Food is in the news. From Michelle Obama on the cover of Newsweek declaring her 'Fight Against Childhood Obesity' to Jamie Oliver's 'Food Revolution' on national TV. Everyone's talking about food. As a lawyer-turned-food activist and baker - and especially as a mom - I'm thrilled that we're finally talking about obesity and its devastating consequences for our children's health.
However, a dialogue that focuses exclusively on 'fat' misses a critical piece of the food-diet equation: the link between diet and the hyped-up or distracted behaviors that often get our kids in trouble at home and school. Sadly, when a child starts exhibiting troubling behaviors, schools, physicians and counselors typically offer parents only one choice: a diagnosis of ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) followed by prescriptions for psychotropic drugs like Adderall, Concerta, Cylert, Dexedrine, Dextrostat, Focalin, Metadate, Ritalin, and Strattera. Yet many of the behaviors that mimic ADHD can be directly traced to the food our kids eat - even some foods that for some might be perfectly fine.
As parents, we should be deeply concerned that about 8 million children in the US today are on one or more psychotropic drugs. Recent studies tell us that between 1960 and 2000, the annual rate of ADHD drug treatment increased more than 100-fold. Today, school nurses deliver more medications for behavioral and mental health conditions than for any other chronic health problem. Prescriptions are often written off label, meaning that there have been no studies determining the appropriateness for the use prescribed.
Sales of psychotropic drugs for kids bring in huge profits for Big Pharma. According to Evelyn Pringle, an investigative journalist whose work focuses on exposing corruption in government and corporate America, antipsychotics were the top selling class of drugs in both 2008 and 2009, with sales of $14.6 billion in 2009. In 2008, drug makers sold $4.8 billion worth of ADHD drugs alone.
When I was a practicing attorney representing children, I didn't know the statistics on drugging kids. But I saw the realities. Almost every child I represented was diagnosed with some disorder and had been prescribed some drug. Over time, I became alarmed and spoke out because I didn't see any improvement after the children were diagnosed and drugged.
It wasn't until the issue hit home, that I started digging deeper and ultimately started to look at the relationship between what our kids eat, and how they feel and act.
From the time my son was a toddler, his behavior and general health toggled between 'normal' and inexplicable. He vomited often and caught more than his share of viruses. Sometimes his energy level would soar for no apparent reason, causing his ears to turn red and hot. He might pull at his hair, or flap his hands - signs of his overwhelming frustration. Usually these episodes ended in a total emotional meltdown.
Once he started school, his behaviors worsened. Tests were run. Evaluations were delivered. Then came the multiple diagnoses, a virtual alphabet soup - PDD, SID, ADHD, ASDS - along with the dreaded recommendation: psychotropic drugs.
Having seen more than my share of troubled kids on meds, I was determined that my son would not become a statistic, just another kid on Ritalin, labeled disabled, and in the system. It was only because I resisted - and persisted - that we were able to solve the riddle of his frequent emotional outbursts and physical symptoms. We never went the drug route - though we were pressured and, at times, so run down that we thought that might be the only option. Call it a mother's intuition, but somehow I just knew that loading him up on pills wasn't the answer. Metabolic testing eventually showed that our son could not retain Vitamin Bs, essential for his nervous system to function properly. Under a doctor's supervision, we began supplementing him with a regimen of complex Bs, Omega 3s and antioxidants. We saw some improvement, yet the meltdowns continued. Still, we resisted the pressure to drug him.
Early on, we also resisted one lone doctor's advice to try an elimination diet in hope of identifying specific foods that might be causing him to act up. I confess that at the time, as a busy lawyer and mother of three active kids, I didn't think it was worth the time and trouble. I was skeptical about diet change. We were relatively healthy eaters and I couldn't believe that anything coming out of my kitchen could be the source of such erratic behavior. Unfortunately, I didn't initially connect the dots between those times when our son ate foods containing wheat, artificial additives or high fructose corn syrup, and the times he exhibited what I now recognize as telltale signs of food and toxin sensitivities. All that changed the day I met another mother who described her child's similar behaviors: the same hot ears, meltdowns, and zoning-out episodes. With a knowing look she told me, "You should really try taking wheat out of his diet." She also recommended that we look to artificial additives as possible culprits. That did it. We removed wheat and all artificial additives from our son's diet. Today he is a new child. He no longer carries the alphabet soup of diagnoses, is not on any medications, and is in the gifted program at school. He is healthy, happy, thriving, and very much aware of what he eats.
In my son's case, the inability to digest common wheat interferes with neurological transmitters to the brain. He gets headaches and brain fog to the point where he zones out. The symptoms look a lot like autism. He also reacts to certain artificial additives in foods, specifically red and yellow dyes, certain preservatives and high fructose corn syrup. His reactions to those chemicals look a lot like ADHD behaviors.
There is a study published in the September 2007 Lancet, which is a national medical journal in Britain, that documents the connection between the consumption of artificial additives and a hyperactive response in normal children. There are earlier studies showing similar outcomes, yet they are not highly publicized. It makes you wonder: How many of the millions of kids on psychotropic drugs today could be drug-free with just a few changes to their diets?
Although our son is nearly 13, we still need to remain vigilant. He'll be symptom free for months, and then suddenly have another episode. Not long ago, he started to have trouble in school again. His grades were suffering, he couldn't focus in class. I looked for clues. We finally concluded he was crashing because he was hungry. He ate breakfast at 6:45 a.m.. Lunch wasn't until 12:30 - nearly 6 hours later. When I asked that he be allowed to have a (healthy) snack between breakfast and lunch, school officials initially balked. "We need a diagnosis," they said. "A diagnosis? Really?" Fortunately, the school backed down. Sure enough, as soon as he was allowed a snack, his grades shot back up.
As parents and teachers, when did we stray so far from trusting our intuition that we need a diagnosis in order to do what common sense tells us is obvious: kids need nourishment (and snacking!)
My message on this Mother's Day to all you moms (and dads) out there struggling with a child's frightening behavior is this: Question what the "experts" say. Trust your intuition. Think before you drug. The solution might be right in your breakfast bowl, snack pack, lunch bag, or dinner plate. For an excellent resource on diet and behavior, see the Feingold Association website www.feingold.org.