Can certain foods exacerbate attention deficit, hyperactivity, autism, and other behavioral and emotional disorders in children? That's a loaded question in medicine these days. Many doctors say so few kids with such problems respond to dietary changes that they don't bother to try them. Instead, they advocate intensive therapies, such as occupational and speech, and medication as the best treatments.
But a growing cadre of parents and practitioners, buoyed by some supporting research and their desire to avoid drugs, are bucking the conventional wisdom. They claim they've seen dramatic improvements in their children's behavior by simply avoiding suspect foods. For some children, "we see certain foods as triggers, and when we control the diet, the child's behavior improves," says Dr. Leo Galland, an internist and director of the Foundation for Integrated Medicine in Manhattan (mdheal.org).
Among the biggest suspects are artificial colors and preservatives, as well as salicylates naturally found in apples, grapes, cucumbers, and tomatoes. They can interfere with the ability of neurotransmitters to send signals within the brain, says Jane Hersey, national director of the Feingold Assn., a nonprofit group that promotes awareness of the food/behavior connection. Other culprits may be substances in foods that can trigger allergies, including casein in dairy products, gluten in wheat, rye, and other grains, and soy products.
Adding good foods is as important as avoiding bad ones. For example, eating salmon and flax seed, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids, may improve the symptoms of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who are deficient in essential fatty acids, says Laura Stevens, a nutritional expert at Purdue University (nlci.com/nutrition).
One way to test whether your child might be reacting adversely to what he or she is eating is to follow the Feingold Diet (feingold.org). For four to six weeks, stop serving all foods containing artificial additives and salicylates. Then reintroduce fruits and vegetables with salicylates one at a time and monitor the child's reaction. The diet requires vigilance about checking food ingredients.
Another approach is to consult a nutritionist who specializes in treating children with behavioral issues. Fees begin at $150 and can top $600 when tests are done. Renee Simon, a clinical nutritionist in South Salem, N.Y., first does an extensive food, medical, genetic, and behavioral history. Then she orders blood tests for food sensitivities, among other things. With that data, she creates a customized menu that may include nitrate-free meats, whole grains, and fresh fruits and vegetables, and avoids preservatives, refined carbohydrates, and sugar. "It's a healthy diet everyone can benefit from, but kids with these issues benefit more because they're affected more from bad food choices," says Simon.
That's what Stacy Schott of Chappaqua, N.Y., learned when she changed the eating habits of her 2-year-old son, Drew. Prior to the change, "he was extremely hyper, slow to develop language, and had poor eye contact," she says. Then she discovered he had severe reactions to casein, gluten, and soy. Once she removed these substances from his diet, Schott says "his behavior improved dramatically," though he still needs therapy. To make sure Drew, now 3, doesn't feel as if he's missing out, she gives him special treats (table).
A restricted diet may not be a panacea for behavioral problems. But even if a child winds up on medication, it's possible he or she may need fewer drugs. By Toddi Gutner