An all too common picture in my practice is meeting a young child who is growing weakly or even presenting with failure to thrive (unable to grow above 5th percentiles), developing at a questionably slow pace, and behaving fiercely at the drop of a hat (tantrums). There may be reflux and constipation, possibly medication dependent. Worst case scenario, the child has required tube feeding, or perhaps even lost a section of intestine to tissue damage or inflammation. Parents are weary and have been around the block: Specialists in GI disorders, developmental pediatrics, feeding therapy, and perhaps a neurologist or speech and language pathologist have all had their go’s at the child, but – improvements – if any – are meek, and dependent on pharmaceuticals or weekly therapies.
Maybe your child isn’t this bad. Perhaps they just like a lot of dairy food. Even in that case, you might be surprised at how differently your child behaves, grows, sleeps, or interacts, once that dairy protein (casein) is no longer a major feature in their day. There’s absolutely nothing magical about dairy. Many other foods can deliver protein, better healthy fats and oils, and more minerals, including calcium.
What’s going on here? This mechanism is not an allergy (though allergy or sensitivity may be present at the same time – that’s a different reaction altogether). In this case, a chemistry has evolved in which your kid is literally addicted to milk. You can measure this with a urine test. This is not a standard-of-care test, and your pediatrician will likely never have heard of it. Called urine polypeptide test, it screens for the protein fragments (“peptides”) leftover when dairy protein (casein) is poorly digested. It also screens for same from wheat protein (gluten). These over-sized peptides exist to a tiny, insignificant degree, after a healthy gut with good digestive function takes apart a wheat or dairy meal. But with weak digestion, an overly permissive gut wall (that is, a gut that lets these too-big peptides pass through to circulation), and the wrong gut bacteria (that worsen rather than lessen the impact of these peptides), these peptides will show up in urine in larger than expected amounts.
If they’re in urine, they are circulating widely, and can also be in your child’s brain. Why is this bad? Because these peptides mimic opiates – so much, that they are named after morphine: Casomorphin and gluteomorphin (also called gliadorphin) act like opiates in the brain. They bind the same receptors as drugs like morphine.. and yes, heroin. They are indeed potently addictive. Children who adamantly refuse foods other than just wheat, just dairy, or both may have this addiction active in their brains.
This is your kid’s brain on dairy or wheat overload. Source
Not only does this deny a child other more nutritious foods needed for their brains and bodies to grow and thrive, it can cause constipation (ever needed a morphine drip or opiate-based painkiller?), and disrupt behavior, learning, social skills, and language development. In my experience, the more diet-sourced opiate measured in urine, the less verbal and more developmentally delayed the child will be. In fact, clinical trials with naltrexone, a drug used to treat opiate addiction, have shown better behavior in children with autism and increased verbal ability.The more functional the child is, the less likely that casomorphin will fall out of range – but if symptoms are active for constipation, hyperactivity, difficulty socializing, rageful reactivity, slow language progress, or dilated pupils, then I will look at eliminating the dairy anyway.
Most every child in my practice, whether they have an autism or sensory processing disorder diagnosis or no diagnosis at all, presents with nutrition challenges that can be addressed for better learning, growing, and being. Your child doesn’t have to be “special needs” to have a problem with dairy – see if the info below applies in your house.
If your kid really likes these and eats 3 or 4 per day.. uh oh
What’s A Milk Addicted Kid?
These are kids who still rely on fluid milk as a major protein and calorie source, well past the age of twelve months, when weaning off breast or formula – as the bulk of daily calories and protein – is typically under way. They are drinking forty to sixty ounces of milk a day (about five to eight cups), and displacing solid calories because of milk intake. This lowers intake of other foods that kids need by age two or three. Milk addicts refuse other foods. They are often oral tactile defensive – that is, they hate varied textures in foods, hate to eat or chew, perhaps have delayed chewing skills (which is why some stick to the bottle in the first place), or still rely on suckling a bottle, thumb, or pacifier to calm themselves. Oral tactile issues or oral motor delays may keep this child drinking from a bottle beyond age three or four. When they accept foods, it’s often dairy items only – sweet yogurt, cheese, ice cream. A few random solids might be in the diet, but on balance, their diets lack vegetables, meats, fruits, or foods rich in essential minerals, vitamins, and healthy brain fats. There is often pallor, allergic shiners, white dots on fingernails, and a blank countenance. Growth failure or a weak growth pattern is common in this scenario too. Parents in this predicament are often told by their doctors and feeding therapists to turn to high-calorie milk-based drinks like Pediasure, Peptamen Junior, Carnation Instant Breakfast, or Boost, in hopes of providing a few micronutrients and extra calories. This won’t work, because it leaves the child addicted to opiates formed from casein, the protein source in these drinks. For non-dairy nutrition boosting options, click here.
These children often have neurological and sensory challenges that make a cold-turkey switch off of milk a sure fail. If bottle feeding is still in the picture, the cold turkey approach can really backfire, entrenching your child’s dependence on the bottle or milk, and fear of losing these, even more deeply. In this scenario, you need a nutritious milk replacement, minerals replenishment, correction for imbalanced gut microbes, and a sensory integration plan to replace the neurological organization that sucking on the bottle gives the child.
