Natural Life Magazine

Parenting A Child With Food Sensitivities
article and photo by Vanessa Sheets

Parenting a Child With Food SensitivitiesImagine that your four-year-old son, who’s been happily playing with his train engines for the last half-hour, takes a break to ask if he can please have a snack. You offer him his favorite crackers and some grapes. Within an hour, your son is now irritable, out of sorts and has thrown one of his engines across the room while yelling at it for not rolling properly. You want to soothe your little boy but can’t get near him because he begins screaming and kicking.

This is what life has been like with my son, Brian, for the last year. He alternates from easygoing to quickly becoming aggressive and upset if he has eaten the wrong foods. I’ve learned that a handful of organic cheese-flavored crackers and some grapes will be followed by an hour long episode within sixty minutes after Brian has eaten them.

I first made the connection between his diet and resulting behavior when another mother in our homeschooling group suggested I look into the Feingold program after hearing me describe my son’s recent rage.

At first, I didn’t believe that Brian’s behavior was a result of his diet. As a health writer with a passion for alternative medicine, I am committed to feeding our family organic, whole foods and rarely serve my son anything processed. But a few days after my friend suggested that certain foods could be causing him to react, Brian became enraged for no apparent reason and began to hit the walls in his bedroom. I thought about the bag of Doritos another child had offered him at the park an hour earlier. I began to consider that certain foods could be affecting his behavior.

Unfortunately, knowing what will trigger a reaction isn’t as simple as just pointing to typical “junk foods.” Everything from certain breads, crackers, cereals and snack bars to juice boxes and almonds are off-limits to Brian. I learned that even apples, oranges and lunch meats can cause symptoms of hyperactivity, aggressiveness and emotional turmoil in my son.

Once I made the connection between what Brian ate and his behavior, I began to eliminate foods from his diet that could cause him to react. I discovered how to do this by educating myself about the Feingold program.

Nutrition and Its Effects on Behavior

The late Dr. Benjamin Feingold, a pediatrician and allergist who discovered that food additives can trigger behavior and learning problems in children, developed a low-additive diet in the 1960s. Parents who began using the diet Feingold outlined in his book Why Your Child is Hyperactive started the non-profit Feingold Association to share information and to develop programs to help new families successfully use the diet. Because it also covers non-food items that may cause sensitive children to react, the association calls it the Feingold Program.

Children with food sensitivities react more strongly and to a smaller amount of a potentially harmful additive than another person might. Sensitivities are not allergies, which happen when the body considers the food a foreign substance and tries to fight it. “Many people confuse an allergy with a food sensitivity, but the two are not the same,” explains Jane Hersey, author of Why Can’t My Child Behave and Director of the Feingold Association. “Allergic people generally react to something that doesn’t bother most people, while some food additives appear to bother nearly everyone. The amount it takes to cause a reaction varies with each individual.”

What these children eat can affect their behavior drastically. A recent study published in The Lancet found that food additives can trigger hyperactivity in a wide range of children, not only those diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Some symptoms of hyperactivity include irritability, aggressiveness, inability to concentrate and difficulty sleeping. “The effect is observed within two hours of ingestion,” says John Warner, one of the study’s researchers and a professor of Pediatrics and Head of Department at Imperial College, London.

The behavioral problems associated with hyperactivity can be extremely challenging for a parent committed to gentle discipline and non-coercive parenting. I would use my softest, most non-threatening voice with my son and he would yell and scream right over me. Exhausted, as this would go on for an hour, I could feel a hard knot of fear in my stomach. How can I get through to him? How can I help him feel better? But when Brian reacted this way, there was nothing I could do to help him.

Is Your Child Reacting to Food?

The Feingold Association lists one or more of the following symptoms as an indication that your child may be sensitive to certain food additives or naturally-occurring salicylates:
- Gets upset too easily
- Impatient
- Doesn’t seem to hear you
- Aggressive
- Doesn’t recognize danger
- Sleep difficulties
- Bed wetting, daytime wetting
- Repetitive actions
- Talks too much or too loudly
- Argumentative
- Sensitive to noise, sounds and lights

- Uncoordinated
- Physical problems such as headaches, stomach aches, asthma, hives, ear infections and indigestion
- Poor handwriting

Parents may find that their children do not seem to hear them. April Walker, an expert on child development and mother of Adam, who was eleven years old when she discovered food sensitivities that he’d had since infancy, remembers “terrifying moments when my son would run out in front of moving cars, seemingly unable to recognize danger well past the developmental stage of this connection.”

Some parents observe autistic-like symptoms in their children after they eat foods with artificial additives. “Logan would grab the skin on my elbows and twist it while making strange sounds whenever I held him,” says Mary Beth Rosenstiel, a Doctor of Nursing Practice in Oregon and mother to Logan, now twenty-eight years old, who has a high sensitivity to food additives. “He did not sleep through the night for his first four years of life. If asked a question, he would simply repeat what you asked, word for word.”

