Top Five Things You Can Do Right Now
If it isn’t overwhelming enough to juggle the impact of a new diagnosis, special therapies, school meetings, doctors appointments and more, now you might be wondering: Do I really have to do this special diet thing? Where do I start? Here are facts you need, plus the top five things you can do nutritionally, to support your child:
1 – Replenish missing vitamins and minerals for picky eaters with the right high potency supplement
2 – Restore fats and oils essential for brain and nerve processing. Buy a good fish oil, flax oil, chia seeds, and/or flax oil supplements; add ample servings of organic eggs, nuts, seeds, and grass fed meats
3 – Yank all processed food. Period. Ditch everything with corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, colorings, flavorings, added sugars, dyes, and genetically modified foods. Replace with whole foods, real food, and home cooked food as much as possible.
4 – Try elimination diets, starting with gluten, casein, and soy free diet. Stick with it for at least four months, preferably six.
5 – Add high potency probiotics
Facts to know before you start: 1 – Nutrition deficits can cause lifelong impairment in learning, IQ, and development. More than half of children with special needs including autism may have nutrition problems big enough hinder them. Regardless of other therapies, do everything you can to optimize your child’s brain and body for growth and learning, with good nutrition. Without this, the brain functions below potential, and your child may not get the full benefit of other therapies. The earlier children receive optimized nutrition, the better, but you can begin at any age. Note: Good nutrition happens with the right foods and supplements going in, and healthy eliminations going out! If your child can’t comfortably pass stool daily, needs reflux medicine, or relies on medications for constipation, then you have work to do to optimize nutrition.
2 – In the US, physicians get little to no meaningful training in nutrition. They are not trained to apply diets and nutrition as therapies, much less for children with developmental disabilities or autism. So to get started, be sure you also talk to families who have succeeded with nutrition and special diets for their children with autism. My practice has specialized in this since 1999. For more resources, see TACANow.org.
3 – Nutrition and diets treat the nutrition and gastrointestinal problems children with autism often have, not the autism itself. A “side effect” of these treatments is that the brain and body function better. This would be true for any child with a nutrition deficit or gut disease. Get your child assessed by a knowledgeable physician or licensed nutrition professional for these problems. For in-depth strategies on how to do that, see my book Special Needs Kids Eat Right.
Fresh and local gluten free pasta at Boulder’s Farmers’ Market
So You Want To Try “The Diet” Guess what? There is no “diet for autism”. There are several nutrition approaches, including various diet strategies, supplement procotols, and gut health tools. Which one is right for your child? Though each child may have different nutrition priorities, there are many common nutrition findings for kids with autism spectrum diagnoses. So, it’s reasonable to start with these tips below, to replenish your child toward better health and functioning. For detail on how to thoroughly launch a successful intervention, see Special Needs Kids Eat Right: Strategies To Help Kids On The Autism Spectrum Focus, Learn, and Thrive.
If you don’t see progress, don’t give up – this likely means your child’s biggest nutrition problems remain undiscovered, not untreatable. Get help from others who have succeeded, talk to knowledgeable professionals, and check for meetups and support groups in your area.
1 – I’ve reviewed hundreds of food intakes of kids on the autism spectrum, so I can vouch for their legendary picky eater status. Their diets tend to be weak for minerals – so, mineralize! Put back missing vitamins too. These are critical co-factors for learning, mood, sleep, and energy. Give your child a high potency multivitamin and mineral supplement daily. Pick the format best for your child: Chewable, liquid, capsule, or powder. Then get started. Multi’s built for this task may not be on store shelves, such as these examples, available from health care providers or on the web: ProThera VitaTab, Klaire Labs VitaSpectrum, or Kirkman Labs TheraResponse. Each of these delivers high potency minerals with full dose or higher for B group vitamins, another notable helper for kids with autism. Caveat: Don’t give more than indicated for your child’s weight, and use these in the morning or early afternoon, not in the evening. If your child uses medications, check with your pharmacist or doctor on when to take a new supplement: Some drugs impede nutrient absorption, and vice versa. Browse these products right now from the Nutrition Care For Children virtual dispensary that I set up for my own patients. Enter with access code MyNCFC and password 80303 (my office zip code). Follow the prompts from here to set up your own account, if you want to purchase.