Developmentally, milk addicts (especially those with an autism diagnosis) who eat a lot of dairy seem to show the more profound language delays. When they are on the younger end, say age three or four years, they may speak more like a one to two year old, or be non-verbal. If they are school age, say six or so, they may have expressive language praxis issues, meaning that they can talk but not in a typical way. They may use echolalic language (repeating what they hear), misuse pronouns or refer to themselves in the third person, or misunderstand social context. This is often the first area of functioning that shifts when dietary opiates begin to disengage: Your child may begin to use language in a new, more typical way; make eye contact; or comply more typically with your requests.. within 2-3 weeks of being dairy free.
What To Do About Milk Addiction
1 – Talk to your child’s occupational therapist, if you have one, about what can replace the bottle in terms of its sensory benefit. Children with sensory integration disorder using a bottle at a late age may legitimately need this oral activity for self-calming, which they might not have mastered in other ways. Suddenly removing it with no alternative may trigger more setback than progress. A few inches of surgical tubing can be knotted for a child to suck, chew, and pull. Teething rings as for infants may work too. If your child craves and actually eats non food items, this is another problem called pica. It needs assessment and treatment, as it too can impair IQ, learning, or development. Read about pica here.
2 – Replace any gluten foods first. Since gluten is not the opiate of choice for a milk-addicted child, it’s easier to remove it first. In my experience, kids don’t usually notice that the cookies, pasta, bagels, microwave macaroni and cheese, frozen pizza and so on are being replaced with gluten-free versions, as long as they still have their dairy fix. But gluten still has to go, because gluten can trigger the same opiate effect on the brain that milk protein does. Same goes for soy – so, don’t turn to soy milk, soy tofu, soy frozen treats, soy cheese substitutes, edamame, soy yogurt, and so on. Swap in the widely available gluten free versions first, with zero fanfare – and zero explanation, unless your child is functional enough to ask a few questions. Do not expect your child’s approval or even recruit their opinion at this point.
3 – After you’ve successfully launched the transition off any gluten foods that your milk addict eats (and some eat very few, so this can be easy), approach the bigger battle: Withdraw all dairy protein (casein and whey). Begin with casein-free ingredients where they won’t be noticed. When baking, making smoothies, mixing mashed potatoes, or using a pancake mix (gluten free), sub in milks from almond, cashew, hemp, coconut (full fat canned or from carton) but not oat (contains gluten) or soy. Do not use soy milk or soy yogurt – it will trigger the same opiate chemistry. Eventually, your child will completely avoid fluid milk from any mammals (including you mom!) and products made from those milks: Butter, margarines with milk ingredients, cheeses, yogurt that is frozen, creamy, Greek, low fat, any fat, or fat free; Lactaid and lactose free milk (still has casein in it); cream soups and dressings (Ranch dressing, chowders, soups thickened with cream or milk), ice cream, sherbet, pizza or anything else with cheese, Goldfish or Cheezits or cheese puffs, and so on. Avoid foods whose labels say casein, whey, calcium caseinate, powdered dry milk, butter milk, cream, sour cream, cottage cheese, cheese, Parmesan, milk solids, or butter. “Dairy free” does not mean casein free, so read labels carefully.
4 – Balance gut microflora as aggressively and completely as possible. This may necessitate a functional medicine stool microbiology to assess the good and bad gut bugs, plus targeted use of probiotics, antibiotics, herbal anti-microbials, or fermented foods. Long short, if none of this is working, a troublesome gut biome would be high on my suspect list – so get this part sorted out. Need help? Contact me!
5- Begin nightly Epsom salts baths to replenish magnesium and sulfur. Both minerals help liver, gut, and kidney tissue release toxins that may pile up as your child’s gut biome shifts with the new foods he’s eating. Magnesium is calming as well, while sulfur is key for many digestive and liver enzymes. Use about a cup per tub, or a half cup for a toddler weighing less than 30 lbs. Soak your kiddo for 10-20 minutes.
6 – Put in some healthy fats! Oils from nuts, olive oil, coconut oil, ghee (clarified butter), avocado, grape seed oil are all excellent and healthful choices that you can sub in for cooking, baking, and dressings. Nut butters and nuts themselves also provide healthy varied fats. Fish oil supplements are a useful boost too, since milk addicts don’t get much (if any) omega 3 fatty acids. There are some excellent kid friendly products out there.
7 – Minerals! Supplement these until interest in mineral rich foods kicks in. Minerals are abundant in leafy greens, vegetables, bone broths, meats, eggs, and herbs. But before your kid is eating that stuff daily, bridge the gap with a mineral rich supplement. It should contain at least 15 mg zinc and cover selenium, chromium, manganese, molybdenum, and boron also. What about iron? Hard to say without you being my patient and completing an assessment with me. Iron is potentially toxic and deadly if dosed incorrectly. If marginal, it creates multiple functional problems (insomnia, hyperactivity, immune compromise, depleted serotonin and more). But don’t supplement it without guidance from your doctor. Or me.
You’re Good To Go!
The first few weeks of this may feel hardest, but stick with it – for a good four months at least. Some children respond quickly, some slowly. It all depends on the child’s nutrition picture at the start, and everyone is different. But one thing that usually happens in the first one to three weeks of total casein (and gluten and soy) removal is… Fireworks! When the opiates begin to vacate endorphin receptors in his brain, your child may start to be very unhappy with this new plan. They are experiencing withdrawal symptoms and it doesn’t feel great. The may stop eating, have more tantrums, not sleep well. Brace yourself – but don’t crack now. If you’ve done all of the steps here faithfully, you will minimize or possibly even totally divert the discomfort that this new food intake may briefly create. It’s temporary, and it is prelude to much healthier eating that feeds your child so he can learn, grow, and thrive to potential.
