It’s just a few days away. Your kids are already bouncing around with excitement. School activities are over-the-top Halloween focused. This will sound old and farty: Nobody had costume parades, Halloween parties, or spooky treats in my 1960s elementary school days. Sure, our pumpkin art projects got pasted around the classroom, but nobody wore costumes to school. That was verboten. No cupcakes, no candy at school. You just had to wait until after school. School was not the place for all the classroom merry making that it is today (no cupcake wars). Waiting like this definitely made Halloween afternoon and evening all the more exciting!
And, nobody worried too much about eating Halloween candy. The main candy dilemma was managing squabbles between sibs or friends about candy trades. Food allergies were unheard of, literally. Try that on: No one had a peanut allergy. No one had an anything food allergy. And, candy was not so ubiquitous. It just wasn’t in your face every day like it is now. Candy wasn’t eaten on a regular basis.
We didn’t have GMO corn syrup (possibly more allergenic), high fructose corn syrup (a reliable mercury source), trans fats (nasty for young brains), or a bunch of other oddities now in food. The amount of weird processed stuff marketed so relentlessly to moms and kids now didn’t exist. No squeeze tube yogurts (this is essentially candy), many fewer processed soft drink or soda options (candy), no Goldfish Colors (is that food?), power bars (many are sugared oats with vitamins sprinkled in, so… candy). Halloween candy was an actual treat, not a daily, disguised-as-food lunchbox item.
So now what? Twenty-first century Halloween candy is rife with all sorts of chemicals that nobody should eat, especially kids, who are smaller and have lesser capacity to process toxins that us adults. But, it’s Halloween!
If it works for your family to entirely defer the candy frenzy, of course that’s healthier physically, but it will probably make your kids miserable to be left out. Your options depend on your kids, and your intuition as a parent. Kids on special diets who avoid colors, additives, or allergens obviously have to be especially careful: Feingold diet followers will go bonkers if they get some Haribo gummy candies. Luckily, there’s an enzyme for that!
If your kids do eat a color, additive, or food that they don’t tolerate, you can give various enzymes to help process the offending food. It may not eliminate your child’s reaction, but it may mitigate it. This won’t work for serious food allergens, so keep the Epi-pen handy! Options:
• Use a DPP-IV enzyme for a wheat/dairy transgression. Two chewable or capsules for a single serving of the “wrong” food, up to four enzymes at once is fine.
• Use a broad spectrum enzyme like Tri-Enza if you’re not sure which foods were eaten or to help digest creepy sugars and corn syrup along with some wheat or dairy. Same dosing as above.
• Use a phenol enzyme like No-Fenol to help manage those colors and dyes. Chewable versions of these are available.
• If your child can swallow capsules, encapsulated charcoal will bind whatever your child just ate, in case they really ate something they should not. Charcoal will grab and carry whatever is in the gut with it out in stool. Check with your doctor first – it will also bind and carry any medications present in the gut at the same time.
• Buy candy made with organic cane sugar, colorings from vegetable extracts, and
unprocessed fats or oils, rather than high fructose corn syrup, fake food dyes, and artificially manipulated fats, which, undesirable as all this sugary fatty stuff is, is actually easier for a human liver to manage. Yup, it’s more expensive. How much do you value stuff like… sleep? Kids may sleep better (and hence you as well) and have fewer meltdowns after eating candy that is made of naturally occurring substances rather than Rubric’s-cube-for-your-liver type chemicals.
• Don’t demonize candy. A neutral attitude works wonders.
There is a whole universe of organic Halloween candy out there, awaiting your perusal. This may lower your children’s toxic load and reactions to some degree. If you are feeding your family healthy whole foods most the time, barring any dangerous reactions to known trigger items, a day or two of candy should not tumble your child for long. If it does, some nutritional support and clean up is in order.
Here’s to a fun, safe Halloween for our kids. Make the memories good, not stressful. A little candy is fun and lets your kids have adventures with peers. Whether or not you use Switch Witch trickery at your house, these candy tricks can make it a little easier to enjoy the treats.
In my pediatric nutrition practice, moms often ask: Is it worth it to spend the extra money on organic foods and pricier supplements brands? My opinion is yes. I often witness how children respond to different foods and supplements, to cheaper brands versus brands of supplements with stricter purity standards, to shifting from processed to more whole foods.
CNN recently reported on a study published in the journal Pediatrics about children with ADHD: They found that children with ADHD were twice as likely to have higher levels of a common pesticide than children who did not have ADHD. In other words, pesticides commonly used on fruits and vegetables may contribute to ADHD prevalence in the US. Are chronic, small pesticide exposures enough to trigger ADHD in a child? Meanwhile, as any parent who has seen success with a Feingold diet knows, food colorings and preservatives of all sorts have long been suspected of triggering hyperactivity or other problems in children – see this list of 9 additives in particular that have been linked to ADHD.
