Holiday season can be stressful, but everything is harder when a child’s diagnosis or condition means s/he isn’t able to manage changes in routines. Travel, packing, preparing meals, mingling with family and guests, sitting at a big family table with cousins, grandparents… loads of fun for no-issue kids, but anguish for others. Celebratory gatherings is one reason why restricted diets get deferred entirely. When you can’t participate in holiday or family food traditions – at a time when some respite and joviality is most needed – it is more isolating! But, it doesn’t have to be that way.
The good news: Not as isolating as it used to be, just a few years ago. In fact, it need not feel isolating at all, once you get the game down. It’s easier than ever to navigate this time of year, for kids with diet restrictions or special supplements protocols. There are more allergen-free foods available than ever before. Support on the web is just about infinite now, for allergy-free cooking and baking. There are even gluten free holiday cookie exchanges popping up. Your family can relax about the food part, and focus on the joy. After many years of doing this for my own family and for my patient families, I’ve come up with “best practices” for this time of year on special diets – here you go:
– This may be the most important thing you do for reducing stress: Forgive your in-laws, ahead of time. Or siblings, parents, grandparents, cousins – whoever is passing judgment on you for working with a special diet for your child, or blaming you for “ruining” the holiday gathering with special food needs. Let it go. Don’t need your relatives to understand; in fact, expect them not to. Don’t try to enlighten them. If you have supportive and understanding family, lucky you! If you don’t, simply release this argument, and it will lift a big burden. Most likely, their concerns are well-intended. Remember that part and let go of the part that (understandably) makes you mad.
– Nothing eases tensions more than kindness. Bake or buy extra gluten free pies; bring a gluten free pie crust (available ready made at many supermarkets now) so it can be filled grandma’s with signature filling and enjoyed by all. Offer to bring alternate main dishes that meet the special diet needs of your family members. Or bring an extra special gift for the host family, with a note acknowledging their efforts.
– Whatever your child can eat, bring enough for many to enjoy. No need to mention that these are allergen-free versions of holiday favorites. Just bring and share.
– Often people simply don’t know how to help, what to say, or what to do. If you’re hosting, give instructions so guests can make it easier for you. They may be relieved – people mostly want to help and be appreciated. If foods appear that your kids can’t eat, instruct your kids as you would anyway about which items are safe for them to eat.
– Ship key items ahead to your destination, if local stores don’t see what you need. Gluten free bread can be shipped direct by Udi’s Gluten Free, Canyon Bakehouse, Rudi’s Bakery, Gluten Free Mall, Thrive Market, and many others. Each of these bakeries offers an assortment of gluten free baked goods too, from muffins and pizza rounds to hamburger buns. I sometimes ship ahead a box filled with gluten free pasta, cookies, baking or pancake mixes, and even the raw goat milk cheddar we use instead of cow’s milk cheeses.
– What about supplements – should you carry them with you? Is it okay to miss them for a few days? Supplements can be as important as prescription medications to your child’s mood, well being, sleep ability, or energy. But too many can be unwieldy at the airport. I often work with families to trim supplement protocols down in general, and especially for travel. You can also easily ship items ahead. Emerson Ecologics bundles brands and products from hundreds of suppliers. If you’d like help setting up your own account for easy ordering and shipping, contact me for more info.
– For food allergy, in addition to bringing your usual medications (Benadryl, EpiPen), consider naturopathic helps too, like activated charcoal, nettles herb, or homeopathic Apis, Urtica urens, or Rhus tox. These can help stop dangerous exposures to allergens in their tracks. Charcoal can be taken orally as well, to bind anything just eaten. Either swallow 1-2 capsules, or open capsule and mix in a 2-4 ounces of water, and swallow (though it looks messy, charcoal doesn’t taste like much, so this is easy to do). You can also pull charcoal mixed with water up into an oral syringe and squirt it in your child’s mouth. It will bind whatever was just eaten to help minimize effects – including medications, supplements, or other foods. It won’t stop anaphylaxis, so have your usual medications at the ready.
