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The Informed Parent

You Are What You Eat

by John H. Samson, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Jun. 19, 2000

Is this an old hackneyed phrase, or a statement of truth? When it comes to the world of food allergies or behavioral reactions to foods, it is absolutely true.

A two-year-old boy came to my office with his anxious mother and father in tow. Within a few minutes it became clear that he was a very hyperactive, noisy and defiant young child. His behavior was offset by periods of pleasantness and communication. It was obvious that the parents were kind and patient people who loved their child without limitation. It was also apparent that they were at their wit’s end.

The history unfolded as we talked about this child’s plight. He was an irritable, screaming and often inconsolable infant. There were explosive tantrums, seemingly triggered by sweet foods and peanut butter.

At four weeks of age his formula was changed from cow milk base to soy base. This did not help. The introduction to alimentum brought a significant alleviation of symptoms. Cow milk contact with his skin caused an immediate rash. At eight months he was put on a lactose free cow milk formula. It was then that the irritability returned. The tantrums increased while his communication skills decreased. The symptoms continued to escalate until the parents felt they could not live with him. This irascible, defiant and explosive behavior caused the entire family to suffer.

A complete examination revealed a normal appearing, hyperactive and intelligent toddler. His behavior was difficult to overlook, causing destruction to himself and anyone around. Most significant from the history was the tie between behavior and diet. Having experienced many cases of severe behavior reactions to foods, this case was not terribly unusual. Based on the leads from the history he was placed on a diet free of dairy, soy, peanut and corn products. If there were no improvement an extensive metabolic and psychiatric work-up would be in order.

The mother was warned that this diet would be difficult to follow. Corn products and soy protein are in so many commercial food products. Corn products include corn oil, corn sweeteners, corn meal, etc. Upon reading labels it will be noted that sugar is a rare sweetener in most food products.

Four weeks later the family returned. The toddler walked in, took a book, sat in a small chair and looked at the pictures. The parents were calm and rested. This was a changed child!

The mother pointed out that within 7-10 days of using the diet he became calm, free of tantrums and defiance. He was a normal two-year-old. Their family had been restored; peace reigned. The diet was obviously difficult to follow, but not as difficult as living with a "whirling dervish".

Since the diet was so constrictive we launched onto a plan to retry the specific foods in a controlled and timely manner. This was to make certain that he needed to be free of all these particular foods. Often times one or two of the foods might cause the problem; not all four. We would introduce the foods at two-week intervals, noting which ones triggered the explosive behavior.

Each of the foods are being reintroduced in the following order: soy, dairy, peanut and lastly, corn. Experience indicates that corn products are the most likely to cause problems, followed by dairy. Without exploring this avenue of food intolerance this child may have been given various behavior-altering medications, with less-to-no desirable results.

This approach does not fit all patients. Yet, it is common enough that a careful food trigger history must be taken in this type of patient. If none are found, and no suspicion exists, removing foods from someone’s diet makes little sense. But, if any question is generated, it must be pursued.

When you present your pediatrician with a behaviorally disturbed child, help him explore this avenue by making some good home observations. Look particularly at "sweet stuff". These foods usually are not sweetened with sugar, but with corn sweeteners. And corn products are a common offender.

Over the past ten years I have found several dozen patients sent to be evaluated for ADHD behavior. Simply by removing corn products from their diet they became controlled. No stimulant medication was needed. How much better to remove corn sweeteners from the diet than to add Ritalin or Dexedrine.

Food reactions are not the answer to all cases. But they present often enough so that a careful history must be taken to expose the potential. You can help your child’s pediatrician or psychologist by making careful observations, looking for potential food triggers. What we eat can have a greater impact on our life and behavior than one might think. Be a good observer and, most of all, an informed parent.

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