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Food & the Sensory-Sensitive Child

By Amalah

Dear Amy,

I don’t know if this is a topic you’d want to cover at the Advice Smackdown or not, but here goes. I have a four-year-old son who was diagnosed with Sensory Integration Disorder last year, and since then we’ve plunged head-on into the world of evaluations and occupational therapy and all those strange activities (brushing his body with a hairbrush, cranial massage, buckets of packing peanuts, you name it). Basically, a lot of stuff I know you’ve gone though and probably tried with Noah.

I’m wondering if you’ve tried any dietary changes? I’ve been reading more and more about sensory kids and food and allergies and elimination diets and ugh…I don’t even know where to start. I don’t want to go overboard and take away his favorite foods (he’s CRAZY PICKY to boot, of course), but I also don’t want to miss something small that could potentially make a big difference. Have you had any experiences with food and Noah that you’d be willing to share?

Thanks,
J’s Mama

Well, hell. What timing. I just — and I mean JUST, like 10 minutes ago — finished reading a book about this very thing, at least tangentially. After reading Isabel’s review of The Unhealthy Truth, I thought “hmm, I really need to read that book.” Turns out Isabel thought the same thing, and her copy showed up in my mailbox the next day.

As these things go, I like to think that our household is a healthy one. We shun anything with rBGH (the cow growth hormone), high-fructose corn syrup (although I will cop to the occasional can of Coke), and partially-hydrogenated oils. We buy everything we can — fruits, vegetables, meat, milk, yogurt, eggs — from local organic farmers. We read ingredient lists, not buzzword-filled labels (“sugar free!” = fake sweeteners, “0 grams trans fats!” = messed-with serving sizes to get the partially-hydrogenated oils down below a full gram, etc.) I’ve made a huge effort to wean myself and my kids off of processed convenience foods and snacks.

And yet The Unhealthy Truth still scared the crap out of me, because there’s still so much crap OUT THERE, in our foods, in stuff that parents THINK is good for their kids. (Hey! Did your doctor recommend switching to soy formula because your baby was a tad spit-uppy? Did you know soy formula is made from genetically modified soy, is loaded with estrogen, can increase the risk of breast cancer, is a likely culprit in the rise in peanut allergies, and British parents and pediatricians are warned that soy formula should be offered only as an absolute last resort? But here in America it accounts for 20% to 25% of the formula market? Isn’t that FREAKING AWESOME?) U.S.-based companies have responded to research in OTHER COUNTRIES and removed artificial ingredients from their products…in OTHER COUNTRIES, while our soda and Goldfish crackers remain chock full of crap.

Ahem. Tangent!

The author of the book (Robyn O’Brien) is the founder of AllergyKids, so much of the book is devoted to allergies and hidden allergies and asthma and trying to sort out the reason why kids today have more allergies — and more SERIOUS allergies. (Damned corporations and genetically modified, generally fake and mucked-around-with food, meaning our kids are just not eating the same foods we did.) But she also talks about the important distinction between food allergies and food sensitivities.

We’re lucky. We have no inflammatory food allergies in our house — at least not yet, anyway, gaaah. But I know we have food sensitivities, or at least Noah does. And I’m not talking about a sugar rush and crash after too much Halloween candy. I see dramatic differences in his behavior that are totally tied to differences in his diet.

Stuff we’ve virtually eliminated

1. High-fructose corn syrup
2. Sodium benzoate
3. rBGH (the cow growth hormone)
4. Yellow 5 (tartrazine)
5. Artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, etc.

Stuff we’re still working on

1. ALL artificial preservatives
2. ALL artificial colors
3. Basically anything I can’t freaking pronounce on the label

Stuff we’ve added

1. Daily dose of fish oil
2. Probiotic powder
3. Daily smoothies filled with “real” stuff: an organic milk/yogurt smoothie in the morning full of fresh or organic frozen fruit; a water and vegetable version in the afternoon using green and orange veggies, masked with a little juice (we use Trader Joe’s Green Plant Juice) and frozen fruit.

