)

More stamina. Parents in our practice tell us that they notice this change in their children, and so did I in myself. Three months into my program, I noticed that my resting heart rate and breathing rate were lower. My body was now acting like an engine that was tuned up and energy efficient. We took up swing dancing as a couple hobby. Martha called me "Zip."

Better brains. I experienced a lot of mental perks from the program as well. I noticed fewer mood swings, and I managed my feelings better. I was more consistently upbeat and handled stress better. My brain was more focused. What's good for the body is also good for the brain. When children eat the right foods, their parents and teachers notice an improvement in their school performance. These children are able to focus better, and they have fewer behavioral and attention problems at school and at home. In fact, in children, the behavioral effects of better nutrition are even more noticeable than the physical changes.

More acute senses. At a baseball game one evening, I realized I had forgotten my glasses, which I needed in order to see the out-field scoreboard. But when I looked up, I was surprised that for the first time in ten years, I could read the scoreboard without glasses. Also, my sense of smell became more acute and discerning. Smelly substances in the air bothered me more. I began to go out of my way to avoid driving behind buses and trucks with their exhaust fumes.

Healthier skin and gums. For years in our pediatric practice I have noticed that infants and children with healthy diets have healthier skin. Children who eat more fruits, vegetables, and omega-3 fats have skin that is less dry and flaky, especially during the low-humidity winter months. Cuts and scratches heal faster, and eczema is rarely a problem. Also, for many years I had had severe gum problems (gingivitis). After I'd been on my new eating plan for several months, my dentist noticed a difference and remarked, "Your gums look great! What are you doing differently?"

Ah, that good gut feeling! The most striking change I noticed was a good feeling inside my gut. Our young patients experience the same effect when, as they report, they stop eating foods that give them "yuck tummy." That new good feeling helped motivate me to stick with my eating program. A voice deep in my gastrointestinal system cried, "No!" whenever I contemplated eating an unhealthful food.

That voice really does come from the gut. The lining and muscular wall of the intestines are richly supplied with nerves. In fact, there are more nerves in the intestines than in the spinal cord. These nerves send messages to your child's brain about whether his gut feels good or bad after he eats a certain food. The next time he thinks about eating that same food, those nerve pathways and stored memories light up, and both the head brain and the gut brain remember whether it is a healthy food. At least it's supposed to work that way. After years of unhealthy eating, the gut brain shuts down because it hasn't been listened to.

Another benefit of our program is that your stomach will never feel too full or too empty. This is because you'll eat often, in small amounts — a pattern we call "grazing." You won't feel hungry, so you won't feel deprived, and your gut brain will never feel uncomfortably full either.

Two "pure parents" recently shared this story with me (Dr. Bill) during their child's five-year checkup: "When he drinks one of those junk drinks at school, the ones with a lot of coloring, he turns into somebody we don't even know." I asked the child how these drinks made him feel. He replied, "My tummy feels awful." After congratulating the family on shaping their child's tastes in the right direction, I explained to them what was going on inside their child's body. His body, especially his central nervous system, was so used to the metabolic effects of real food that when the artificial stuff entered his system, some internal sensor said, in effect, "Whoa! This stuff doesn't belong here." The huge network of nerves that line the gut had been so programmed to experience the effects of real foods that they rebelled at the gut feel of junk food. These parents not only shaped their child's taste, they programmed his "gut feelings."

Upgrading to finer dining. Within six months of changing your family's way of eating, your children will become picky eaters — in a good way. They will be more discriminating about the quality of the food they put into their gut. Fruits and vegetables will need to be fresh or frozen, not canned. They may stay away from processed foods, which can be far too salty for their sensitive taste buds. Sauces will need to be lighter and less greasy. Seafood will have to be baked or grilled, not fried. Salad greens will have to be green, not pale. Bread will have to be whole grain, not white. Their bodies will demand quality food. This will be the beginning, not the end, of fine dining.


On Sale
Sep 6, 2006
Page Count
352 pages
Little Brown Spark

William Sears, MD, FRCP

About the Author

William Sears, M.D., and Martha Sears, R.N. are the parents of eight children, eleven grandchildren, and two great grandchildren, and the authors of 45 best-selling books on parenting and family health.  They are the pediatric experts on whom American parents increasingly rely for advice and information on all aspects of pregnancy, birth, child care, and family nutrition.  Dr. Bill received his pediatric training at Harvard Medical School’s Boston Children’s Hospital and Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, the largest children’s hospital in the world, where he was Associate Ward Chief of the pediatric intensive care unit.  He was also the Chief of Pediatrics at Toronto Western Hospital, a teaching hospital of the University of Toronto.   He has practiced pediatrics for more than fifty years, and is the founder of and the Dr. Sears Wellness Institute, which has certified over 12,000 health coaches around the world.  He has served as voluntary professor at the University of Toronto, the University of South Carolina, the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, and the University of California, Irvine.  Dr. Sears’ contribution to family health was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 2012.  Martha Sears is a registered nurse, former certified lactation consultant of IBCLC, and childbirth educator.  
Robert W. Sears, MD, is also a pediatrician in private practice in  Southern California. Dr. Bob received his medical degree from Georgetown University and completed his pediatric training at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. He has coauthored six books in the Sears Parenting Library, including The Baby Book and The Allergy Book. He is also the author of The Vaccine Book and The Autism Book. He frequently speaks to parents and doctors about children’s health. He has three grown sons, two grandchildren, and lives with his wife in Dana Point, California.
James Sears, MD, is a pediatrician and former cohost of the popular TV show The Doctors, a spin-off of Dr. Phil. Dr. Jim received his medical degree from Saint Louis University School of Medicine and did his pediatric residency at Tod Children’s Hospital in Youngstown, Ohio. He frequently speaks to parenting groups around the country about children’s nutrition. He is the proud father of two children and resides and practices in Southern California.


Learn more about this author

Robert W. Sears, MD

About the Author

Robert W. Sears, MD, a practicing pediatrician, is the author of The Vaccine Book and The Autism Book, and co-author of The Baby Book and The Portable Pediatrician.

Learn more about this author