Can you redirect ADHD and learning disabilities without prescription drugs? Such a big topic, so I split it into three parts. Short answer: Yes, you can. Bonus: Your child will be healthier over all from these efforts too.
Parts 1 and 2 covered the hard and crusty bits first: The right food, the right fats, and fungus (yup, I said fungus.. read part 2). Those may be the most important nutrition steps you can take to redirect a child struggling to learn, focus, pay attention, understand what h/she is reading, write, or even socialize more happily. I have seen these steps reduce or eliminate the need for prescription stimulants in kids, and make for happier, healthier, more functional children.
But there’s still more you can do. Part 3 is a finishing touch: Adding some minerals. You can skip the more labor intensive fixes for food, fats, and fungus if you wish. But, your child is less likely to enjoy as much success in tackling ADHD naturally.
Why is this true? Because no matter what you eat, your gut is full of microbes – that’s your gut biome. You need it. With a sterile gut, you would die. Microbes do a lot for us. They “teach” the immune system, regulate inflammatory responses, keep pathogens out by killing them for us, impact neurotransmitter balance, and make extra nutrients for us. They can even exchange genetic material with stuff that you eat (which is one reason why GMO foods are scary – human gut microbes have been found to produce the same pesticide that GMO foods are engineered to make, after volunteers ate a diet of GMO foods.)
Junky, starchy, processed, sugary diets promote a lousy gut biome. That means more toxins and trash for your brain and body, because those microbes produce their own waste, and then you absorb it. These toxins can be agitating, irritating, and measurable with a urine microbial organic acid test, in case you’re wondering how to find them. Some of the toxins that gut microbes produce have been linked to autism and seizure disorders.
With a healthy biome, which you develop from eating whole unprocessed un-sugary food, “waste” is the good stuff: some B vitamins, acids to kill pathogens and regulate gut pH, clearance of toxins, completion of digestion so nutrients are more available to you.
Long short? Your gut bugs eat what you eat, and they eat first. So, clean house (see parts 1 and 2) before you begin a supplement protocol for ADHD or attention and focus. Otherwise, you’ll just be feeding those expensive supplements to the garbage gang. This is one reason why children can react or regress dramatically when given a new supplement, before cleaning up the diet or without first directly treating gut microbes that shouldn’t be there. You might just be fertilizing the weeds, so to speak; they bloom, and create an explosion of toxins that can be systemically absorbed. No good. It’s also why you might see a supplement do nothing in particular, when all signs indicate it should really help. Things can really change once that gut microflora environment is in good shape. Even prescription medications for ADHD can work better (or not be needed at all), once these pieces are optimized.
Once you’re ready to supplement, pay attention to minerals. These are critical for the brain to focus and learn. Iron, zinc, copper, magnesium, calcium, selenium, and chromium all have tiny but crucial roles to play, in helping the brain smoothly produce neurotransmitters – as well as dismantle neurotransmitters as needed, to keep things balanced. Serotonin, dopamine, GABA (gamma amino butyric acid), and dozens of other neurotransmitters let us do what we need at the right moments: Sleep, relax, be alert, concentrate, read, remember, process, react, stay calm, and so on. These amazing chemicals do all sorts of things in our brains. Too much serotonin can build up and create more anxiety, or even a deadly state called serotonin syndrome, but too little can leave you depressed, or paradoxically, too anxious. Too little dopamine can mean you can’t focus or learn very well; too much can mean you have obsessive compulsive behaviors. Too little GABA may mean you have seizures; too much can leave you lethargic. It’s all in the balance, and the body uses a steady supply of several nutrients to maintain that balance: Glucose, iron, B vitamins, protein, magnesium and more.
Pumpkin seeds have it all: Minerals, essential fats, fiber, protein
Most kids I encounter with ADHD are eating diets low in minerals. They tend to eat starchy, sugary diets that are marginal for healthy brain fats, low for good proteins, and nearly nil for minerals. If your child isn’t eating a lot of fresh vegetables, leafy greens, seeds, or nuts /nut butters, and fresh meats or eggs, then they aren’t eating a lot of minerals. This describes most kids I’ve met in my practice.
First on my list of minerals to check is iron. It has a history when it comes to attention deficits. Kids can need anywhere from 5 to 15 to as much as 50 mg per day, depending on their iron status. This one is a deal breaker for turning tyrosine, an amino acid that we get from protein we eat, into dopamine in the brain, which allows us to pay attention. Children with poor iron status will have attention problems; they may also be quite hyperactive as they languish in a weakened status known as pre-anemia. Before medicating, ask your pediatrician to do an iron study. Because iron is so complex in its many roles in the body, your doctor will have to do more than look at just serum iron (which means little all by itself) or hemoglobin and hematocrit (which many pediatricians like to check with a quick fingerprick and blood drop). Before iron is supplemented, do this careful footwork first with your pediatrician.
An iron study, a tool I use often in my practice, should include a blood draw for serum iron, transferrin, ferritin, iron binding capacity, and a blood count to show how red blood cells look. Ferritin levels (in my experience) should be at a robust 40 or better for kids to have optimal functionality from iron status, even though the reference range drops to 10 or even 6 from some labs. Low ferritin means low levels of iron are available for the body to use. Whether or not a child is being placed on a medication for attention, iron status should be solid; otherwise, it will interfere.
