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Change in diet can be remedy to child's behavior

Rhonda Bodfield Bloom | 7/27/2009, 5:39 a.m.

TUCSON, Ariz. — Everyone kept reassuring Nikki Sharp that her daughter had merely entered the terrible 2s a bit early.

Kylee was Sharp’s first baby, but Sharp had been around toddlers before, and the fits she was seeing from the 18-month-old were out of the normal range.

“She’d wake up from naps and scream uncontrollably for an hour,” said Sharp, 29.

And that’s not all. “She couldn’t focus,” Sharp said. “Other toddlers could sit and watch at least half of ‘Sesame Street,’ but she was all over the place. I couldn’t even sit her down to teach her anything.”

That’s when her husband, Ian, told her about some reading he’d done that indicated diet might affect children’s behavior.

They pulled all things dairy. No milk, no yogurt, no cheese. They read labels to make sure they didn’t give Kylee anything with casein, a milk protein commonly used in the food industry.

“Within 24 hours, we had a brand-new kid,” Sharp said.

Now 23 months old, Kylee can focus. She’s able to concentrate, her learning abilities increased dramatically and her speech improved. The tantrums ended.

Behavioral modification through diet isn’t new. Back in the 1970s, California allergist Benjamin Feingold argued that artificial colors and flavors could trigger behavioral problems, saying the answer to changing conduct could lie in changing what’s on the menu.

Doris Rapp, a pediatric allergist based in Scottsdale, Ariz., and an author of eight books exploring hidden allergies and environmental toxicity, recommends that parents try a diet to eliminate foods that commonly cause sensitivities, as well as buy an air purifier to reduce toxic airborne chemicals, dust, mold and pollen.

“The pity is that they’ve put kids on drugs when in many cases, there’s a fast, simple, easy and inexpensive answer,” Rapp said.

Rapp, whose 1989 appearance on Phil Donahue’s show is posted on YouTube, wrote about these issues in her 1992 book, “Is This Your Child?” The first customer review of the book on Amazon.com tells the story of a woman who read the book, eliminated dairy products from her son’s diet, and reported that within 48 hours, the boy’s increasingly evident symptoms of listlessness and depression lifted.

The issues are getting more notice now, and not just because of Web content. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that more than 4.4 million youths have been diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder, and more than half are receiving medication for it.

Meanwhile, food allergies are on the rise, with 90 percent of allergies from just eight foods: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish.

A survey of 400 school nurses found nearly half reporting an increase in children with food allergies in their schools in the past five years, according to a 2004 study published in The Journal of School Nursing.

Not only are more kids having allergies, but the sensitivities appear to be more persistent. New research from the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center upends the widespread belief that kids outgrow milk and egg allergies, instead finding they can last even beyond the school years.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest reviewed two-dozen scientific studies and determined there is growing evidence that food dyes and common foods could adversely affect children’s behavior, mimicking attention deficit problems. The center encouraged parents and medical professionals to first try diet modification before trying drugs.

Still, studies are conflicting and varied. For each that indicates a link, another detects nothing. And critics argue that focusing on diet could prevent kids from getting the medication and other therapies they may legitimately need.

Michael Daines, a pediatric allergist at University Medical Center in Tucson, whose practice is skewed heavily toward food allergies, acknowledged that blaming diet for behavior remains controversial because there is little research to back it up.

In part, that’s because of the difficult nature of allergy testing.

Kylee didn’t show any particular hypersensitivity to milk during routine allergy testing.

That’s not unusual in many of these cases, however. Instead, the tricky ones have more to do with the body’s delayed immune reaction to certain foods.

Sometimes, Daines will do the traditional prick-and-patch tests anyway, because they are the only options that he has, but only after telling the parents that the tests are imperfect.

Generally, he supports what he calls alternative or complementary practices, and he doesn’t dissuade parents who want to try diet modifications.

“I think it’s important to be nonjudgmental as much as possible to keep communication lines open,” he said, adding that ongoing dialogue between doctors and parents can help find the best therapeutic approaches.

He does have a few words of caution, however.

“My standard advice for families who want to do diet modification is that it’s OK as long as they’re avoiding one or two things,” he said. “If they start avoiding more than one or two things, the problem is that they can put their child at risk for nutritional deficiencies.”

Secondly, he encourages families to get input from developmental pediatricians, who can have a more detached analysis of behavioral changes, and get comments from teachers and school officials who frequently interact with their child.

“Parents of children with autism and behavioral problems are desperate to find ways to help their children out, so they’re easily convinced,” Daines said. “Parents need to make sure what they think they’re seeing is what they’re actually seeing.”

Sharp remains convinced, especially after her skeptical husband slipped cheese into Kylee’s eggs one morning without telling his wife.

“There I was, with a terrible child and a newborn baby. I called him at work, saying it must not be milk after all, because something was definitely wrong,” she said. That’s when he confessed that he’d been testing their conclusion.

A peaceful child is a good trade, even if it means special butter and no cheese or ice cream. Because when the hot weather comes, Sharp said, smoothies work just as well.

(The Arizona Daily Star)