2 – Kids eating mostly processed starchy foods get nearly no healthy fats and oils, which are essential for the human brain to grow and function. If possible, add nuts, nut butters, seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, flax), meats, eggs, or olive oil, and give your child an omega 3 fatty acid supplement daily. Use about 1000mg to 3000mg of mixed “DHA” (docohexaenoic acid) and “EPA” (eicosapentanoic acid). Choose a high quality brand carefully screened for mercury and potency, such as Pharmax, Spectrum Essentials, Nordic Naturals, or Barlean’s. Barlean’s makes a product even picky children like called “Omega Swirl” which is good on pancakes, muffins, cupcakes, or just off the spoon. Caveat: Children on medications for bipolar disorder should check with their prescribers first to review safe dosing of EPA omega 3 fatty acid. These products can also be browsed in the dispensary.
3 – Ditch processed food, sugar-added food, and junky drinks, punch, soda, and flavored waters with artificial ingredients. Period. It may sound impossible, but it isn’t. Roll up your sleeves and commit to your child’s better health and functioning. Artificial ingredients like colorings, dyes, fake sweeteners, corn syrup, genetically modified foods, and flavorings have been linked to ADHD, behavior challenges, and even organ damage. High fructose corn syrup has been found to contain mercury, leftover from its processing. Map a plan that you can live with to replace all those convenient snack foods and frozen items, and switch in real whole foods – organic if you can afford it. Take on as much as you can – even a few more servings of real, wholesome food over processed empty food will begin to help your child each week. Even if you can only manage removing all foods and drinks with high fructose corn syrup, it’s worth the effort.
4 – Ready for more? Trial an elimination diet, by eradicating all dairy protein (casein, whey), all gluten (wheat, rye, some oats, barely, and many flavorings, seasonings, condiments), and all soy. Start here for help on how. Starting with gluten makes sense simply because there are so many gluten free versions of food now available, from pasta and bread to pie crusts and pretzels. Then work on the milk, cheese, butter, yogurt, ice cream – any and all sources of foods made with cow’s milk or cheese have to go. Substitutes for cheese and milk are a little trickier, but still workable (Note: Do not switch in soy milk or soy yogurt!). These foods cost more, but you may be saving money in the long run because of your child’s improved health and functioning. Give this trial at least 4 months, no cheating. See my book Special Needs Kids Eat Right for more on why soy can cause your intervention to fail, the rationale for elimination diets, and how to implement them successfully.
5 – Gut it – That is, get your child’s gut functioning optimally. If your child is dependent on medications for constipation and reflux, then it’s time to clean house – this means nutrients are not absorbed to potential. Talk with your doctor about how to wean off of those nutrient-robbing medications. If no alternatives are offered, see Special Needs Kids Go Pharm Free for strategies to help your child have normal bowel function without prescription medications that interfere with nutrition. A simple start: Give a chewable high potency probiotic daily like Klaire Labs Prodegin (also in the dispensary), daily for 2-3 months. If no progress and those medications are still needed, consider talking to a naturopathic doctor (ND) for more ideas.
This is only the beginning. Your child’s birthright of strong nutrition will help replenish him to his potential, autism or no. Dive in, reach out for help and support, and stick with it.
Sunday is food shopping day (er, night) in my house. My husband took this on years ago – it’s his job. He is better at it than me – faster, more organized, more clinical (he’s an engineer). I get distracted. I’m too interested in new stuff on the store shelves, I meander, I like to read labels on items I don’t even buy just because it’s interesting – even the junk, because I’m amazed by what passes for food, what fills the aisles, what people are buying. I take too long and spend too much. He fired me.
He also sits us both down before the shop, to pin down exactly what our meals will be for the coming week. That can be the hardest part – we blank out. So we keep a list of dinners made over the years and add to it often, when we find a new idea we all like. This has really helped my family eat well. We are spendy on good organic food, and don’t eat out often – something not all families can swing – but just the act of choosing what’s for dinner a week in advance is a worthy time, money, and health saver. Here’s some ideas to get you started – in my house, these meals have to be free of gluten, soy, corn, dairy, and most nuts.