Essentially, we’re doing the Feingold diet, though I feel like every day it occurs to me that there’s STILL stuff I’m mindlessly giving Noah that goes against our efforts — and it shows. His behavior at school went off the rails after I picked up some Flintstones vitamins at Target because I didn’t feel like making a special trip to Whole Foods for their version. Doses of grape-flavored cold medicine might help with the runny nose but send him into a hyperactive frenzy. His freaking TOOTHPASTE, people. Why in the world am I giving him blue sparkly TOOTHPASTE?

The diet is not a “cure,” at least not for us, but I see noticeable differences in his behavior. He’s more focused, more likely to look us in the eye when we talk to him, less prone to the histrionic fits over a slight deviation in routine. His school lunches, unfortunately, leave much to be desired — luckily since he’s so picky he doesn’t actually eat much, so the fallout from a single crappy preservative-laden hot dog bun is fairly minimal.

And I don’t restrict him constantly, everywhere, all the time. Hell, we used M&Ms for potty training. I let him eat candy on holidays, I don’t police other people’s pantries on playdates. Sure, I’d REALLY prefer it if he DIDN’T eat those radioactively orange Halloween Oreos, I WISH his school would realize that forbidding homemade snacks is not really solving the peanut problem (The Unhealthy Truth covers the half-assed labeling issue and non-disclosed allergens) and is actually triggering a lot of more subtle allergies and sensitivities in other children, but I do my best without driving us all insane over it. (I will say, Robyn O’Brien offers a really practical shopping guide in the back of the book and a good way to ease your family into better eating habits — what to eliminate first, what to not freak out about, etc. So if you’re looking into Feingold and are getting that deer-in-the-headlights overwhelming sense of HOLY CRAP, IT’S ALL TERRIBLE, you might actually want to start with Unhealthy Truth’s plan. )

Noah’s behavior aside, I kind of think this is just a Good Way To Eat for everybody. The consequences of too much Diet Coke are certainly not going to be the same for a non-sensory-sensitive person, but I can report that Jason and I are better for eating this way. Eliminating HFCS and hyrogenated oils resulted in almost effortless weight loss for us both, clearer skin and a LOT less anxiety/mood problems for me. I still looooove my soda, will fully admit to a full-calorie Coke addiction, but recognize that I will have sleep and anxiety issues if I overdo it. (No similar problems with coffee, so it’s actually NOT the caffeine, like I used to think.) It’s a shame it took having a “special” child to figure this stuff out, and that it took us as long as it did to make changes. But hey, we’re doing it now, so I’ll just shove the Mommy Guilt in the back of the cabinet, behind the organic white cheddar mac & cheese.

Photo by Sister72

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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Joshua
Guest

We grind fresh flax seeds in our coffee grinder for omegas.
And get this, our daughter uses Agave nectar exclusively. Agave doesn’t spike insulin and is a healthy alternative to sugars.
Teaching healthy food habits while their young is a priceless gift.

Amy
Guest

With my 3 and 2 year olds, we use Tom’s of Maine fluoride free toothpaste. It has xylitol, which is supposed to make your teeth magical (seriously, I read a study that said if a mom used a xylitol toothpaste during pregnancy, she’s protecting her baby from having cavities throughout childhood and adolescence or something insane…). They really like the flavor, and don’t miss the blue sparklies. We also get our beef from a farmer nearby (a distant relative). For about $300 a year we get more beef than we can eat (1/4 of the whole cow) and it’s all… Read more »

Brooke
Guest

Amy – here’s my concern. I hate knowing that I am feeding my kids (and myself) crap. But I am so scared to read this book because I’m afraid that we can’t *afford* to eat in this healthy way and I’m afraid that after I read this book I will just want to never eat or feed my children again because is it really worse to starve them or to give them poison?
Phew. But I ordered it anyway. It’s just a matter of bringing myself to read it and then not dying of Mommy Guilt.