Iron rich foods? The usual suspects include red meats and eggs, but I also like to suggest pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds, sunflower seed butter, dark leafy greens (chard, kale, spinach), cashews, molasses, quinoa, and of course, legumes like lentils and all sorts of beans. Eating iron rich foods with citrus or vitamin C will help the gut absorb more iron. Even using iron cookware can help.
Pallor, shiners at eyes, insomnia, and fatigue should trigger an iron assessment.
If you and your doctor find that your child needs an iron supplement, consider easier to absorb forms like ferrous bis-glycinate rather than ferrous sulfate, which can be harder for some to tolerate. Iron supplements in the correct form and dose do not usually trigger constipation. Iron is one nutrient that most microbes really, really like. For that reason, I hesitate to enrich iron in kids without first knowing status for bowel microbes or other infections. If a child reacts especially badly to efforts to reverse iron depletion, it may be because gut microbes are enjoying that iron and creating a toxic bloom. Clear those out, and things can go better.
Next on my list is magnesium. This mineral is needed for smooth nerve impulse transmission and can be quite calming when used correctly. It works with B vitamins to allow the brain to have a steady supply of glucose, which is its preferred fuel. Skip the blood work, because this is a safer mineral to supplement (iron can quickly become toxic). You can go directly to magnesium rich foods: Banana, dark leafy greens, unsweetened cocoa powder (omit the sugar by using the powder in smoothies with some stevia), avocado, lentils, chick peas (hummus), pumpkin seeds, and nuts. Another trick: Let your child soak in a tub near bedtime with a cup of Epsom salt in it. This is magnesium sulfate, which handily absorbs through skin to enrich pathways needing this mineral. The sulfur helps too, as it is needed to run liver and digestive enzymes. This can help your child fall and stay asleep easier.
If supplements are easier, there are many that give magnesium, in powders, capsules, and liquids. Know this: Magnesium citrate and magnesium oxide are particularly effective laxatives, so if you don’t want that result, dose carefully or use a different form (magnesium glycinate for example). And, the body carefully balances magnesium relative to other minerals, especially calcium. Many products include both in a 2:1 ratio (twice as much calcium as magnesium). Kids need about 300 mg magnesium daily. Some in my practice with constipation and neurological challenges safely use up to 700 mg. Don’t do this without professional guidance. Magnesium can reach toxic levels, where it will impact cardiac, nerve, and muscle function.
Next stop: Zinc. When I hear a child is wiggly, chewing shirts or sleeves, gnawing on pencils, paper, or fingers, bothered by tags and fabric, and just all around distractible, I will look at zinc. It’s not imperative to do blood work here because clinical signs for weak zinc status are easy to spot (white dots on nails, penchant for chewing fabric, picky appetite, sluggish growth pattern and appetite), but blood work can give you a concrete idea of what is needed. Zinc levels should be squarely in the middle of the reference range, not toward the bottom. Blood work can also reveal levels of zinc relative to copper in the body. An upside down ratio (too little zinc, too high copper) is often present with aggressive, impulsive, inattentive, or combative behavior. Correcting this ratio with careful supplementation can lessen these behaviors.
Most of our zinc is found in the brain, and in the hippocampus in particular, which is pivotal for memory and mood. Marginal zinc status has many impacts on the brain and how it balances things like GABA (which gives a calmed, attentive state) and glutamate (excitatory and unable to remember or learn). Less zinc will tilt that balance away from GABA.
Zinc is found in foods already mentioned here – nuts, seeds, meats, pork, chocolate, eggs, tahini, chick peas, legumes – and in others like salmon, scallops, flax seeds, or garlic. It needs a properly acid stomach to initiate its absorption, like any minerals. Supplements abound, from liquid (tasteless to those needing zinc, metallic tasting to those in good zinc status) to lozenges to capsules. I often place children on 25-40 mg of zinc daily, when warranted.
Scallops are full of minerals, protein, and healthy fats.. if you can get them
Chromium, selenium, iodine, and calcium all have parts to play in optimizing attention and focus as well. You’ll find these in the same foods – seeds, nuts, meats or pork, fish, dark greens, or deep colored fruits like blueberries or cranberries. You can choose from multivitamins that provide a strong complement of these minerals, but whole food sources deliver additional benefits: Good energy sources, fiber, proteins, healthy fats and oils, and in some cases, phytochemicals not classified as nutrients but noted for other benefits (anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, or neuroprotective).
Nothing ever exists in a vacuum when it comes to nutrients. A lot of one mineral may mean displacing another – so monitoring the whole child, the whole diet, and the whole complement of supplements, if you use them, is important. Approaching your child’s ADHD as a nutrient balancing act rather than a stimulant shortage can not only resolve the attention piece, but can create better health over all for your child in the end.
Got kids? You might have noticed, if they’re school age, that their teachers start to get itchy, usually around fourth grade. For many traditional elementary schools, that’s when the game changes. More sitting, less moving, more producing written work, higher reading expectations, and the type face for reading gets smaller. Many kids just aren’t there. Next thing you know, the teacher or principal uses the “m” word (which, by the way, is a legal minefield). Is it medication time?
Other kids have dramatic challenges from day one of circle time in pre-school. They can’t sit without poking a peer, jumping up and bolting for a favorite activity or toy, or shouting a lot.
