Most of us have heard that restricting sugar can affect how a child behaves. Refined sugar and junk foods high in simple carbohydrates are known to cause sugar rushes and crashes (often playing out as hyperactivity followed by disagreeability in children). We also know that certain chemicals can directly impact brain chemistry–caffeine is an example of a stimulant that can cause jitters, anxiety, hyperactivity and insomnia. Processed foods, refined sugar, and artificial ingredients are often identified as problem foods, but what about foods we think of as healthy?
More and more evidence is pointing to food sensitivies being the root cause of many chronic problems. As adults, we may have chronic pain, digestive issues, or chronic allergy symptoms, but children don’t always exhibit the same symptoms when they have a food intolerance. Often, parents will attribute bad behavior, poor grades, and disagreeability to a child’s mood, personality, or a “difficult phase”. If it becomes a substantial problem, they may have the child evaluated for a learning or behavior disorder. Many of these children end up being diagnosed with Attention Deficit (and Hyperactivity) Disorder (ADHD/ADD) or some other learning disorder and put on medications to control their behavior and help them concentrate. Those who don’t fit the diagnostic criteria for ADD or a learning disorder are usually not given any treatment at all and the issue is chalked up to the child’s personality.
I have seen many kids diagnosed with ADD (or who meet diagnostic criteria) improve 100% when problem foods are removed from the diet (usually after the parent has already tried eliminating the obvious culprits, such as refined sugar and processed foods). In my clinical experience, Dairy and Wheat seem to be the two most common food sensitivities (for adults as well as children) and can cause a number of symptoms ranging from digestive issues and fatigue, to hyperactivity and learning deficits. What amazes me is how drastic a difference diet can make. I’ve had parents comment that their child is a completely different person (in a good way)!
The discovery of a food intolerance can be life changing in both positive and negative ways. While many parents and children are glad to find out that there is a reason for the behavior and/or learning issues, the prospect of eliminating favorite foods from the diet can be depressing. Children will often ask what they will do at their friends’ birthday party or when they spend the night at a friend’s house. These seem like huge obstacles initially, but can be overcome with support and counseling from a qualified healthcare professional. Naturopathic Doctors are trained to help patients implement necessary diet and lifestyle changes and to provide support along the way. Sometimes, a Naturopathic Physician will refer patients to a qualifited Dietician or Nutritional counselor for more hands on help.
Parents are often frustrated initially at the thought of shopping and cooking for their food intolerant child and sometimes concerned that the child won’t receive balanced nutrition without the missing foods. Parents of children who are milk intolerant are concerned that the child won’t get enough calcium. Parents of children who are wheat intolerant are concerned that their child is a picky eater and won’t eat anything but pizza and sandwiches. These are common concerns and can be alleviated with proper counseling and advice from an expert. Most of the time, once kids become involved in their own plan, they end up taking charge and helping their parents with the shopping and cooking, making the burden easier for all.
While “difficult phases” and bad behavior do exist without an underlying cause, noticing a change in behavior or a negative pattern is something that should be brought to the attention of your child’s healthcare provider. Sometimes being evaluated is the first step towards getting answers and help. While I have heard many parents say that they don’t want their child “labeled” in some way, it can also be said that if it weren’t for the labeling, there are many parents out there who would not stumble upon the appropriate help or answer for their child’s behavior issues.