charlotte
Guest

Amy,
How do you give Noah the fish oil? I’m going to assume that he doesn’t do capsules all that well (understatement of the week, probably). I’m thinking of giving it to my 5-month-old, and if you know of something soluble in formula, I’d be the first one in line to try it.
Cheers,
Charlotte

Jess
Guest
Jess

I am so lucky- even as a child of the 70’s my mother taught us to eat this way. While everyone else was worried about the fat and calories, my mother worried about the CRAP..the colors, the preservatives, the fake flavorings. And my brother and I are better for it. We were not deprived- just had real cookies with real butter and real sugar and made by mom(as a treat of course, never on a regular basis).
Thanks mom.

Heather C
Guest

I recently had a naturopath tell me that soy is commonly planted in fields after cotton. And there’s a LOT of pesticide used in cotton crops. For that reason, he rarely recommends soy in any diet.

miriam
Guest
miriam

Mmmmm, smoothies.
My brother used to be really big on them– it’s an easy way to deal with fresh fruit (esp bananas). Just freeze them, or buy them frozen (cheaper, and likely better since most fruit is shipped green but frozen ripe)— and it tastes the same.
(I am SO HAPPY it’s summer now, with all the yummy summer fruits! I might start doing the smoothie thing myself if breast feeding thing goes well)

Christine
Guest
Christine

Sounds like The Unhealthy Truth has some great guidelines for healthy eating. Feingold is very specific and strict in what can be eaten and when it can be re-introduced. So I would not say your are essentially following Feingold unless you have purchased the program from Feingold.org. If you are strict and consistent with Feingold, you will see changes and note how certain foods make your child react. HTH!

Elizabeth_K
Guest

The being green thing is why we do most of our shopping at the farmer’s market, and the no-cruelty-to-animals is why we buy our meat there, but it does seem to me so endless! I feel like, oh, we’re so good, we do cloth diapers, we buy organic, local produce and meat, and then I read your blog and think: But I LIKE the cereal from Safeway — my son doesn’t eat it! And I like my Dr. Pepper (full sugar), and we do eat a lot of candy from Trader Joe’s. I dunno. It just seems so hard to… Read more »

Sarah
Guest
Sarah

I have a 6 year old son who had been seeing an Occupational Therapist for sensory ingetration issues and a psychologist for anger/rage. I started the Feingold diet and eliminated milk and milk products in February (reccomended by the OT). A month later, his OT asked me what I still needed her help with because she couldn’t even see the issues anymore in her sessions with him. I agreed and we stopped the OT. He is now just a normally active boy, very smart and still loves to talk. But, one slip up on the diet and he is back… Read more »

elizabeth
Guest
elizabeth

are you on goodreads? cause there is not a single review of this book on goodreads. copy, paste, done.

cagey
Guest

My aunt and I got into it over those damned Goldfish crackers you have pictured. She is always trying to foist crap on my kids. I try to avoid transfats, HFCS and artificial colors, too. Long ago, I learned my lesson with artificial colors – my kid was eating some fruit snacks, then going haywire. And it was not the sugar in the product, because this kid can eat ice cream, then head straight to bed. I looked at the ingredients on the stupid fruit snacks and sure enough, Red #40 was lurking at the bottom of the list. That… Read more »

cafemama
Guest

I have a six-year-old with anxiety/anger issues and a four-year-old with some sensory stuff (I also have an almost-two-year-old) and I’ve been making enormous changes over the past year-and-a-half. no pasteurized milk, no commercial meat, no processed sugars, no breakfast cereal, no artificial ingredients, I bake our bread — it’s whole grain and sourdough — and buy all our fruits/veg as local, seasonal and organic as possible. (and btw: it’s more expensive than shopping at Winco but I’ve been monitoring the cost and I can actually do it within a food stamp budget! amazingly) so that’s what *I* do. but… Read more »

cagey
Guest

Oops – forget to mention. My kid does not have any developmental issues.
However. When he eats crap, he acts like a little turd.

