Roots of Wellness: Nurturing Holistic Health Starting in Childhood

Roots of Wellness: Nurturing Holistic Health Starting in Childhood

Dr. Manasa Mantravadi is a South Asian American board-certified pediatrician and medical expert in evidence-based family mealtime. She specializes in the prevention and treatment of diseases through lifestyle changes around the family dining table.

Leslie: I know you have a medical background with a lot of great insight into health and wellness. So, tell us about your background. How did you end up where you are today? Tell us what your journey was.

Manasa: So I'm actually a pediatrician by training. That journey started when I was five because I loved kids, and it turns out that I still love children in the same manner. So that my journey really started in having this love of children. I was also really into science growing up and so where science meets children ends up being pediatrics. That's how I kind of ended up in pediatrics, and I'm a pediatric hospitalist. So I take care of children who are otherwise ill enough to be admitted to the hospital. And I was just kind of going about my life, and then I had a text message from a group of girlfriends that I did training with. We were all pediatric residents together in Chicago at Northwestern. One of them, who was a neonatologist and somebody that we both knew and introduced us to, sent a text message and said, “Have you guys seen the new American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on plastic? What are you gonna do with all of your non-stick dishes?” And it kind of just set forth this series of events in which I quickly understood that science was telling us, “Hey, plastic isn’t so great for your children, use glass or stainless steel”. But when you go into all these big box stores, all of the baby bottles, dishes, and cups– everything's plastic. 

Stainless steel is something that was very normal to me– as an Indian immigrant– because it’s the material of choice in India. And so, I realized that there was a big medical scientific recommendation talking about hormone disruptors and kinds of carcinogens (or cancer-causing toxins) in plastic, and to use a different material. But then, the industry didn't really have the solution to help all those parents follow those pediatric guidelines. So that's when I basically launched a company called Ahimsa. It is a Sanskrit word, meaning “avoiding harm”. Much of Western medicine is treating disease, and really, through this journey, I’ve been able to impact a lot of kids when it comes to healthy nutrition. That's kind of my new journey. 

Leslie: I love that you as a medical trained doctor have moved in that direction, because you're right, a lot of traditional medicine doesn't go there. So as a trained pediatrician, what sorts of health and wellness general guidelines would you recommend? Tell us about that part of your background.

Manasa: I've chosen to really laser focus on nutrition because food as medicine is much better than actual medicine. And that is because the things that we do early in life affect children's eating, sleeping,  and behavioral habits later on. So I really focus mostly on nutrition, partly because it's just part of my culture– I'm Indian– we had home cooked food for every single meal. So I didn't know anything different. When I became a parent, because it was such a part of my culture, I just cooked everything from scratch because that's what I watched my mom do. I focus on mindful mealtime, really setting the stage for these early healthy eating habits from the start. 

One of the best investments you can make in your children is just being mindful about mealtime, what you're serving it on, and even from a social-emotional level, how you're serving it as a family. We've gone from a time not that long ago, in the 1940s, where people died together. They used glass and stainless steel; they had fresh ingredients. Much of what I do now is really trying to get us to go back to that time that was not that long ago, so we can correct that curve of children's health outcomes to not have 67% of their daily caloric intake be ultra processed food.

Leslie: The other thing I wanted to dive into a little bit is the mindful meal time that has come up with another speaker. You were talking about kids earlier, but how might an adult kind of apply some of these principles, if they've already in their 40s? What do they do now about it?

Manasa: In general, I think there are probably a few main concepts. One is enjoying the actual experience of dining. Sharing a meal is as much for your mental health as it is for your physical health and your nutrition. Sharing that meal– with your family, with your friends, with your co-workers– allows you to kind of connect. Again, don't have your phones and technology in front of you, because that's truly what allows you to connect, and that actually makes you feel better. 

Number two is home cooking, which is again true for both kids and adults. I am certified in culinary medicine, which is a new emerging field of medicine in which food can be medicine for people who are going through chronic conditions. So, if you cook at home, you are more likely to consume less calories. And the calories that you do consume are healthier. So, if you want cookies, instead of purchasing processed cookies at the store, just make fresh cookies. It takes more time, but you know what? You can also make it a little less junky, and at least you know what's going in it. And so, I think home cooking is such an easy thing that we used to do, but life got so fast. You can just think through some meal prep ideas and use a grocery shopping list; just really getting yourself organized for the week can help you do some home cooking. It doesn’t have to be anything complex.

Number three is healthy snacking, so really home cooking. It’s such an easy one because that really curbs– whether you're an adult or a kid– that appetite, but you're still fueling your body with the right nutrition. So, instead of getting that packaged applesauce, you could just cut up fresh apples, whether that's for yourself, or for your child. 

And then the last one I will say is just in terms of families, is just getting your children involved, which is such an important aspect of mindful eating. When those kids are helping you to pick out what vegetable they're gonna use that night, or help you to cook, or help you to set the table, they're more likely to eat the food that you've just spent all this time and energy cooking. So these are all just certain ways we can be mindful about what we're putting on our kids’ plates and how we're constructing that meal time for them.

Perfection is the enemy of that progress. All that means is do something. It's better than doing nothing, and it's okay. Maybe you had a week in which you just had to eat fast food because there was nothing in the kitchen, or because work was busy. The world is not going to end because you have fast food a few times. Your health will suffer if you have crappy food all the time, so it's just kind of like recalibrating and saying, “Okay, I can't be perfect. I'm gonna try my best”. 

Leslie: So tell us about the plastics and the plates and all of that. You mentioned a lot of things tied to plastic. If you were to prioritize– since there's plastic literally everywhere– where do you focus on eliminating it, and why should you care? What difference does it make?