Salmon with saffron sauce and chick peas
…Salmon with saffron sauce and chick peas (Recipe from Hummus and 65 Other Delicious Recipes) with brown rice
…Minestrone Soup from scratch (Recipe from Special Needs Kids Eat Right) with GF Chebe rolls (store bought mix)
…Meatloaf (Recipe from Special Needs Kids Eat Right) with quinoa cooked in chicken broth, green salad, green beans. Sounds pedestrian but try this recipe. It’s good.
…Vegetable Frittata over GF Penne (use any veggies but we like asparagus, onion, spinach, mushroom, and pepper)
…Lentil Shepherds Pie with green salad (here’s the basic idea of this recipe; we use So Delicious or Silk coconut milk instead of cow’s milk, ghee, and green beans instead of corn)
…Pork or Chicken Adobo with brown rice and baked sweet potato
…Spaghetti and meatballs (from Special Diets for Special Kids), green salad, summer squash with oregano, Chebe rolls
…Curried chick pea skillet dinner (from Special Needs Kids Eat Right) over spiral GF pasta
…Coconut chicken curry with sweet potato over rice
…Thai red curry sauce over mahi or haddock (if available) from Blanchard’s A Trip To The Beach with GF risotto and ginger carrots (slice fresh carrots into skillet with olive oil and fresh ginger slices. Add a dusting of curry powder, dash honey, and enough chicken broth to keep from sticking. Cook to desired softness over medium heat).
Adding lemon slices while cooking chicken picatta makes it even better
…Portuguese kale soup (recipes abound, our own version is in Special Needs Kids Eat Right), Chebe rolls.
…Kale calzones with brown rice green pea salad
…Roast chicken, potato, onion, carrot – baked in one big Pyrex. We buy a half chicken with skin; the organs that come with it go to the cats.
…GF penne pasta with pesto – we make ours with pine nuts, which are safe in our house (not walnuts), and skip the parmesan in the recipe.
…Stuffed bell peppers (blanch the peppers, then stuff with whatever mixture you like: raisins, bread crumbs, leftover minced pork or ham, pine nuts, cashews, onions, mushrooms, brown rice, your favorite seasonings – then bake), chicken sausage
…More: Lemon chicken picatta, home made chili, pork loin, stuffed pork chops or chicken (we use mushrooms, minced ham, onion, bread crumbs – whatever is on hand); pot roast or beef stew, lentil soup and hot dogs
…A side of fresh vegetable, stir fried greens, and/or fresh garden salad with homemade dressing is almost always on the table, when vegetables are not featured as a main course.
No doubt I am blanking out again as I type, which is why I keep cookbooks on hand that I like to thumb through again and again – like The Victory Garden Cookbook (1982), Yankee Magazine’s Favorite New England Recipes (1972), Whole Life Nutrition Cookbook (2006), Top One Hundred Pasta Sauces (1987), Gluten Free Italian Cookbook (2008), Hummus and 65 Other Delicious Recipes (2006), a now dog eared Joy of Cooking that was given to me in 1979, and many others. Whether you can manage just one or two home cooked meals a month, or several a week, make them special occasions where your family knows they are being cherished with good healthy food.
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!
This may be the one question I’m asked most often: How can I change my child’s appetite? Picky appetites in kids are common, but not necessarily normal or healthy. If your child has been eating fewer than ten foods for more than a year, something is amiss. Your child is probably not getting all the nutrients needed for optimal growth, learning, mood, and functioning. While a whole industry has evolved around foods just for that limited kid palate, consider what is done in other countries with healthier populations: There is no kid food. There’s just food.
That was the US, not all that long ago. Other than breakfast cereals, which were just getting steam as marketing vehicles for kids when I was growing up, we just ate food. Nobody blinked. It wasn’t because my mom was a particularly fearsome presence at the dinner table, demanding compliance. We liked the food. So we ate it, pretty much.