aadrw
Guest
aadrw

Amy —
Have you guys thought about going GF/CF with Noah?

amalah
Guest

Brooke: the book has a shopping guide in the back that lists what brands you can generally “trust,” and many of them are available at the “regular” sort of grocery store. She’s also good about helping you at least prioritize what you should focus on,
charlotte: We buy a liquid for Noah. It’s orange flavored and we add the dose to his smoothie and he’s never noticed. My friend uses a little medicine dropper and squirts it in her son’s mouth. (We aren’t giving any to Ezra yet, since I figure he’s getting plenty of DHA and such from me still.)

Daisy
Guest

I’m a lawyer that does FDA related “law stuff” and I recently discovered at work that most red dye is made with….oh man….ground up insects. (No. I’m not kidding. Google carmine and then throw out the jar of cherries lurking in your fridge.) I’m 25 and I insist that my fiance and I avoid preservatives. We have found our local farmers markets (ooh fresh fruits, veggies & herbs…I LOVE IT) & they even have local cattle & poultry ranchers. We are hosting Thanksgiving this year and I’m putting in my pasture raised turkey order next week! I think it makes… Read more »

D
Guest
D

My sister is a celiac, and goes absolutely insane when she has red dye. When she was younger it was a constant struggle to figure out what she could and could not eat. She is an example of what preservatives and colours can do to you, she would go insane when she ate sugar! She also can’t have yeast, corn or milk, so is on a very restrictive, but healthy diet. Yes, it costs more, but she is very healthy! And you can still tell, even now that she’s in her 20s, when she eats something that is wrong for… Read more »

jane
Guest
jane

A soy plant planted in dirt previously used for cotton crops does not automatically mean death. The amount of pesticides used on the plant, the water runoff, the soil composition and the plant uptake are all factors in whether or not you’ll die from eating soy.
Just because you buy produce from a farmers market doesn’t make it necessarily. It’s just that you can see the person who drove it in, rather than some stupid grocery store. “OOOOH Farmers Markets!!!”

Lori
Guest

We joined the Feingold Association around this time last year. Our 3.5 year-old had been having a lot of trouble “controlling his body” at preschool, and was being sent out of class on a daily basis. I’d been reading Kari’s blog (The Karianna Spectrum) for a while, so I can’t remember the exact post where it clicked, but one day it did: Maybe his diet has something to do with it. My husband wasn’t interested in following Feingold to the letter, but I got him to agree to cut out all artificial flavors, colors, and BHT, BHA, and TBHQ. If… Read more »

Mary
Guest

Ah, the smugness of “I’m making sure my child only eats healthy, natural stuff.” It’s helpful if your child EATS more than 8 foods before you can move on to “healthy, natural, Feingoldian” foods. My kid eats the following foods at meals: Tyson chicken nuggets (from the box, not from the bag, because the breading is different), unsweetened applesauce mixed with baby cereal to thicken it, and whole wheat toast (Nature’s Own bread only) with Smart Balance. He snacks on: salty/crunchy foods… and that’s it. That is his whole entire diet. He does get a vitamin ground up in his… Read more »

Jolena
Guest
Jolena

I’m with you, Mary! My son has major eating issues, though he’s not autistic, and I’ve had many times where I want to deck people for their well meaning and totally unhelpful advice.  There’s plenty of us out there that are trying to get our kids to eat at all, to say nothing of eating healthy.  The day my son willingly eats any fruits and vegetables will make me dance for joy. 🙂 So hang in there. One step at a time. Eating is just hard in so many ways.

Tiffany
Guest
Tiffany

I see that this article is about 6 years old, but I just had to say it’s good stuff! Great info, totally readable and relatable and it just makes so much sense. I work with children (some with SPD, ADHD, etc…) and I’ve just forwarded this to a dozen families. Keep it up!

Joy
Guest
Joy

Love your blog! I am a newly minted sensory mom and am so glad I found you!