That is one reason why I encourage families to buy organic foods when possible, even though they cost more. Buying locally from a trusted grower is even better – because you can actually visit or talk to that grower if you want, to see if their methods comply with organic guidelines. Another reason is because – back in 1988, when I was in graduate school – I wondered: Do organic foods have better nutrient profiles? It turns out they often do. Grain crops raised organically may have better amino acid profiles – which means that though they may have less total protein than a conventionally raised version, the protein is of better quality and more nutritious. Fruit crops show more vitamin C and antioxidants when raised organically.
Next on the list of much talked-about toxins are heavy metals like lead, mercury, arsenic, or hexavalent chromium. These are ubiquitous in our environment. Mercury now taints many foods we eat, from high fructose corn syrup to fish. One study found that a serving of high fructose corn syrup contained half a microgram of mercury (0.5 micrograms), and estimated a potential daily mercury intake from foods at about 28 micrograms for Americans. Children and teens may eat as many as 7 tablespoons of high fructose corn syrup daily, from soft drinks, condiments, processed foods, candy, and chewable supplements. This can mean a mercury exposure of about 10 micrograms daily, just from high fructose corn syrup.
By comparison, a flu shot contains about 25 micrograms mercury; and, the EPA guidelines suggest we limit mercury exposure to 0.1 microgram per kilogram body weight daily. For a 60 pound child, that means encountering less than 3 micrograms of mercury daily. For a pregnant woman, this may mean no more than 5 micrograms of mercury exposure daily. We haven’t even talked about coal burning power plants – another mercury source – and it’s easy to see that how easy it is to surpass mercury exposure limits, depending on what we eat.
Lately the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics have had renewed interest in lead screening for children. Over the years, the level of lead in blood deemed acceptable by these agencies has repeatedly dropped – meaning, there is no safe level of exposure to this neurotoxin, second only to mercury on the list of heavy metals with potential for neurotoxic effects. Lead is a common contaminant in supplements. This is an especially big concern for children who have poor iron status, because those children will absorb more lead than kids in healthy iron status. These metals compete for absorption, and lead is readily taken up by the body in lieu of iron, when iron is not adequately situated in cells and tissues that need it. Lead exposures early on can permanently impair IQ and learning ability.
What about arsenic? From chickens and eggs to playground equipment, arsenic has been found in places our kids go and foods they eat. It may contaminate supplements too, along with pesticide residues and a form of chromium called hexavalent chromium, or Cr-6 for short. Chromium in its “trivalent” form is essential to humans – without it, we can’t regulate blood sugar normally. But in the hexavalent form, it’s highly toxic and known carcinogen, as anyone who has seen the movie Erin. A Consumer Labs review of some supplements found hexavalent chromium contaminants.
Just like the food industry, the supplement industry is challenging for the FDA to adequately monitor, and may not have purity guidelines as strict as parents would like. It often falls on the manufacturer to self-impose strong standards for a product’s purity and potency. But you do have the ultimate power, in your wallet. Buy only what you feel is best for your family’s health and well being. Compare purity standards among supplement manufacturers. If you’re not sure, ask for info from the manufacturer. If you’re not satisfied, move on. In Special Needs Kids Go Pharm-Free, I devote a chapter on “Know Before You Buy” to help families understand differences in purity standards for supplements. Now that I’m done giving you the bad news, here’s the good news on what you can do:
1 – Know your growers. Eat organic and locally sourced meats, eggs, dairy, fruits, and vegetables when possible, given your budget. Check LocalHarvest.org for an organic grower near you.
2 – Grow a garden this year. Start planning now for your kitchen garden, whether it’s herbs on your windowsill, cherry tomatoes in patio crocks, or more in a small patch in the yard. Easy crops for beginners are lettuce, pole beans, bell peppers, carrots, or herbs. You’ll know exactly what you’re eating!
3 – When buying supplements, demand the best. Compare purity standards, which vary based on a manufacturer’s commitment to quality. For example, fish oils should be strictly mercury free; calcium supplements should be rigorously screened for lead and other contaminants; probiotics should guarantee potency; any supplement should be free of pesticide contaminants, and fillers with no function.
4 – And, just because a supplement is costlier, it may not be better. Ask the manufacturer what toxins they screen their products for, and how. Transparency is the key – if you are told this is proprietary, it may be wise to choose another product.
Biomedical interventions for autism can get a little overwhelming
Recently I held a “Biomedical Troubleshooting” session at the Imagine! Colorado offices, sponsored by Autism Society of Boulder County. Both veteran and newbie parents showed up – parents who had done everything from heavy metals chelation and special diets, to nothing but behavioral interventions – but across the board, the same questions were asked: Which diet does my kid need for an autism diagnosis? What lab tests? Special food, weird meal routines, hours in the kitchen making bone broths and nut milks – is it worth it?
Well, there is no “diet for autism”. Every child with autism in my practice is unique. There are several nutrition and GI problems that come up often with an autism diagnosis, and these are treatable. I map those for families, using clinical standards for nutrition assessment as well as functional nutrition lab tests that look deeper for problems. Find the trouble, make a plan to fix it, and children feel, function, learn, grow and behave better. Nutrition perfectly supports and complements all your child’s other interventions. All are important. But none unravel underlying physiological barriers to progress the way a targeted nutrition program can.
