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Tips for Feeding Kids with Special Needs

By The Real Food Moms, Jeannette Bessinger, CHHC and Tracee Yablon-Brenner, RD, CHHC,

For your child’s body and brain to function at their best, it is important to provide a diet high in amino acids, the building blocks of protein. But since the body is unable to store excess amino acids it’s smart to split up your child’s protein supply—ideally among the three main meals and two snacks. By feeding meals high in protein throughout the day, you help the neurotransmitters in the brain function better, and stabilize blood glucose levels—preventing hyperglycemia and reactive hypoglycemia—blood sugar “ups” and “downs” that can affect some children’s ability to focus and/or settle down.

One cardinal nutrition rule is to stay away from simple carbohydrates, which break down into glucose and release too quickly into the blood stream. Sugar and high fructose corn syrup are a few examples of simple carbohydrates to avoid. Children are affected differently by sugar, however many studies suggest that sugar negatively affects behavior, impacting aggression, attention, hyperactivity, mood and proper mental function. It is best to replace sugary drinks and snacks with healthy high protein snacks like veggies with hummus or nut or sunflower butter; smoothies with whey or rice protein or nut butter; nuts, seeds, sliced hard boiled eggs, fresh fruit with nut or sunflower butter, yogurt with granola or with nuts and seeds and a dash of honey. When serving foods with added sugar, it’s best to keep it below 15 grams per 100 grams. Cereals should have 3-5 grams of sugar per serving, max, and it’s best to include protein with breakfast, e.g., hardboiled eggs or yogurt with nuts and seeds and a dash of honey. Incidentally, organic honey has many beneficial nutrients—in addition to being a taste treat!

Another essential is to remove synthetic food additives from your child’s diet. For a food additive to be allowed in the diet, it must be certified as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), which means it will not have a significant negative effect on health. Unfortunately we don’t know the long-term effects of ingesting chemicals on our nervous, immune, respiratory and endocrine systems. There are 24 synthetic food additives, and we are going to address the four major categories: artificial colors, artificial flavors, artificial preservatives, and artificial sweeteners.

Artificial colors have been embroiled in controversy for some time. A November 2007 study published in The Lancet stated that artificial colors in children’s diets contributed to hyperactive behavior. The UK’s Food Safety Agency released this statement on July 20, 2010: “An EU-wide health warning must now be put on any food or drink that still contains the colours that are thought to cause hyperactivity in some children. This is following the Southampton Study, commissioned by the Agency, which suggested a possible link between consumption of six food colours and hyperactivity in children. The colours are Tartrazine (E102), Quinoline Yellow (E104), Sunset Yellow (E110), Carmoisine (E122), Ponceau 4R (E124) and Allura Red (E129).” There had been a voluntary ban on food coloring in foods in the UK. In the United States, Blue No.1, Blue No. 2, Green No.3, Red No. 40, Red No. 3, Yellow No. 5 and Yellow No. 6 are still permitted in our foods and medicines. Some of these chemicals trigger histamine release and create allergic reactions like hives (uticaria). In the September 2010 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, Stevenson, et al., found strong evidence that histamine release affects hyperactivity levels in animal models and also influences frontal cortex dopamine release. In this study, there was improved behavior when artificial color was removed from the diet. The research underscores the importance of avoiding food and medicine with artificial colors. Moreover, most artificial colors are made of a mixture of coal tar. The International Agency for Research on Cancer says that products with 5% crude coal tar are considered a Group 1 carcinogen. How’s that for a reason to remove artificial color from your child’s diet?

Artificial flavors are also a concern, especially (MSG) monosodium glutamate, an amino acid from glutamic acid. MSG is used in commercial cooking to enhance the flavors of many common processed foods including canned soups, frozen dinners, seasoning mixtures, and fast foods. Many fermented products have naturally occurring glutamate, like Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce and steak sauces. Glutamate is also in many other additives like soy extracts, protein isolate, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, hydrolyzed soy protein, hydrolyzed yeast, and autolyzed yeast. MSG is not always easy to identify on a label. Be on the lookout for words like “spices” and “natural flavorings” on a food label, which means it might contain MSG. Two food additives, “disodium guanylate” and “disodium inosinate” are only used with MSG, so if they’re on the label, there’s a high likelihood that MSG is in that product.

Glutamic acid, which MSG is made from, is classified as an excitotoxin. However, it is considered to be GRAS by the FDA. Many people are affected by MSG, and children who have special needs are especially vulnerable since they might not be able to communicate their discomfort, which may manifest as a headache or nausea. Removing artificial flavors from your child’s diet is the safe way to go, and could help to reduce behavioral problems.