Although the entire family may have food sensitivities, each child can react differently. Deborah, a mother of four daughters with food sensitivities, discovered that her children reacted to additives after she brought home a red slush drink for the girls to share. “As six-year-old Gloria gulped it down, I watched her transform from a quiet, happy girl to a jittery, unfocused, bouncing ball.” While Gloria would also become aggressive and hit her sisters after eating food additives, her younger sister Christina would get angry and have trouble sleeping.

Food sensitivities can even cause learning problems in some children. “Parents may notice dramatic differences in the child’s writings and drawings,” April says. For instance, Deborah finds that her six-year-old’s handwriting becomes poor and she has difficulty concentrating after eating certain foods with additives.

Other physical symptoms include wetting the bed at night or daytime wetting. Chemically sensitive children may also experience health problems such as asthma, earaches, skin irritations, stomachaches and headaches.

It was only after I understood that the chemicals in foods were causing my son’s behavioral problems that I could begin to help him feel better by learning how to avoid them.

The Elimination Diet

Dr. Feingold identified the chemicals in foods that appeared to cause the most problems in sensitive people. These are artificial flavorings, synthetic dyes and the preservatives BHA, BHT, and TBHQ. He also recommended that sensitive people remove salicylates from their diet for a few weeks to see if that creates an improvement.

Salicylates occur naturally in some foods and can cause the same reactions as artificial additives do in children with food sensitivities. Some naturally-occurring salicylates are found in almonds, apples, grapes, oranges and cucumbers.

Jane Hersey says, “Fortunately, not every person with food sensitivities will react to salicylates. Some people will react to several salicylates; others may have a problem with only one. It is a very individual thing.” This is why the Feingold program eliminates all salicylates for a few weeks, then slowly adds them back into the diet to see how they are tolerated. The Feingold Association has also added aspartame to the elimination diet.

Once the additives and salicylates have been removed, a child usually improves a lot. Then a parent can see if they need to fine tune the diet further. For example, if a child reacts to nitrites (a preservative found in most lunch meats and not automatically eliminated for a person on the Feingold program), and he becomes angry and violent after eating lunch, it becomes easier to identify his turkey sandwich as the problem.

Other foods that the Feingold program doesn’t eliminate but that may cause problems for some children are those with natural additives. My son will react to annatto, a natural food coloring found in many of our everyday snacks bought at the local health market. After we began eliminating artificial additives, I realized that the natural cheese “crunchies” that Brian occasionally ate would cause him to become irritable and aggressive. According to Jane Hersey, the Feingold Association has had reports of other children reacting to annatto too.

The elimination diet is the best way to know if your child is sensitive to food additives and salicylates. “We don’t yet know of another test that we feel is reliable,” Hersey says. Once these foods have been removed and a child improves, you can test her level of sensitivity to a certain food by giving it to her later to see if her symptoms return.

“We don’t encourage anyone to give back the synthetic additives since they are hazardous for everyone and totally unnecessary,” Hersey says, but the Feingold Association does recommend testing out salicylates to see if a child can eventually eat some of them.

Warner agrees, “I would recommend that parents avoid giving their children high artificial coloring-containing foods. Adding color is totally unnecessary.”

The elimination diet is an effective and inexpensive way for parents to test their children for food sensitivities. For children with sensitivities, removing the additives and salicylates from their diet can quickly improve their behavior. Some families notice a difference within twenty-four hours, while others say it took about three weeks for changes to occur.

“I woke up one day at 7 a.m. in a panic because I had slept all night. I ran into Logan’s room and found him sleeping peacefully…for the first time ever in his life,” Mary Beth remembers, three weeks after she had stopped feeding her family processed foods. Logan was four years old at the time. “It did not cost me anything to follow the elimination diet plan except my time to return to cooking from scratch. Better yet, my child improved without any chemicals or behavior modification techniques commonly used to treat his symptoms at that time.”

For Deborah, cutting out the additives in her daughters’ diet wasn’t hard. “I’m a penny pincher, so I bought very little processed food to begin with. I think that’s why the majority of what we saw was intermittent. However, the grapes, oranges and apples made up fifty percent of our diet.” Once Deborah removed the salicylates, she saw improvements in two weeks. “Since I already cooked a lot of our food from scratch, it didn’t take long. But then, after six weeks, I began to notice other things. Gloria wasn’t wetting her pants anymore and her handwriting was improving.”

The Feingold Association reports that 91 percent of families who are using the program notice a significant change in their child’s symptoms.

“Back when the Feingold Association was formed (1976), few people understood that what you eat can directly affect your health. Today, it’s well known that food is linked to health, but few people realize that food is also connected to behavior and learning,” Hersey says.

Biggest Challenges

With this new knowledge and understanding, I have become empowered to make the dietary changes necessary to prevent my son from feeling irritable and angry after he eats. For instance, when I plan our meals for the week, I make sure that I include acceptable snacks and lunches that can be taken with us to the park or on car rides. I’m hoping that this will keep us from stopping for convenience foods along the way, which usually contain additives. I try to encourage my husband to consider taking our son out for a whole-milk hot chocolate instead of a morning bagel for an occasional treat. This way they can still share special time together and Brian isn’t likely to eat foods that could cause him to react.