– If your child is not anaphylactic, but avoids foods due to intolerance, don’t sweat the small slips. Have chewable enzymes, chewable probiotics, homeopathics or medications on hand to help your child safely digest and excrete foods they typically avoid.
– Plan ahead for rare treats that give your child full inclusion. If your sister’s homemade egg nog is to die for – but full of forbidden ice cream, milk and eggs – let your child enjoy a cup with cousins, if you know this can be safe, with planned use of appropriate enzymes and probiotics. This won’t work for anaphylactic children, but for those with intolerances, a transgression or two may be manageable. I choose from a variety of digestive enzymes and probiotics in my practice to accomplish this – choose one that breaks down casein, with an enzyme called dipeptidyl peptidase IV.
For recipes, check out Gluten Free Baking, Whole Life Nutrition Cookbook, or Gluten Free Italian Cooking – a few of my go-to books for baking and cooking at holiday time. Paleo recipes are always free of allergens like gluten, dairy, or soy, so be sure to peruse this list too. My own book Special Needs Kids Eat Right includes an egg nog recipe for those avoiding dairy and soy. And be sure to peruse my own recipe blog for more ideas. Here’s to a happy and minimal stress holiday season!
Anne Dachel, Age of Autism
Anne Dachel is a contributing editor for Age of Autism and parent of a child affected by autism. I’m grateful for her daily news alerts on all things autism and her tireless effort to advocate for autism awareness. When I sent her a copy of Special Needs Kids Go Pharm-Free, she wrote back “..my copy is now in tatters, having been carried with me in my purse everywhere I went so whenever I got a spare moment, I could read it.” Here are her questions for me about the book.
Your book gives dire statistics right at the beginning about the state of the health of American children. What has happened to children in this country during the last 25 years? Two major changes happened in the 1990s in the US, making American children born since then extremely vulnerable: One, the FDA permitted, with no safety review, the introduction of genetically modified (GMO) foods – including soy and corn, which both go into infant formulas and most processed foods. Two, we upped the vaccine schedule dramatically for infants and children. Both have shown potential to injure the human immune system, brain, gut or other organs‘ development and function, from birth onward. We’re just beginning to understand how detrimental this is for triggering asthma, allergies, inflammation, seizure disorders, autism, or gut/brain injuries that may mean poor outcomes like Crohn’s disease, eosinophilic esophagitis, learning disabilities and conduct disorders – all of which have risen dramatically in children since 1990.
Synergistic effects of GMO foods in pregnancy, in utero, in infancy – plus all the vaccines now recommended – are entirely unknown. For example: The gene inserted into GMO soy makes soy produce its own insecticide. It was found in gut bacteria of human volunteers eating GMO soy – meaning, the gene transcribed to the bacteria in the gut, and “taught” the volunteers’ gut bacteria to make insecticide. I believe this may be why some children with autism and GI problems are so treatment resistant, when it comes to correcting their bowel microflora. Do they have genes operating in there that make antibiotics and probiotics less effective? Nobody knows.
GMO crops are banned in most European countries. The approach there in the ’90s was that no data existed to show these foods were safe, so it was an unacceptable risk. The US approach was the opposite:The FDA said there no proof this is unsafe, so they allowed these highly profitable crops into the food supply. These can trigger allergies more often than their naturally occuring counterparts; other findings of detrimental effects on animals eating GMO feed crops are very disconcerting, from increased miscarriages and organ failures to death. Consumers are just beginning to understand this issue. Eating food that’s genetically modified to produce its own pesticide is something we wouldn’t want to do if given the choice, but Americans were not given the choice. Interestingly, the UK is also a GMO friendly nation, and has an even a higher rate of autism than the US.
Why aren’t doctors expressing alarm over what they’re seeing? Doctors are at a disadvantage for two reasons. One, they don’t study nutrition to a meaningful degree, and have a limited exposure to it. They are inundated with pharmaceutical information during their education and in practice, at the expense of valid information about nutrition or special diets. So, they don’t know how to assess kids for nutrition problems beyond the most obvious, and they don’t know how to provide nutrition care. This leaves children unscreened and untreated; doctors may not even know there is potential for treatment here.