But times have changed. I know of many kids who are legendary-picky – kids who eat only noodles or pasta with butter, and chocolate milk, day after day, year after year. Or just coffee cake, and milk – literally. Some kids venture into as many as four foods – pizza, mac and cheese, grilled cheese, and noodles with butter (which is really just two foods, wheat and dairy). I sigh a little each time I’m in a restaurant with a gorgeous farm to table menu, but pass by a table with the bowl of pasta, Parmesan, and butter for the eight year old, while everyone else enjoys the cornucopia we are so fortunate to have in the US.
There are myriad cookbooks full of tricks to slip vegetables and fruits into foods your child does like to eat. While you work on those, think about a longer term goal of seeing your child naturally gravitate to a variety of foods. Add these simple steps to trigger some innate curiosity in your child’s appetite. Allow at least two months for these tools to fully engage. It takes time for nutrients to be absorbed into spaces and places where they’ve been lacking for a long while, and get back on line doing their usual jobs.
Step 1 – Probiotics! You’ve no doubt heard about these friendly, helpful bacteria. Microflora, healthy gut bugs, probiotics – call them what you will – but make sure your child is hosting the right bacteria in his gut to support a healthy appetite. Eating a little yogurt every day – especially the squeezable fruity flavored kind – is not enough to do the trick. High daily doses of probiotics are needed to bust a picky appetite. These help digest food, produce nutrients we need, run interference on inflammation, maintain optimal pH for good digestion, and keep pathogenic bacteria, viruses, and mold species (yeast or Candida) under control. These gut microbes eat what we eat, and they eat first. They either leave behind toxins, or good stuff, depending on whether the intestine is harboring healthy or unhealthy microflora.
They also drive appetites. What I’ve observed for years in practice is just emerging in medical literature: Kids who have lost these good “bugs” tend to have either weak, picky appetites with reflux, or appetites that are ravenous but only for starchy foods or sweets. This is often a gut with Candida species (yeasts or molds) in control. Antibiotics kill bacteria but not yeasts or molds, so with each antibiotic dose, yeast microbes will flourish anew in the gut. As they crowd out the good bugs, they change gut pH over time so that digestion weakens, and can trigger reflux, constipation, or malabsorption. Yeast desperately needs simple carbs (as anyone who has baked with it will know), and this makes for fiercely rigid appetites in children whose guts are overly yeasty. Children may or may not show any other signs of yeast overgrowth besides that rigid appetite, so this often goes untreated. Confirmatory signs are large or painful-to-pass stools, constipation, ringworm patches, relentless red itchy diaper rash or rash at groin, urine or stool incontinence, bloating, a history of thrush in infancy… and, a penchant for bread, bread, sweets, pasta, bread, pizza, bagels, and bread.
What to do: Buy a high potency, high quality probiotic and have your child use it daily for at least three months. Look for a potency guarantee; a potency of 20 billion colony forming units (CFUs) per dose or more; mixed strains of Lactobacillus and Bifido species; and, no fillers. Many probiotics contain ingredients like inulin, which are added as food for the probiotic cultures – this is optional. Others have dairy ingredients, which are best avoided. There are many probiotic products out there – some of the best are only available on line or through health care providers. For more information about purchasing and administering these, see Special Needs Kids Go Pharm Free.
Sidebar: Kids whose guts are not colonized early in life with healthy microflora have more asthma, allergies, and problems with growth, feeding, and stooling. Besides taking antibiotics, kids can also lose these healthy microflora colonies if they were born via C-section delivery, if mom was given antibiotics while breastfeeding, or if they needed time in the NICU after birth.
Step 2 – Replenish zinc. This mineral has a big impact on appetite and power to improve a reluctant eater’s habits. Like most minerals, it is usually lacking in picky eaters’ food intakes. Most kids’ multivitamins don’t have enough zinc to overcome a poor eating pattern. Kids who have oral tactile sensitivity, who balk at varying food textures, who fall apart and stop eating if they encounter a novel texture, taste, or color in their food are often candidates for zinc replenishment. It’s a make-or-break nutrient for growth and onset of puberty too – so if your child seems later than expected in starting that pubertal boost, and has an appetite limited to starchy foods and milk, then there may be too little zinc in the mix. Besides a faint or mercurial appetite, other flags for low zinc are frequent infection, poor wound healing, skin that cracks near nails, white dots on nails, hypersensitivity to smells (and eventually, loss of sense of smell), or low taste acuity.
