Food Allergies: How a Pleasant Eating Experience for a Child May Have Hidden Adverse Effects on Behavior

Self-feeding should innately be a pleasant experience for any human being. Ingesting foods and liquids nourishes the body and mind, jumpstarting a person to continue on with their day and to participate in other activities that matter to them. For children, having healthy diet plans provides them with energy to complete school work, to play outside, to take part in sports, to finish their chores, and to participate in other daily living tasks (i.e. dressing, toileting, showering, sleeping, etc.).

Unfortunately, self-feeding doesn’t always have happy results especially if parents and caregivers are unaware of finely masked problems with food: food allergies and food intolerance. According to WebMD (2018), the terms “food allergies” and “food intolerance” have very different meanings and are often mistaken for each other. A food allergy occurs when the immune system is actively fighting against something in the body when it doesn’t need to. Food intolerance produces symptoms of discomfort (i.e. indigestion), but the immune system isn’t actively doing anything (Food Allergy Intolerances). Of course, food allergies and food intolerance produce a long list of symptoms depending on the child’s body type and can include: skin reactions (i.e. hives, rash), respiratory problems, flu-like symptoms, indigestion, headaches, and other body aches to name a few. These reactions can range from very mild to extremely severe. In this article, we will be focusing on the connection between childhood food allergies and changes to behavior.

Physical reactions to food allergies and intolerance can rightfully make a child very moody or angry due to discomfort or pain. Common foods that children struggle with may include: dairy, wheat, gluten, barley malt, sugar, soy, nuts, shellfish, and eggs. Additional elements found in food that may be a cause for problems include preservatives, food dyes, foods high in salicylate (i.e. which is found in aspirin), and pesticides.Dr. James Greenblatt (2017) wrote an article regarding dietary elements that influence behavior in children, particularly those with ADHD. He discusses and references several studies about how the following food compounds increase behavioral problems: sugar, casein (a milk-based protein), gluten, and food dye. Some of these compounds, when ingested, have been found to increase the likelihood of an ADHD diagnosis in children as well as the following: anxiety, brain fog, hyperactivity, inattention, impulsivity, aggression, and delinquent behaviors.

Health Day News (2018) references a study that involved almost 200,000 children in the United States from ages 3 to 17 years. One finding emphasized how children with autism were more likely than their typical peers to have food allergies (Allergies More Common In Kids With Autism ). Another article referenced a renowned naturopath and acupuncturist, Duane Law, who has heavily researched food allergies causing inflammation and a stress response (Dunckley, M.D., 2013). He made a connection between inflammation in the digestive system and sending the body into fight-or-flight mode. For children with autism, this inflammation and stress response can be a cause for endless behavior problems especially because some of these children are unable to verbally communicate or describe their symptoms or reactions.

As far as food allergies go, what does this mean for parents and caregivers?

Food allergies and food intolerance are issues that all parents and caregivers should consider for their children, even in the absence of other medical diagnoses. For parents of children with developmental or psychiatric disorders, consider that your children may be at higher risk for having food allergies and intolerances. Observe your child. Make note of what their behaviors are like before and after meals. Write out a daily log about foods and liquids that your child ingests, the portions, and the subtle behavioral changes. Some behaviors may not be food-related at all, but it is best to log everything. Do your research. If your child does have a diagnosed medical, psychiatric, or developmental disorder then read up on highly reviewed material about allergy risks associated with your child’s condition. Consult with a professional, particularly an allergy specialist, before making drastic changes to your child’s diet. Appropriate testing may reveal information about your child that you would not have seen otherwise in regards to their diet.

Reference: Greenblatt, J. (2017). Dietary influences on behavioral problems in children. Viewed on Nov. 12, 2018. Stephens, K., Dunckley, V.L. (Ed). (2013). Food, Inflammation, and Autism: Is there a Link? Viewed on Nov. 12, 2018.