Manasa: A big portion of plastic contains a man-made chemical, so it is not naturally occurring. It is a synthetic chemical. Back in the day when plastic was first created, it was great because it made life very convenient and fast and cheap, and it lasted forever. The same stuff that made plastic so great in the first place is the same stuff that's actually now really harmful to our health and to the planet from an environmental perspective. I think people know it takes more than 400 years to degrade plastic. All of that is one of the biggest sources of carbon emissions, climate change, and obviously pollution. So we know it's not great for the planet, but now we know that the chemicals in plastic are also not great for our bodies, especially for growing brains and bodies in children. In our food system, for example, plastic can leach into the food and drink that you are consuming. We are ingesting about a credit card worth of plastic a week, which is disgusting.

And we are finding classic chemicals and microplastics in fetal circulation. Ingestion is one way, but we inhale it, we touch it– it’s in skin care products, unfortunately– it's everywhere. That feels overwhelming. So instead of feeling overwhelmed, I want people to be educated and empowered to make small changes. 

Plastic also contains endocrine hormone disrupting chemicals. So the very quick 101 is that hormones are just a series of signals in our body, from different glands– your adrenals, ovaries, testes, these are all glands that produce those hormones– and they help us to do certain things, like make our brains grow or make us process sugar through insulin. It's a really well orchestrated system. I think a lot of people think about hormones in adults and think about infertility, which is true. It's intricately tied to fertility. But, it's also really important for children's growing brains and bodies. And so that's why we screen for thyroid issues when they're babies, and we screen for a lot of different congenital diseases. But many of them are hormone issues. Why? Because it's so integral to their growth and development. And so these plastic chemicals look like those normal hormones, but they wreak havoc and make this beautiful, well-oiled machine go awry. And what we have seen from them is chronic conditions like premature puberty in kids– we're seeing kids as young as six and seven undergoing puberty–, morbid obesity, and type 2 diabetes. When I was in medical school not that long ago, type 1 diabetes was children's diabetes and type 2 was adult; but, now I routinely see nine year olds with morbid obesity, type 2 diabetes, learning disabilities, and even cancer. 

So these chemicals are toxic to our bodies, and unfortunately they leach out of things like foodware or packaging, especially when exposed to heat. So, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Endocrine Society, the World Health Organization, the American College of Obstetrics– all of these medical organizations are saying, “We really don't think you should be using plastic, and especially don't expose it to heat. So if you do have to use plastic, don't put it in the microwave, because it increases the amount of chemicals that are going into your food and drink”. So this was kind of the recommendation that came out which is what spurred me into creating a line of stainless steel foodware. Because unfortunately, all the baby bottles and dishes like we talked about earlier, overwhelmingly use plastic. 

And so, in order to protect children's health, I just wanted to have something that was in line with medical recommendations and my roots from India to create a line of stainless steel dinnerware for kids– and now stainless steel foodware– for cafeterias to transition all of this plastic, especially single-use plastic, into safe, reusable sustainable steel. And that's how I kind of came up with the company, but it was really in an effort to fight endocrine disrupting chemicals, which are unfortunately found in plastic. So I think these are the things that you can do. 

You should, number one, try to avoid plastic when dining, and try to use glass or stainless steel when possible. And number two, even in cookware, you should try to avoid Teflon, which contains harmful chemicals called PFAs, and those are also disruptive to our bodies. Number three, if you’re going to use plastic because you don't have any other options, it's okay. Just please don't put it in the microwave or dishwasher. Number four is the easy one. Canned foods actually have a lining of BPA and bisphenols in it. So if you can, try to choose fresh produce over processed food. Another one that's really easy is to avoid those receipt papers that they give you at the grocery store. Especially if it’s long, because they're lined in BPA and bisphenols. So you can just say, “No thank you”, because you don't need to touch it, and it just ends up in a landfill anyway because less than 5% of the world's plastic is actually recycled. 

So that sounds very ‘doomsday’, but let me follow it up with the very last thing you should know when you start to decrease your exposure to these chemicals. Some of these chemicals can go out of a body in as little as three to five days, so that should feel, I hope, hopeful, and not all ‘doomsday’. 

Leslie: So, about that; I want to ask you, what are your thoughts on getting additional nutrients if you can't get it all from your cooking and your snacking? Like supplementation, what do you think about that whole space?

Manasa: Whether it's for yourself as an adult, or for your child, we should understand what we should actually be consuming without micromanaging. We shouldn’t be like, “I need this many ounces and this many tablespoons” because then that feels overwhelming. Just to know, you should have a variety of fruits, vegetables, protein, grains, and the most unprocessed of foods. If you can kind of just stick to what's natural, it really is one of the healthiest things you can do. If you are trying to do that to the best of your abilities, you really are consuming the nutrients that you need, that your body needs to grow and develop in terms of supplementation, especially if you have specific dietary requirements. So if you're vegan, or if you're vegetarian, sometimes you do need to supplement those. What you do is really go through and make sure that those supplement brands are doing everything they can to ensure that they have the safest of ingredients. Again the company I started means “avoiding harm”. I take that literally. How can we avoid harm at every single position, whether it's in our packaging or in the ingredients that we're putting in? 

So if you're going to go look for supplementation, just look at the ingredient labels, and make sure it’s free of all the dyes and some of the other stuff. Then, that at least allows you to choose the best options from what's out there to supplement. 

Leslie: That was great advice. But where can our audience find your products?

Manasa: Yeah, you can go to, and you can shop there. We are also on Amazon. You can follow us on Instagram and Facebook at @ahimsahome. If you are a parent of school-age children or you're an educator who's listening, and you want to transform your cafeteria, you can go to to find out more about our school line to transform the cafeteria with sustainable dining options for your children.

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