You don’t need an official ADHD diagnosis to support children with these symptoms – they can learn and function more easily, more naturally, more innately either way. Here’s the first five things I do when a child comes into my office needing support for attention, ADHD, and learning, below. For more detail and further strategies, pick up a copy of Special Needs Kids Go Pharm-Free.
1) Food. The classic profile of an ADHD kid coming into my office is a kid who eats processed food often, plus a lot of starchy stuff, not enough protein and healthy fats, and sometimes, a lot of dairy. The bad news: Even if you chose the organic Cheddar Bunnies or the gluten free goldfish crackers instead of the regular ones, organic or no, either way, it’s still empty, starchy, over-processed stuff that doesn’t serve a growing brain well when eaten by the bowlful every day. Pretzels, power bars, yogurt tubes, corn chips, potato chips, bread, bagels, pizza, noodle bowls, breakfast cereals… All of it can be low for the minerals and protein that the brain needs to run its neurotransmitter loops, plus high in sugar or simple starchy grains and void of healthful fats that the brain needs.
Even if this was organic, it’s still starchy junk
Solution: Real food. Though kids can be fiercely picky, and making changes is hard, the rewards can be great. Yes, it takes extra time and planning, but even one or two good whole food meals or snacks a week is a step in the right direction. Think of eggs for breakfast as well as organic bacon; hash with last night’s roasted potatoes or parsnips plus some chopped garlic, pepper, and sausage; porridge made from pumpkin and whole coconut milk instead of cereal grains, with some sesame tahini, molasses and cinnamon. If bars are your kids’ thing, check out these recipes for ideas that are way better than the processed stuff from the store. Try some different smoothie recipes in the morning that let you build in minerals, protein, and fats. Move away from refined or sugary breakfast cereals, even if they are organic – they’re still sugary refined food. Check out BalancedBites.com for an avalanche of ideas and recipes.
For portable school snacks, work in some raw or roasted nut and seed options and avoid things roasted in GMO oils, like canola, soy, corn, or cottonseed. Brain-safer oils are organic sunflower, safflower, or olive oils, or just choose unfrosted (raw) nuts or seeds. Make a trail mix of your own (a few chocolate chips and raisins won’t hurt); introduce your child to a simple crunchy option like raw whole almonds, which go well with pepperoni slices, raisins, and a smidge of raw goat or cow’s milk cheese. Nut butters are an option, though many are sugary, so keep these in less frequent rotation rather than daily.
For kids who like crunch, pick from naturally crisp and sweet veggies like orange, yellow, or red bell peppers or young asparagus. Pack finger food sized slivers or stems. A dip like hummus or white bean dip will add protein, healthier carbs, some minerals, and fats. Familiar favorites like apples and grapes may work better for your child as a Waldorf salad (which adds some fat and protein) than on their own (just carbs). Vary this with other fruits like mango, cantaloupe, or kiwi, and add any tolerated nut or seed plus a healthy fat like mayonnaise, avocado, olive oil, or sesame tahini. A variation that always vanishes in my home is this salad, to which we add sunflower seeds and dates. For protein snacks, experiment with organic beef or turkey jerky; cold curried chicken salad with raisins, sunflower seed, celery and mayo; hard boiled or deviled eggs; organic salami slices with raw almonds and a few chunks of cheese. Long short, work toward more, not less, whole unprocessed protein and calorie sources. These give the brain a variety of amino acids, fats, and minerals to work with toward easier neurotransmitter signaling and cell to cell flow.
2) Fats. Eat more of these. Most kids I encounter with ADHD, ADD, and problems with focus or attention don’t eat enough total fat. I see this when I review their food intakes – they’re skewed heavily for starchy carbs. How much fat is good? Exact grams per day will vary per your child’s age, weight, and other needs, but bank on at least 50-60 grams per day from food for starters. Fats are critical for kids’ brains to grow and function normally; without them, serious impairments in brain and growth will occur. Besides allowing more total fats, vary them – that is, fats and oils should come from a variety of whole foods (vegetables and vegetable oils; nuts, seeds and their butters; meats and poultry; whole coconut milk, butter or ghee, fish if you eat it), not one source (as in, just cheese or hot dogs), not processed foods (hot dogs, cereals, power bars, crackers, chips). I definitely encourage organic especially for fats, since fat tissue and oils are where pesticides,heavy metals, and other toxins accumulate in plant foods, fish, and livestock. Expensive, but when you can afford it, buy organic.
What about fish oil, and omega 3 fats? Yes, use these, if ADHD, ADD, dyslexia, and other learning or visual processing issues are on deck. I’ve found that many families are attempting fish oils at potencies that are too low to get a benefit, don’t use it daily (as you should, just as you would for a medication), give up too soon, or don’t give a format their child will accept. My clinical experience mirrors what is seen in many clinical trials: Omega 3 oils do work for ADHD and learning, if used consistently (daily for at least 3-4 months), and at the right dose. Omega 3’s offer multiple benefits (anti-inflammatory effects, less anxiety, better visual processing, calmer behavior, to name a few) without side effects. One of my least favorite side effects of stimulant medications for children and teens is the impact on weight, growth, and gain. These medications can suppress appetite and impair growth; I’ve seen it many times. This in turn injures focus and learning. Children should not have to trade a nourishing, adequate food intake in order to focus and learn!