It comes down to being a nutrition detective, and finding that nutrition understory that is meaningful in your child’s case. Whether you have placed your child on Gut and Psychology Syndrome diet (GAPS), Specific Carbohydrate diet (SCD), gluten – casein free (GFCF), low oxalate (LOD), Body Ecology diet, yeast free diet, Paleo, Feingold, or no diet at all – you first need to know if it’s the right measure for your child. I meet families week after week who implement special diets without expert help. Sometimes it works wonders… and sometimes it just drives a family nuts.
This didn’t emerge anew in the last few years, just for kids with autism. I’ve been a registered dietitian since 1989. In both my graduate and undergraduate training, much emphasis was placed on infant and child health, and how nutrition impacts these. Since about the mid 1990s, “biomedical treatment for autism” tools have tapped tenets in pediatric nutrition, and expanded on that evidence base with an integrative medical approach. This works for kids with any chronic condition – from autism, to ADHD, epilepsy, growth or feeding problems, Down’s syndrome, or severe behavior and mood problems. And, good news, pieces of this may be accessible within insurance networks you already have.
For instance, before you leap into provoked urine toxic metals tests, spaghetti squash fries, and methylcobalamin injections (all of which their place when indicated), knock off the simple stuff first with your mainstream physician. These are things that can also profoundly impact a child’s behavior, sleep, growth, learning, appetite, immune function, or development – and may prevent progress with more novel therapies if left unaddressed:
1 – Is your child underweight, below 5th percentile for age for body mass index (check here), eating enough most the time? A shortage of just one or two hundred calories a day over the long term is enough to derail a child. In fact, low body mass index is linked to more frequent, more severe infections in kids, as well as more difficulty with sleep, behavior, focus, and attention.
2 – Does your child hold it together through the school day, then blow up or show rage and reactivity once home? Does this shift abruptly with a hefty snack? Check usual calorie needs for kids here, to see if your child is coming up short. Check usual protein needs here. You can also work with your provider to screen for bowel infections, and rule out inflammation from foods with food allergy and food sensitivity testing – both of these can drive mood swings, anxiety, and appetite in kids. If your in network provider isn’t familiar with thorough testing, this is my niche – schedule a free ten minute chat to talk to me!
3 – Got iron? Iron is key for learning, focus, attention, mood, behavior, sleep, and immune function. Some children with autism don’t absorb or metabolize this typically; anemia and poor iron status are common problems for children with or without autism, across the US. Balancing iron metabolism is crucial for kids. Ask your pediatrician to check ferritin, serum iron, and transferrin to get a sense of whether diet or supplements can help. Ferritin levels below 30 – though considered “in reference range” – usually correlate with lesser ability for focus, attention, and behavior – plus more frequent infections – in my experience. Since iron can become toxic if used incorrectly, don’t use iron supplements for a child without your provider’s input.
4 – Got pica? If your child puts non-food items in his mouth often, eats non food items, has oral tactile sensitivity for certain food textures, or has difficulty swallowing or tolerating food textures in his mouth, then a review of mineral intakes from foods or supplements is in order. These symptoms can signal problems like poor status for iron or zinc, or heavy metals exposures. Eating non-food is called pica, and is a classic flag for mineral imbalances. Learn more about pica here. Correcting mineral balance can dramatically improve behavior, mood, self regulation, anxiety, rageful reactions, and more.
5 – Gut biome – the bacteria populating your intestines – is crucial for digestion, absorption, and even immune function. Is your child dependent on Miralax or reflux medication? Needed antibiotics? These can disrupt that biome, and change how foods and nutrients are digested and absorbed. If your child isn’t able to pass comfortable stool daily without prescription medications, then screen for bowel infections or inflammation from foods. Many functional nutrition lab tests can define the biome in enough detail to direct treatments, so chronic constipation or diarrhea can be resolved. Normal passage of stools means optimal uptake of nutrients, and this means the brain gets what it needs to function every day.
6 – If you feel you’ve done it all and just want to throw in the towel, two thoughts: One, call me and let’s see if you really un-turned all the possible stones. Two, call me, and let’s discuss how to explore immune dysregulation (autoimmune reactions, immune deficiency) as an underlying piece of an autism presentation. Promising treatments are becoming more and more available and I am happy to pass these resources on to my patient families.
There are many other nutrition-detective steps I take in practice to bring children through assessment. We create a sequence that fits your family. In fact, nutrition intervention may be one of the least expensive and most beneficial tools you engage. I offer new patient families a six month, six visit Nutrition Transition package for at $1200 that maps the journey, from lab tests to supplements, foods, recipes, and meal plans. We move at a good clip and get results. I find discounted supplements and lab test fees where possible for my patient families, and throw in free copies of my books too.
Jumping out of sequence can backfire, which is why many families have mixed results when using nutrition care, biomedical tools, and special diets for autism. But working a methodical, professionally monitored nutrition plan may afford your child a few nice leaps, before you order up a $3500 battery of tests with an out-of-network doctor and pay thousands for six hours of his face time. For more info on sequencing, troubleshooting, and using nutrition-focused tools for autism, see Special Needs Kids Eat Right and Special Needs Kids Go Pharm-Free. And, call me!