While my husband is supportive, one of the biggest challenges for many parents can be when they don’t agree that their child may have food sensitivities. One parent may unintentionally sabotage the other’s efforts to help their child by giving her foods that seem healthy enough, such as almonds, apples, and some cereals, but contain salicylates or preservatives that could cause her symptoms to return.

Mary Beth knows this too well. “I asked Logan’s father not to feed him anything with red food dyes and preservatives, but he told me that he could feed his children anything he wanted,” she says. After visiting his father, “Logan would regress for a few hours, not respond to questions and have night terrors. It would take seven to ten days for the chemicals to leave his body and the real Logan to appear again.”

Parents can have difficulty getting relatives, teachers, and friends to cooperate with their child’s diet, simply because they don’t believe that certain foods can have a dramatic impact on a child. “My own grandmother did not believe it was true until she witnessed Adam go from having a terrific day to one filled with tears, aggression and argumentative behavior fifteen minutes after she gave him a colored candy,” April Walker says.

For single parents, or families with both parents working outside the home, the challenge can be finding a suitable daycare or caregiver who will follow instructions and not give a child with food sensitivities additives and salicylates. “I had a tough time finding a daycare that would not give Logan certain foods and treats, but in the end I found perfect people who were very much into healthy eating. I had to be a strong advocate for my son,” Mary Beth Rosenstiel states.

Some parents may worry that a low-additive diet is difficult to follow, but for those who have committed to one, the improvements in their child’s health and behavior have actually made life easier.

Jane Hersey recommends that parents join a support group to share information on how to overcome these challenges that may occur. Most of all, a support group can help parents stay positive about making changes in how their family will eat. “We have found that a parent’s attitude is the most important factor in the success of the program,” Hersey says. “Parents who only make fifty percent of the necessary changes will not see the same results as those who eliminate all of the additives and salicylates that the Association recommends.”

For some parents just starting a low-additive diet, the time and effort spent reading labels to make sure that their children eat the best possible foods can be inconvenient. Convincing others not to feed your child certain foods can be exhausting, but according to Deborah “the first forty days are rough, but it gets a lot easier. The rewards far outweigh the inconveniences.”

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Living in Peace

While having a child who is no longer angry and aggressive everyday has been a wonderful change in our lives, having a better relationship with him is even more important, in my opinion. Gone are the afternoons when my heart would break at how lost my son looked while he would simultaneously rage at me, yet hug me, asking for help. I no longer cry to my husband at night, asking him what he thinks we should do. Our days are much more peaceful.

“Our home is much calmer and several health issues I just assumed we would have to learn to live with have gone away,” Deborah says. On the rare occasions that they do eat something with additives or salicylates, Deborah finds that “our house is torture. The children are unable to concentrate, literally bouncing around and bickering with each other. I usually end up with a migraine and no patience. It combines to make a horrible, shameful scene.” But when her family is following the diet, the sisters play together without fighting and “the difference is night and day.”

April Walker’s son Adam is happier, sleeps better and no longer has asthma, eczema and hives. She admits, “It has been a long journey, one that I would like to see shortened for other families.”

Now a twenty-eight-year-old, Mary Beth’s son Logan works successfully in the computer field and is happily married with a baby on the way. Doctors diagnosed him with autism when he was three. After his symptoms greatly improved when Mary Beth fed him a low-additive diet, she decided not to tell his teachers his diagnosis to avoid having him labeled. He grew up a bright and loving child, eager to help in his classroom. As a Doctor of Nursing Practice, Mary Beth uses the opportunity to encourage nursing students to stay open to the fact that there is more to healthcare than what they are learning from textbooks.


As parents, we are our children’s advocates. “Having an education and a degree in medicine or nursing does not make anyone an expert. It just means that they have read a few more books than you did and had the opportunity to become a professional,” Mary Beth says.

April believes that many children are not properly treated for behavioral issues; instead they are drugged without first receiving a thorough medical examination when “for many children, the problems may be a result of too many food additives.” While many doctors do not think beyond using prescription medication to treat symptoms, there are more who are becoming aware of the importance nutrition has on children, not only physically, but also on their learning and behavioral development.

Still, we have to know more about our child’s symptoms than anyone else because it is up to us to know if his behavior is characteristic of him or not. We have to be willing to challenge our doctors if we feel that they are recommending something for our child that just isn’t right for him.

“You are the expert on your child. Never forget that.” Mary Beth says.

I feel very fortunate to have the support of other parents who have gone through this and are willing to share their experiences. I’m grateful for the close relationship I have with my son that ultimately makes me the expert on what is right for him.

Photo and text © Vanessa Sheets, who writes about natural health, parenting, and alternative education. She lives and learns in Newport Beach, California, with her husband Todd and their two boys, Brian and Charlie, who provide her with endless inspiration and writing ideas.


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