When Jodi Sternoff Cohen of Seattle became overwhelmed by her then-4-year-old son’s hyperactivity — and his recurring bouts of vomiting, rashes and ear infections — she searched for solutions in every parenting class and book she could get her hands on. And yet, no matter which method or approach she tried, nothing seemed to help.
“Everywhere we went, I felt like this total failure who couldn’t control my child,” Cohen says. She knew her family needed help, but when doctors suggested treating the ear infections with tubes and the behavior (which they thought may be attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, commonly known as ADHD) with medication, she resisted. “I didn’t think it was necessary. There had to be a different way.”
After making an appointment with an allergist, it was confirmed that her son was dairy-, corn-, and soy-intolerant. “The behavior problems,” she says, “were all diet, but nobody realized it.” After eliminating these ingredients from his diet, his behavior improved tremendously. “Friends, family, teachers have noticed, everyone has noticed,” says Cohen. “He is a totally different child.”
The theory that diet could affect child behavior gained popularity in the 1970s when Dr. Benjamin Feingold, a California pediatric allergist, claimed that hyperactivity symptoms in many of his young patients improved when he put them on a restrictive diet to treat their food allergies. Since then, dozens of studies have looked at whether diet affects behavior in children, including two recent studies in which diet was shown to be a major contributing factor in children with ADHD.
West isn’t best
One recent study by Australia’s Telethon Institute for Child Health and Research showed that a “Western” diet doubled the risk of an ADHD diagnosis. The “Western” dietary patterns examined in the study included high levels of processed, fried and refined foods, including saturated fats, refined sugars and sodium. Another study by Dr. Lidy M. Pelsser of the ADHD Research Centre in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, suggested a restrictive hypoallergenic diet reduced ADHD symptoms in 63 percent of participating children, ages 4-8.
This ADHD-nutrition evidence is clearly compelling, but experts believe there’s a correlation between diet and other mood and child behavior disorders as well, including anxiety, depression, mild hyperactivity, ability to focus and even autism.
“If a child has evidence of a nutritional compromise, that’s a significant contributor to a potential problem,” says Dr. Christopher Varley, program director of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Residency Program at Seattle Children’s. When certain nutrients are in short supply, the body just doesn’t function properly, and behavioral issues can be a consequence of that. And, as Varley so frankly put it, “Let’s face it: The diets of American children are lousy.”
Sugar and spice, not so nice
So if what kids aren’t getting can be a factor, what about what they are getting?
Many parents believe significant sugar intake negatively impacts their children’s behavior. In fact, it may be one of the most common food-behavior generalizations out there. (It seems every mother can tell a story about the time her sweet angel ate too much birthday cake or Halloween candy and proceeded to turn into a wide-eyed lunatic.) And yet studies on the effect of sugar in children have been wildly contradictory, with some claiming to disprove the “sugar high,” while others show a clear connection.
But for many parents, the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. “There are so many outside factors that influence these studies,” says Dr. Sage Wheeler, a Redmond-based naturopath. “It’s really hard to find unbiased information anymore. A lot of times, I tell parents, ‘Decide for yourself. If you notice sugar affects your kid, then don’t give it to them.’” (Of course, limiting sugar intake is important for a number of health reasons, not just behavioral.)
Whether or not sugar is the main culprit, it is quite common for behavioral problems to be accompanied by diet-related issues. Says Wheeler, “If your kid has behavior problems, it’s more likely than not that he’s got gut issues.” The behavior problem could be due to, or exacerbated by, other factors such as food allergies, vitamin deficiencies or food intolerances. But unfortunately, dietary and digestive issues are often hidden problems with few symptoms. A food intolerance won’t provide a sudden reaction the way an allergy will, so you may not notice the effects, and your child may not either. (Wheeler pointed to a study that showed 50 percent of children with celiac disease had no gastrointestinal symptoms whatsoever, only neurological symptoms.)
Make an action plan
If you suspect your child may be negatively affected by some aspect of his diet, try the following:
1. Begin a food journal in which you log everything your child eats daily, along with behavioral notes; over the course of a few weeks you may notice some clear patterns emerging.
2. Pay very close attention to the ingredients in any prepackaged snacks and foods. You may be surprised by what you find, even in products that tout themselves as “all natural.”
3. Wheeler suggests one quick way to see an improvement is to “increase protein intake in the morning. Starting the day with carb-loaded cereal may be convenient for the parent, but it’s not doing the child any favors.”
4. And perhaps most important, find a doctor who is willing to explore your concerns with you, such as an allergist, nutritionist or naturopath.
Andrea Dashiell has written for Seattle magazine, Parents.com, DailyCandy, Red Tricycle and NWsource.com.