Updated: Nov 24, 2019
Let me start by saying this is a 100% judgment free zone. If your kids are scarfing Pop-Tarts straight outta the package as you make a mad dash to morning drop-off, I'm with you. If the glow of the golden arches is shining across your windshield at 8:30pm as you and your exhausted, sweaty brood of sportsters try to somehow fit in dinner, homework and showers before bedtime, I've been right where you are. And I'm sure I will be there again as our little one gets into ALL THE SPORTS. There is no mom-shaming to be had here. You do YOU.
But let me tell you a story about my firstborn's journey with ADHD and how it completely changed the way I look at food.
First of all, I grew up as a full-on Kool Aid kid. I don't recall ever drinking a glass of water that wasn't spiked with bright colors, heaps of sugar, and who knows what else. Oh, and once a day, I also got to have a can of soda, usually with the Hamburger Helper we had for dinner. (Honestly, how are any of us 80s kids still alive?) My parents had a really great garden that helped keep things in balance for many years, but not much thought was given to the long-term effects of pesticides, and organic practices were practically unheard of. Yet, somehow, I turned out fine(ish).
So when my beautiful firstborn approached toddlerhood, I was pretty comfortable with slipping him the occasional handful of Cheetos to munch on, or letting him steal a swig of soda. If a little junk food could help keep the peace (and my sanity), I was happy to comply. You see, Dakota was more challenging than your average baby, thanks to being lactose intolerant and quite the insomniac. Always ahead of the curve, he hit his "terrible twos" at 18 months, and I am highly suspicious that the term "threenager" may have been invented for him. When he was four, we placed him in a lovely little pre-school, and about mid-year, learned that he may have ADHD.
It wasn't a stretch for me to believe that he might have ADHD, given his level of hyperactivity. But I had him evaluated at two different children's hospitals to be absolutely sure this was the right diagnosis. After the second evaluation, they came back with the recommendation that we put my little Kota Bear on a stimulant medication. And that's when I decided to consult Dr. Google.
True to its reputation, the internet provided more than enough information to terrify me about the prospect of putting my child on stimulants. But it also led me to a piece of research that was absolutely life-changing - the Feingold Study. If you are here reading this, there's a good chance you've heard the outcomes of this study, either directly or indirectly. In a nutshell, the study provided ample evidence that chemical food additives - specifically, some dyes and preservatives - lead to hyperactivity, poor impulse control, and other problematic behaviors in children.
...Common-sense for most people, maybe, but not this Kool-Aid kid.
Eureka! That HAD to be it, right? So, in 2007, we went all organic/paleo. For several weeks, we kept our diets impeccably clean; I mean, shopped only at Whole Foods AND read every single label - clean. It was a drastic change from the soda and snack cakes habits we had formed, but it was unbelievably worth it! My hyperactive little rugrat turned into the perfect, obedient little child at home, and was performing much better at school, too. In fact, he was doing SO good, that after an hours-long Christmas shopping trip, I decided he had earned a little treat. I was so glowingly proud of him that it didn't even occur to me to pump the brakes when he pressed his little face to the glass at the Mrs. Field's cookie counter and pointed to the delightful Christmas tree cookie - the one topped with an inch-thick layer of red and green frosting.
The next five days were CHAOS. There were DAILY calls from the school. My usually happy-go-lucky son decided to randomly karate kick a friend in the back. He went SpiderMan on a TV cart and toppled it over, nearly crushing himself in the process. And at home, he was smack-talking like a teenager and being a total jerk to his brother. That all lasted four days. On the fifth day, my poor little mess could not stop crying. Seriously - one look at him and he would burst into tears. It was unbelievable! And all because of ONE COOKIE.
That was absolutely all it took for me to become a firm believer in the mind-gut connection. But staying strictly paleo was just so hard with our busy family (by this time, my middle child was entering toddlerhood, and I was working full time and also in school). So we slowly started introducing foods back in to identify what the major triggers were, and what we could make allowances for. We discovered through a great deal of trial and error that Dakota and his little brother were VERY sensitive to red and yellow artificial colors, but typically didn't react noticeably to blue or green. Caramel color seemed to be okay, too. So when they really wanted a treat, we'd keep it to the safer colors. We were never able to pin down any reactions to specific preservatives, either.
So, by eating "as natural as reasonable," as I like to say, we were able to delay meds for him until about 2nd grade, when the public school system he was now in proved to be more challenging and we all agreed that he could use the help. But there is a whole lot of brain development that happens in those years that we were able to hold off, and I am so grateful that we were able to wait. Maybe we could have pushed that a little farther if we had truly stuck with a 100% all-organic, paleo diet, but at the time, I felt like it was the right call.
Oh, and a little side note - placing Dakota on meds did not mean that we got a free pass on his diet. Not at all! We continued to eat as clean as possible, but could always tell when Nana and Papa had slipped him some contraband (remember, they raised me on Kool-Aid, and yet I was a straight-A student, so to say they were skeptical about the link between ADHD-symptoms and diet is a major understatement). My mom got many huffy phone calls from me over the years demanding to know what he had eaten at their house because he was acting like a maniac at mine. It wasn't until the boys stayed over for several days that my parents realized that there was some definite truth to their "food allergy."
We are not alone in our story. Please watch this powerful video from Sheri Davis, author of All Natural Mom's Guide to the Feingold Diet - A Natural Approach to ADHD and Other Related Disorders
The world is much more aware of the spectrum of food sensitivities now, so if you are practicing diet modification to aid with behavior, don't be at all shy about advocating for your child. Until Dakota and Zander reached middle school, their back-to-school paperwork always reflected their allergy to artificial food coloring. I've even gotten some phone calls from teachers during class parties saying, "We have some cupcakes with blue frosting and he says that's okay. Can he have one?" Most teachers, coaches, etc., are happy to accommodate, especially if it spares them from disruptive behavior!
Knowing the impact eating wholesome food had for our family is why we carry this passion for bringing good food from our farm to your table. But if you are reading this and thinking that you've made some fatal parenting error because your four year old is on their 5th med, and they wash it down each morning with a glass of bright red Hawaiian Punch, remember - this is a judgment-free zone. There are a wide variety of opinions out there about the link between diet and ADHD, and no two children (or adults for that matter) are the same. I'm not sharing this story to shame anyone into thinking they should be doing anything different than they are. I'm sharing it to tell you that if you are struggling with behavioral issues, there is hope beyond the typical regimen of meds.