How much is right? For DHA omega 3 (docosahexaenoic acid), I start children at 800 to 1000 mg daily at least, and may go up to 3000 mg. I rarely see a therapeutic effect below a gram (1000 mg) daily for DHA, which is noted for improving focus/attention and tasks like the visual tracking that permits reading or writing across the whole page. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) omega 3 fatty acid is my go-to when there is more mood, tantrums, or volatility in the picture. In that case, same idea: Dose higher than you might expect. I typically see shifts starting at 2000-3000 mg of EPA per day; some kids may go as high as 6000 mg. Caveat: If your child uses any psychiatric medication, let your prescriber know if you’d like to use fish oils. EPA and DHA omega 3’s can be used together. Brands for purity, potency, acceptance (will your kid eat that?), and most rigorous screening for toxicity? Pharmax and Apex Energetics. You can purchase these brands through Nutrition Care For Children if you like, or surf the web to find them. Nordic Naturals is my next choice, and this is widely available in stores.
I’m always asked: What about flax for omega 3’s? I do have some young vegetarians in my practice, not to mention a few who won’t touch fish oils no matter how good they actually taste when manufactured well. Flax is my lesser choice. It takes a good bit more of it to dose effectively, and at higher doses, it may interfere with thyroid function. That said, a tablespoon of ground flax seed daily is a useful addition to smoothies both for its added healthy fats but for fiber as well. It helps smoothies thicken up into a creamy texture too. Meanwhile there are some products from Barlean’s that meet needs for the super picky tasters out there, though these don’t entirely replace whole food sources of healthy fats, which your kids should be eating every day.
Stay tuned for part two of natural supports for ADHD, focus, and learning – where I cover my next three punch list items for helping kids learn the way they were built to learn. Thanks for dropping by!
I was given a really nice blender as a birthday gift a while back, and then received a really nice juicer for Christmas later on. Did I need both? Seemed extravagant at first, but it turns out I’m glad to have both, because I use either or both every day. You might want these in your kitchen too. Juicing and blending smoothies let you get more whole raw fresh fruits and vegetables into your kids. Which might work best in your house?
First, a blender – a powerful one, like a VitaMix (which you can get at a 25% discount with a licensed health care provider’s letter of need), Bullet, KitchenAid Architect – options abound. This is your smoothie machine, which is great as long as your kids accept that texture. Essential for tube fed kids whose families and providers are working with blenderized whole foods instead of or in addition to commercial formulas. Other bonus points:
– Helpful for kids working on oral motor skills. Ask your child’s PT or OT to supply you with different types and sizes of straws, to help your child practice oral motor skills. Strong flavors can help wake up up taste buds and diminish oral tactile defensiveness, so experiment with additions of lemon or lime juice, ginger root, or fresh leaves of mint, basil, or cilantro. Even whole raw garlic cloves can be used. Years ago, my son’s OT suggested sour gummy worms to jump start his eating at meals. It worked, but you can get the same effect with beneficial nutrients instead of sugar and artificial colors.
– Easy to incorporate protein options for kids who don’t eat enough protein because they are picky, or reject the texture of protein rich foods like meats, nuts, eggs, or beans/legumes.
– Priority tool for texture-picky and allergy kids who need to wean off of triggering dairy sources like milk, yogurt, Pediasure, soy milk or formulas, or Compleat formula.
– You can make your own creamy thick shakes that are heftier for calcium, healthy fats, and protein than milk-based shakes. There are countless protein powder blends out there that may be a win for your child. I prefer a whole food option, but when I do need a synthetic in my practice, I choose powders based on organic rice, hemp, or pea proteins that are enhanced with amino acids (lysine, arginine) to boost biological value. I avoid casein and soy, and only use organic whey in cases where I’m sure the child can tolerate it. Skip complex blends with multiple extra ingredients and sugars if you can.
– Easy to hide supplements, probiotics, elemental amino acid powders (as for some of my patients’ tube feed formulas) or medications your child may not swallow well otherwise.
– Readily works in healthy fats your child might need more of, like ripe avocado, whole coconut milk, olive oil.
– Grinds neutral-flavored, nutrient-rich nuts like raw cashews to a smooth creaminess to deliver protein, fats, and minerals.
– You get the whole fruit or vegetable this way, which gives extra fiber, minerals, vitamins, and phytonutrients. Think kale, basil, spinach, watercress, mint or basil leaves, cucumber (peeled), grapes (without pits), whole raw ginger root or garlic, banana, avocado, berries, or soft ripe cored pears.
The only down side of using a blender is that it doesn’t work for hard raw vegetables like carrots or beets. Foods with lots of pulp or pits, or stringy fibery foods like celery, citrus, or ginger root can be pulverized well in a good strong blender but many kids may balk at that texture, which a juicer avoids. Thick textures can be a challenge too but you are always free to thin with filtered water. Some flavors do best when crushed ice is added. Otherwise, this is where the juicer comes in.
Juicing is a culture in itself, full of pro’s and con’s about what type of machine is best. There are masticators, which are considered best for preserving nutrient value. There are centrifugal machines – more affordable, work fast, and you can put just about anything in them including grapefruit rinds. This is what I was gifted (here’s more from Breville brand). Here’s what I have found:
– Lightening fast. Easy to clean.
– Makes quick work out of whole apples, pears, grapefruit, celery, cucumber, beets, carrots, berries, ginger root, grapes, garlic cloves.
– Not great for greens that make fresh juices really interesting, like basil or mint leaves, kale, spinach, watercress, etc. While I do get a nice flavor and brilliant green color in my glass, a lot of the greens’ fiber and nutrients end up in the pulp bin with a centrifugal juicer like this one. For these, a masticator may be better.