Zinc can be found aplenty in nuts, pork, dark meat poultry, cauliflower, eggs, some fruits and vegetables, and even pumpkin seeds. If this variety isn’t cpart of your child’s menu, add a chewable zinc lozenge or tablet (there are many on the market) that gives 15-20 mg zinc per lozenge; use it daily with food for 6-8 weeks, then check progress for appetite or other signs that describe low zinc. Your doctor can always check zinc status with a blood test too. 15-20 mg of zinc is a bit higher than the government’s dietary reference intake for healthy kids with good diets, but is workable because zinc has substantially lower toxicity than minerals like iron, and we’re talking about restoring a depleted status. I’ve dosed zinc to as high as 50 mg/day safely for children in my practice, but this is a path to take with professional guidance. Too much zinc can drive iron status downward, so don’t go overboard.
If a daily lozenge is a battle: Metagenics Zinc Drink (15 mg per teaspoon) is a tasteless colorless liquid that vanishes in juice, water, or any liquid. Available at many on line supplement sites or through health care providers. Other liquid preparations abound; many of these add magnesium and calcium too. Use these only at the lowest effective dose. Questions? Send me an e mail through my contact form at NutritionCare.net, or check with your doctor.
Step 3: Restore iron. This crucial nutrient is overlooked for kids, more than you might think. Iron deficiency anemia is not uncommon in American children; many more may have marginal iron status, a condition that precedes outright anemia that your pediatrician can discern with a blood test for ferritin, a protein that stores iron. Though pediatric reference ranges for ferritin drop as low as 10 (depending on the lab doing the test), a ferritin level below 30 usually coincides in my experience with some compromise in learning, attention, behavior, sleep – and appetite. Kids with weak iron status or anemia may put non-food items in their mouths often, to chew on or even try to eat: Ice, snow, dirt, dirty snow, sand, pebbles, wood, fabric, plastic toys, pencils, paper, or other objects are typical choices for a child in poor iron status. Other signals for poor iron status are pallor, irritability, insomnia, dark circles at eyes, outright lethargy and breathlessness with little exertion, or recurring infections. If this describes your child, tell your pediatrician so your child can be screened for iron status. The most informative testing includes ferritin, serum iron, hemoglobin and hematocrit, total iron binding capacity (“TIBC”) and perhaps a blood cell count (CBC).
Examples of some iron rich foods are lentils, kidney beans, chick peas (garbanzo beans) red meats, liver, sesame seeds or sesame butter (tahini), eggs, or dried prunes. Wheat breads and cereals (not the gluten-free versions) are often fortified, but I have encountered children with weak iron status who were eating these fortified items daily. Picky kids usually shun the other iron rich foods, or eat them too infrequently for them to keep up iron stores.
Restoring good iron status is easy to do with gentle, low doses of supplements or herbs (licorice, nettles, dandelion, thyme). Iron in good stead can help your child’s appetite broaden, and may trigger other benefits. If your child isn’t using an iron supplement, you can add one – but don’t give doses above 5-7 mg of iron daily, without your doctor’s guidance. You can also check if your child’s multivitamin has any iron in it. If it has only 5 mg per dose or less, your child may need more. Check with your doctor. Given to excess, iron is toxic and even fatally poisonous so don’t use iron supplements without guidance.
What to do: Two easy tools to supplement iron when necessary are VegLife chewable iron tablets (18 mg per tablet) for older children who weigh more or for children with very low ferritin, and Floradix Iron Plus Herbs liquid (10 mg in 2 teaspoons) for younger kids who need a daily reliable iron source. These are low dose and well tolerated by children in my experience. The Floradix liquid vanishes well in dark berry juices. I prefer food based forms or gentle supplemental forms like ferrous bis glycinate. Ferrous sulfate (the form usually prescribed by doctors for anemia) seems to trigger more stomach pain, constipation, and nausea than food-based forms or ferrous bis-glycinate.
Give these three steps three months to work for your child. Changes will be gradual, so consider a pre and post log book on what your child is eating. Check in with your doctor if you’re not certain for dosing supplements. If your child’s appetite hasn’t budged after these steps, I’d like to know about it!