Artificial preservatives, such as butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) are being investigated for provoking chemical sensitivities. These preservatives have been associated with causing broncho spasm, rhinitis and more particularly in triggering hives (uticaria). Many studies on mice have shown that these preservatives cause learning deficits, difficult sleeping, developmental delays, aggression, decreased orientation reflex. Key reasons in removing artificial preservatives from the diet because that could also relieve behavioral symptoms such as aggression, hyperactivity, developmental delays.

Artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than table sugar, “sucrose,” and can interrupt neurotransmitter balance, which could make behavioral symptoms worse.

The following sweeteners have been tested for their safety through the Center for Science in the public interest. Aspartame which goes by Nutra-sweet, Natra-taste and Equal, is one that people who have Phenylketonuria (PKU) have to avoid because they can’t break down phenylalanine which can accumulate to toxic levels. Sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol, maltitol, lactitol, isomalt, erythritol, and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates are sugar alcohols that can cause stomach discomfort and diarrhea. Acessulfame known as Sunnet, Sweet One, and acessulfame potassium, should have more testing and should be avoided because rat studies found that it caused tumors, mostly benign but some malignant. Saccharin, which is Sweet n Low, may cause cancer. Stevia can’t be metabolized in our bodies which is why it has zero calories. More testing should be done on its safety. Sucralose, which is Splenda, is actually sugar chemically combined with chlorine…Buyer beware! Tagatose, a very new type of sugar made from milk sugar lactose, can cause digestive issues such as gas, bloating and nausea because it’s not well absorbed. It can be found in Diet Pepsi, Slurpees from 7-11, etc.

These are a few examples of why package label reading is essential in today’s world. Many of the sugar substitutes mentioned are found in gum, yogurts, baked goods, and drinks, including iced tea, soda and juices. It is safest to use natural forms of sweeteners. Some of the best include organic honey and turbinado sugar, which is raw sugar crystals formed by spinning the sugar in a centrifuge. The juice released is crystallized to keep the rich molasses color and flavor, and it’s less processed than conventional table sugar. Sucanat is the trademark name for the turbinado process.

Trans-fat is the end result of hydrogenation, the process in which hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oil. Partially hydrogenated fats contain Trans-fat, and are less expensive and have a longer shelf life than standard fats. Trans-fats interfere with an enzyme called delta 6 desaturase, which is important in converting essential fatty acids Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids to the active form (ARA) arachidonic acid, (EPA) eicosapentaenoic acid, and (DHA) docosahexaenoic acid used by the brain. It is important to avoid Trans-fat and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. A deficiency of 6 desaturase causes a deficiency of ARA, EPA and DHA, which are important for brain development, brain functioning, brain signaling and proper vision processing. Research has shown that children who have Autism, ADD, ADHD, dyslexia, and dyspraxia may have low levels of 6 desaturase so when they eat foods containing Trans-fat or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, it can make these conditions worse (1). To increase the activity of the desaturase enzymes, it is important that the diet includes an adequate amount of vitamin B3, vitamin B6, vitamin C, magnesium and zinc which are available by eating local organic fruit, vegetables, whole grains, organic yogurt, and meat, nuts and seeds (2).

Including foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids cannot be overemphasized. Some basic sources are wild Alaskan salmon, seaweed, eggs from hens fed a diet high in Omega-3’s, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and algae. Caveat: To ensure food supplements are free of mercury, use either an algae-based or fish oil Omega-3 fatty acid supplement, which is third party-certified and molecularly distilled.

By purchasing organic-labeled products, you’re guaranteed that the foods you’re feeding your family are free of artificial color, flavor, preservatives, trans-fat and pesticides. Not all products have the USDA organic seal because certification is voluntary and expensive. So it’s important to read the labels carefully to know what you’re really buying. To have the USDA seal means a product is comprised of 95 percent organic ingredients. Foods that have at least 70 percent organic ingredients can use the phrase “made with organic ingredients” and list up to 3 ingredients. If the product has less than 70 percent organic ingredients the name of the organic ingredients can be included on the food label.

To get back to basics, incorporate the Real Food Moms three P’s: Plan, Purchase and Prepare real food! This takes a little organization, but you are ensuring delicious, unprocessed food for you and your family. You should definitely see some behavior and long-term health benefits for the entire family.

Get more from the Real Food Moms at their blog!

Stordy, B. Jacqueline. Dark adaptation, motor skills, docosahexaenoic acid, and dyslexia. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 71 (suppl), January 2000, pp. 323S-26S

Osmundsen H, Clouet P. Metabolic effects of omega-3 fatty acids. Biofactors 2000;13(1-4):5-8 2000. PMID:15800.

Republished from January 2011

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