– This machine has gotten my teenage son juicing every morning. He loves a blend of apple, ginger root, celery, and pink grapefruit.
– Makes luscious pulp that is perfect to use in our compost.
For kids new to juicing, better centrifugal machines work so fast that the instant gratification of it might be a good idea. In no time, kids can dump in all kinds of fruits or vegetables, and get a low to no pulp drink. While the heat and aeration of centrifugal machines is not kind to delicate vitamins, a better machine will minimize this with the briefest of bursts through its innards.
Wash everything first, and buy organic if you can, as pesticide exposures are linked to many conditions including ADHD. Let your kids experiment with combo’s of their own (a useful motivator), and it just might bridge them to a wider palate for more of these foods in other permutations. Carrots, apples, pears, and citrus are easy starting points since they are sweet; then sneak in some punch with mint, basil, or ginger root. Garlic cloves go surprisingly well with pink grapefruit, apple, celery, and ginger. A few more ideas:
– Mint, ginger root, parsley, celery, or cilantro are helpful GI soothers. Consider these for kids with reflux or weak digestion.
– Raw organic cashews + crushed ice = a super creamy, neutral flavor base for thick shakes. Add almond or coconut milk (whole canned unsweetened) to expand the calories, calcium, and healthy fats. Banana, natural vanilla flavoring, organic cinnamon, or ripe peeled/cored pear enhance this even more. Add a dash of sea salt to make this more accepting for a child used to processed commercial formulas.
– Employ whole organic coconut milk (unsweetened, minimally processed) as a base. There are ample fats there that are easier to digest than fats in dairy or meats. Tastes surprisingly neutral, plays well with any other flavors I’ve tried so far, easy to enhance with protein powders.
– Don’t hesitate to pair odd choices, like coconut milk + kale + green grapes + basil; or cashews + sesame tahini + cinnamon + almond milk + pear or banana. These taste surprisingly good!
These are just a few ideas I’m using now for kids in my practice, who – for a variety of reasons – struggle to eat the truly nourishing diets they need. Blenders and juicers are great tools to help any kid eat more nutrient dense foods. When they invent their own blends, curiosity can get the best of them for tasting!
So your child is underweight, not eating well, not growing well. You’ve been told to give him calorie dense drinks like Ensure, Pediasure, or Boost; lots of butter, pudding, whole milk, and cream; and of course, lots of ice cream. Is this healthy?
Seeing these common recommendations is one of my least favorite findings as a dietitian in private practice working with kids. There are four problems here that can interfere with restoring your child’s robust health:
One, these drinks and foods are made with conventionally raised dairy products, which can contain bovine growth hormone, pesticides, traces of genetically modified feed corn proteins, and antibiotics, not to mention possible heavy metals from agricultural chemicals. All of these agricultural interventions have been linked to problems ranging from higher incidence of ADHD to earlier onset menses, other hormone disruptions in boys and girls, allergies, and neurological disorders.
Two, the child’s underweight status may be at least partly due to an undiagnosed milk protein intolerance or allergy – which irritates and inflames the gut, making nutrients and energy even harder to absorb. Be sure to get this sorted out before relying on any milk protein sources in your child’s diet.
Three, milk protein (casein) is often a constipating protein source, especially in children with some digestive insufficiency issues, like reflux or imbalanced gut microflora. Healthy gut microflora (bacteria) add enzymes to help us digest and absorb food, and keep bowel habits on track. If your child is unable to comfortably pass a soft formed stool most every day, then appetite can weaken – exacerbating the problem of packing in calories.
Last but not least – drinks like Ensure, Boost, and Pediasure rely on refined sugars and corn syrup (in various forms) to up their calories. I don’t like this because corn syrup is noted for containing a bit of mercury in every teaspoon, thanks to agricultural processing. Corn is also a genetically modified crop. Emerging research suggests that proteins in foods from genetically modified crops can trigger allergy. More allergy = more gut inflammation = more difficulty absorbing nutrients and energy = poor growth and gain. And, there is no sound argument for relying on refined sugars as a major strategy for growth and gain in children.
You can do way better.
First, make sure you are not battling undetected food sensitivities or food allergies. Get tested! You may need to avoid milk protein sources entirely, in order for your child to feel hungrier and digest more comfortably. Many labs and providers can assist with this, and this is a specialty in my practice too. Make sure you look deeper than just IgE allergy responses with a conventional MD allergist. For more information on this, see either of my books.
If eggs and nuts are allowable, get a powerful blender or food processor – the sky’s the limit, with those two ingredients adding creaminess without milk or ice cream. Everything on my list below is organic, no added sweeteners in the milk substitutes, and raw where possible. When using nuts, blend those first to smooth consistency with ice and a small amount of the recipe’s liquid. Then add remaining ingredients til smooth.
Banana Cream: ¼ cup raw cashews, 1/2 ripe banana, 1 cup almond milk, dash vanilla flavoring, 1/2 c crushed ice, 2 TBSP sesame tahini, 1/8 teaspoon stevia powder, hefty dash cinnamon. Add cacao nibs or if you don’t have those, organic mini dark chocolate chips (1 teaspoon) for additional zip. Blend ice, cashews, tahini, and 2-3 ounces of almond milk together first, until smooth and creamy. Add vanilla and remaining almond milk, and blend again til smooth. Add cacao nibs and blend to desired consistency.
Raw cashews, tahini, and banana with ice, almond milk, vanilla, and stevia make this smooth and creamy.