Two, they have no accountability for the injuries that may be caused by vaccines, due to the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program set up in the 1980s and the recent Supreme Court ruling that vaccines are “unavoidably unsafe”. Doctors have zero liability and zero accountability for vaccine injuries. If a child is injured by a vaccine, the doctor never gets sued; they suffer no penalty whatsoever. If a nurse goofs and gives a baby the wrong vaccine at the wrong time, and an injury occurs, there is no recourse at all other than to file a government claim and wait. My own family waited nine years for my son’s case to reach the docket, only to have it thrown out. I think this – along with how lucrative it is to vaccinate children in a pediatric practice – has kept doctors easy for industry to manipulate. This also leaves physicians free of any accountability to treatments for the injured – if they are brainwashed that these injuries aren’t happening, then there is nothing to treat. This leaves families scurrying for help elsewhere.
Your book is about nutritional needs… What’s wrong with what we’re feeding out children? Lots can go wrong with how we feed our kids, even with all our best intentions. But the book is not about what parents are doing wrong, or even what is wrong with food. It’s about strategies that restore a child’s normal appetite, normal curiosity for a variety of foods that are healthful, normal bowel habits, and specific tools to replenish and support brain function with food and nutrients, instead of drugs, where ever possible.
Aren’t agencies like the Food and Drug Administration supposed to be making sure all our food is good for us? What do you mean when you say the FDA is “overwhelmed”? The FDA’s focus has historically been about bacterial contaminants in food, not chemical toxins. There is less of a focus on agricultural chemicals, dyes, preservatives, additives, heavy metals, toxins, or colorings in food. There is no focus at all for monitoring the healthfulness of food, and certainly none at all for monitoring what GMO food does to human beings – the FDA has made it clear it doesn’t care about this with recent industry-friendly steps. It’s an overwhelming task to chase whether the food supply is safe, even in the FDA’s simplest terms; when you have beef in a single hamburger coming from dozens of cows raised in different countries, or juice in one carton from oranges in four countries, that’s a lot of processing over many locations to monitor. That’s just two foods. Parents can be a lot more pro-active than waiting to hear what’s okay to eat from the FDA. Buy organic foods if you can afford them; support your local farmer’s market it you have one; or even grow a few things yourself. This year I am working with an outfit called PersonalFamilyFamers.com to help us grow more of our own food this year.
What are sources we can trust for information on safe and beneficial foods and supplements? The organic label is one help. It’s not perfect, but hopefully your grocer is honest and sourcing with integrity. I encourage buying organic, and that includes meat and eggs as well as produce. Organic foods are non-GMO foods at least in intent; pollen from GMO crops can drift into organic crops, but there is no knowing for sure right now if this is happening. Knowing your growers and grocers is another step, and this is catching on more and more around the US. Use this map to find what’s in your area in this regard. As for supplements, Special Needs Kids Go Pharm-Free devotes a chapter to picking reputable supplements. These can be just as fraught with contaminants, unwanted metals or chemicals, and toxins as food can be.
What do you consider that most critical changes that need to be made? The biggest need I see is waking up the medical community on this. I would love to train pediatricians on the role of nutrition in conditions like adhd, autism, learning disabilities, conduct disorders, and depression/anxiety in children, and the potential for helping these children, without prescription drugs. Right now the pediatric community seems to be asleep at the wheel. A generation of children has slipped through their fingers, fallen victim to chronic disabilities and diseases, and they aren’t doing anything about it. I include a chapter in the book on working with other providers, if you’ve become too frustrated with your pediatrician.
How can nutritional changes reduce the need for prescription drugs? Nutrition impacts learning, sleep, cognition, mood, behavior, and development in children. Most kids I encounter are not eating diets that support those in a normal fashion, and/or, they have problems absorbing their diets that no one has ever assessed or treated. You can’t fix nutrition problems with psychotropic medications, reflux meds, inhalers, or steroids…. You have to identify, sort and prioritize the nutrition puzzle pieces. It’s not unusual for parents to tell me after we’ve had a few months with nutrition care process that their child no longer needs a medication, is using less of it, or has found a totally different one that works much better. We remove the confounding of nutrition problems from the whole picture.
