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.
A friend of mine is a care provider for a disabled adult. She told me a little about this man, who is in his forties, and what kind of care he needs. He is infantile due to a head injury as a boy. She happened to mention, “he has pica” – so, all sorts of non-food things have to be kept out of his reach lest he eat them or chew them. Well, he can’t chew, she explained. He doesn’t have teeth, so all his food is pureed. No teeth at all.
Why no teeth, I asked. Did they all rot? Did he lack access to dental care at some point? Does he have poor immune function? My friend wasn’t sure because the teeth were gone when she began working with this man, but she implied his teeth were removed because of his pica “behavior”.
Somewhere along the way, apparently, it was decided that the best solution to this behavior was to remove all this man’s teeth.
I hope this isn’t true. I’m hoping there is a reasonable explanation for why this individual no longer has teeth – besides ignorance on the part of a physician or dental surgeon somewhere – but my friend confirms that this disabled man’s primary care doctor has told them that pica is purely a behavior.
Not exactly. Pica is a well-known clinical sign of iron deficiency anemia. It also indicates other mineral imbalances or deficiencies – like zinc or magnesium deficiency, or copper or lead toxicity. Mouthing or chewing objects is expected for teething babies, or during the developmental phase when oral exploration is key. Beyond that, persistently eating things that aren’t food – erasers, dirt, sand, rocks, clay, metal objects, plastic, wood, ice – should be regarded as a flag for iron deficiency anemia, zinc deficiency, or mineral imbalances for magnesium, copper, lead, cadmium, or manganese.
Could it be in this day and age that such a fundamental tenet of nutrition was overlooked? Or even more crazy, that it might have cost a developmentally disabled adult who can’t speak for himself every tooth in his head? Was this man’s suffering avoidable?
Possibly. His head injury may have left him with pica that is purely behavioral or developmental in origin. But, it’s simple to screen for mineral imbalances by checking clinical signs and lab tests. My friend tells me she has no idea if anyone ever did this for this man. It can be straightforward to correct pica with the right nutrition measures. When this is done, pica “behavior” can resolve or improve – as can other behaviors that attend mineral deficits or toxicities, like aggression, attention deficits, criminality, or even schizophrenia.
Pica can mean that minerals necessary for learning, growth, behavior modulation, and development are not fully on board, or that they have been displaced by toxic minerals instead. It’s common in people with developmental disabilities, including autism – not a coincidence, in my opinion. Neurotoxic effects of excessive lead, cadmium, copper, or mercury are well known; costs of deficiency for essential minerals in utero or early in life are old news too. Stunting, learning delays, behavior problems, attention deficits, and lower IQ have all been linked to pica and/or mineral imbalances. Pica can also predispose people to greater lead exposure, for two reasons: They may ingest objects containing lead; and, the lower one’s iron status is, the easier it is to absorb more lead, with any exposure.
Before it’s assumed that eating weird stuff is just a behavior – especially in a developmentally or learning disabled person – a doctor should do a full iron study. Blood work should assess ferritin, serum iron, total iron binding capacity (TIBC), hemoglobin, and hematocrit. Your doctor might look at red blood cell shape, size, and number to fully rule out anemia or pre-anemia. Reference ranges for iron parameters are wide. Children should fall solidly in the middle of the ranges for ferritin and serum iron. Teetering at either edge of the range, high or low should prompt more investigation. Marginal iron markers often go hand in hand with inattention, insomnia, picky appetites, or behavior and learning deficits. It is also wise to check serum copper, serum zinc, and ceruloplasmin (a copper transport protein in the blood), to rule out toxic levels of copper. Copper circulating unbound in serum can become neurotoxic, while ceruloplasmin will safely transport this mineral for us. Adequate zinc status can keep copper levels in check.
People with iron deficiency anemia often have pica for pebbles, ice, sand, dirt, clay or metal objects. Those with poor zinc status often uncontrollably chew fabric, clothing, erasers, wood, or pencils, or clench and grind teeth, in sleep or when awake.
One caveat: If iron supplementation is warranted per your provider’s advice, make sure your child is not ill, with a fever, or has active infections, including gut candida infections. Microbes love iron, and will thrive when it is supplemented – which can make your child feel some GI discomfort at the least, or worsen a fever, trigger pain, and worsen behavior outbursts. Iron is also poisonous at the wrong dose, so only use supplements with professional guidance.
To learn more on how kids present when they need iron, zinc, or other minerals, or when they may have toxic mineral loads, see Special Needs Kids Eat Right. Correcting mineral balance is an easy nutrition fix that is worth the effort. Check status of all essential minerals and rule toxic mineral exposures, to really know if pica has a physiological underpinning. Toxic minerals don’t remain in whole blood for long, so a knowledgeable practitioner may want to check packed red blood cell elements to more accurately assess presence of toxic metals. Optimizing minerals means optimizing many pathways in the brain for learning, processing, and emotional regulation – something that will benefit any person with a developmental disability – without pulling all their teeth!
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!