GI Soother: 2 peeled apples, 3 stalks celery with leaves, 5 mint leaves, 1/3 seeded peeled cucumber, 2 teaspoons ground flax seed or ½ teaspoon flax seed oil, ½ – ¾ cup white grape juice, 2 TBSP whole coconut milk, crushed ice
Not Latte: 1 cup organic brewed iced (decaf) coffee, 1 raw egg, 1/2 teaspoon maple syrup, 1 TBSP sesame tahini, 3 TBSP cashews, 3 ounces almond milk, 3 ounces whole unsweetened canned coconut milk, crushed ice
Power Peanut: ½ soft ripe avocado, 1 TBSP cacao nibs, 1 TBSP hemp protein (such as Nutiva brand), 1 TBSP peanut butter, 3 ounces whole unsweetened canned coconut milk, 3 ounces almond or hemp milk, 1 teaspoon honey, crushed ice
Pineapple Smoothie: Fresh pineapple chunks ¼ cup, 1 ripe banana, 3 ounces whole coconut milk, 3 ounces unsweetened almond milk, dash vanilla, 2 teaspoons flax seed meal, 1 whole egg + 1 TBSP egg protein powder (option: try soaked hemp nuts in this one too)
These two are modified from a favorite book of mine called Raw Food Cleanse, which has several great recipes for smoothies, soups, and dips.
Soup Option, serve warm: ¼ cup raw cashews, 1 cup vegetable broth (such as Imagine brand organic), 6 stalks fresh young asparagus, 2 stalks celery with leaves, ¼ teaspoon fresh thyme leaves – blend all til smooth.
Pumpkin Navel: ¼ cup raw pecans, 1 navel orange, ¼ teaspoon orange zest, ¼ cup pitted dates (soak these ahead of time to soften), dash vanilla, crushed ice, ½ cup almond milk, 2 TBSP cup cooked canned pumpkin puree, 1/2 teaspoon honey or dash stevia
Honeydew Lime Creamsicle: Click here for this really good smoothie – doubles as frozen pops in hot weather.
– For any smoothie with fruits like kiwi, berries, papaya, peaches, pear, or mango, adding a raw egg or ground flax seed will create a creamy texture while adding healthy fats, protein, and minerals. Using egg protein powder is an option too. This will make your smoothies fluffy and creamy at the same time, but won’t add the fats you might like.
– Raw nuts blend to a nice creamy consistency with the right tool – a powerful blender, Vitamix, or Bullet mixer. Soak raw nuts (and seeds) ahead of time if you like a more smooth, less grainy texture.
– Hemp seeds, flax seeds, chia seeds, and cacao nibs are up and coming as alternative sources of protein, healthy fats and oils, and minerals. Add these to any smoothie to boost nutritional value along with calories.
– Wean sugar-holics off their favorite processed calorie booster drinks by making your own without any added sugars: Instead of honey, maple syrup, or molasses, switch to an organic stevia powder, which is potently sweet at a tiny dose. One eighth teaspoon is enough to sweeten an 8 ounce blended drink. Add cinnamon in larger amounts – 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon – to kick up the sweet and benefit from cinnamon’s blood sugar modulating effects.
– Unconventional but healthy options for sweeteners in smoothies can create the creamy texture kids like, plus add extra fiber, vitamins, and minerals to smoothies. Try left over baked sweet potato (skins removed), cooked canned pumpkin, or leftover roasted mashed parsnips, which have a surprisingly pleasant and gentle sweetness when prepared this way (easy, fast, and good; use ghee, not butter, for extra sweetness and to avoid dairy protein).
– Cook brown rice in whole coconut milk with honey, nutmeg, and cinnamon for an alternative to all the pudding your child may have been told to eat. Use a slow, low heat method and add almond or coconut milk to the liquid if needed during cooking. An hour or more of slow cooking may be needed.
– Use coconut milk to make mild (but calorie laden) curry sauces that can go over favorite chicken or fish dishes.
– A good blender or VitaMix will turn raw nut pieces into a creamy smoothie, but organic nut butters are an option if using whole raw nuts is too gritty a texture for your child.
– Get the benefit of butter without the allergy or GMO hassle by using organic ghee (clarified butter). Pricey, but when you need it, you need it. Ghee has a sweeter taste than butter that isn’t clarified.
– Skip the soy. Even if it isn’t genetically modified, it’s a frequent allergy offender, just like dairy protein. And there are endocrine effects from soy that are concerning enough for me to suggest that parents don’t use it as a major daily protein for a child. Translation: A serving here or there is fine, but don’t use it as your child’s protein source at every snack and meal daily. Soy protein is a common addition to bottled smoothies, energy bars, and protein powders.
– If multiple allergies are in the picture – and nuts, eggs, and seeds are out – then work with a knowledgeable nutritionist who can assist with using essential amino acids, medium chain triglycerides, and safe oils to build smoothies around tolerated carbohydrate sources like ripe peaches, pears, avocado, plums, or winter squashes and pumpkin.
These options will give your child several nutrients, healthy fats, more protein, and calories to burn that are head and shoulders above some corn syrup, vitamins, and milk from a cow raised on chemicals. Remember that poor appetite and weak growth pattern can be signs of deeper problems with the GI tract, digestion, absorption, or inflammation. For strategies to sort these out, see either of my books, or get in touch. Troubleshooting growth pattern is one of my specialties in practice.