How can school lunches be made healthier? The short answer is money. Schools need money to procure healthy whole foods and prepare them on site, rather than buy packaged food prepared elsewhere that is laden with additives, sugar, salt, trans-fats, and GMO ingredients. Boulder Valley School District is extremely lucky to have professional chef and whole foods advocate Anne Cooper – aka “Renegade Lunch Lady” – directing our Nutrition Services. She has made incredible progress in reducing processed and sugary foods in our school lunches, and bringing in as much organic and locally sourced food as the district can afford – which is a big accomplishment in Colorado, a state that is notoriously weak for funding for education. Ann is a strong national advocate for healthy school lunches – rightly so, since ample data illustrate how crucial nutrition is to better student outcomes.
What is “Splash”? This is a medical food made for children with intestinal inflammation, Crohn’s disease, or multiple food protein allergy. The protein source in it is ready to absorb, that is, it is made up of individual amino acids, rather than whole or partial protein molecules that require some digestion. I first used it for children with autism in my practice about 12 years ago. It was clear that in some cases, it made a dramatic difference. I wanted to know if replenishing the brain with the amino acids would help them progress. The formula is not made for this purpose; it is made to avoid allergic reaction, and to help the gut wall heal. But children with autism may not digest proteins very well; besides causing allergy for some of them, I wondered if this could leave their brains bereft of neurotransmitter ingredients, which we get from proteins in our diets. I noticed that kids in my caseload whom I placed on special diets and who added this formula progressed more for language and reduction of autism features than kids who didn’t add the Splash formula. There is great potential here. Caveats too; the formula has some ingredients that I don’t like; but I do think a subset of kids can do well with this tool or a similar approach, no matter what the developmental diagnosis is, if there are certain deficits in their diets or GI function.
Can you describe some examples of improvements you’ve personally witnessed in children that you’ve worked with? First, kudos to these parents, because they were the boots on the ground. I do the work teasing out the problems and crafting the care plans, but the most success happens when the parents roll up their sleeves and work it. I have seen children move far away from an autism diagnosis; from needing an aide to not needing one; from facing a feeding tube and missing school due to physical weakness, to gaining weight and playing, learning, living again. I’ve seen kids leave behind debilitating eczema or asthma symptoms, and reverse poor growth and gain, after being told they were going to be stunted for life and need growth hormone injections. I have witnessed a teen who was suicidal, nearly non-verbal, constantly bullied, and disengaged while on SSRIs turn into a happy, talkative, engaged, and successful youngster without medications – by successful I mean getting a varsity letter on a sports team when engaging in sports prior to nutrition care was out of the question; getting a job; and making frinds.
What do our children need that they’re not getting from doctors? We need our doctors to stop regarding children with diarrhea, constipation, shiners, bloated bellies, chronic illness, frequent infections, anxiety, insomnia, and developmental disabilities as healthy enough. I would like to see doctors recover their curiosity: Why did they become doctors in the first place? Hopefully it was to do more than hand out prescriptions for Prevacid, Adderall, Amoxicillin, Miralax, and Albuterol, after jabbing a young patient with multiple vaccines at once. This isn’t health care; this is drug-pushing. It may be common now, but it isn’t normal for children to live on polypharmacy. And, though I have a masters degree in public health, I do not believe children need all the vaccines they now get. We have forgotten the role of nutrition in infection. It needs to be re-engaged. I do think we are over-vaccinating infants and children, and that it is causing more harm than good in the US at this point. The polypharmacy-and-hypervaccination approach hasn’t helped our kids, who are more chronically ill and disabled than ever before. We can’t slip into this as a New Normal. In fact, in Vaccine Epidemic, that is the dilemma I wrote about in my chapter.
Are your protocols strictly for “special needs” kids? Nope! I tried to convince my publisher to title the book differently to reflect that, but they felt parents weren’t ready to hear that this affects everybody’s kids. I don’t agree. I sense every week how frustrated parents are with what is happening to their children, and how they feel so unheard and unhelped by the medical community. Maybe in my next book!