Maya Shetreat-Klein, MD is an integrative pediatric neurologist. Her new book, The Dirt Cure is published by Atria Publishing Group, a sister company of CBS. She lectures internationally to medical professionals and laypeople on environmental health and toxins, and healing with food and nature.
Many children in my practice improve tremendously from any number of conditions—asthma, eczema, constipation, headaches, ADHD, seizures—when we remove foods that bother their bodies. Unfortunately, traditional allergy tests don’t always tell the whole story of food reactivity. The best way to determine whether a food contributes to your child’s symptoms—whether allergy, sensitivity, or otherwise—is to eliminate it from his or her diet for a month and then reintroduce it to see if the worrisome symptoms recur.
Related: 5 “Healthy” Foods You Should Avoid
- First, remove foods that are not food: additives, dyes, processed sweeteners, etc. Sometimes this is all that is necessary to see a huge improvement.
- If you suspect symptoms are connected to a particular food, try eliminating that food for a trial period of one month. Keep a journal and look for improvements. Reintroduce at the end of that time and look for exacerbation.
- If your child is sick and has still not improved considerably, or you suspect that other foods are involved but you’ve no idea which ones, you can:
-Get blood RAST IgE testing. Any doctor can order this test, not just allergists: Test for casein, whey, soy, egg white, egg yolk, corn, wheat, peanut, tree nuts, lemon, orange, chicken, beef, and other foods that are frequently consumed. A celiac panel can be included.
-Eliminate the “big allergens” for one month: dairy, gluten, soy, corn, egg, nuts, peanuts, shellfish. If this isn’t too difficult for you, go for it. Then reintroduce foods one by one.
-Play detective. If your child eats a tremendous amount of one food (like dairy or peanut butter), it may be worth removing the food for a trial period of a month.
- Engage your child. Let him know why you are undertaking this process and what you are hoping to accomplish together. Talk about things that he cares about: getting in trouble at school, having better skin, not having stomachaches, fewer migraines. Build a teamwork mentality rather than being the tyrant who takes away the food he loves.
Stop 100 Percent Of The Allergen
If you buy processed foods, read labels. If you’re stopping milk, look for anything with milk, cheese, butter, sour cream, cream cheese, whey, casein, or lactalbumin. Milk means any milk or milk-based product that comes from animals: cow, goat, sheep, buffalo, you name it. (Dairy does not include eggs.)
Sometimes, parents tell me, “Well, we’re not sure if it helped, but we were still doing milk in the cereal a few days a week” or “I couldn’t take away pizza day at school.” Make sure your child is strictly free of the suspect food; any food you purchase should be free of that ingredient. If you’re going to the trouble of a trial, do it all the way.
After a month without the suspected food, choose a weekend day to reintroduce the food in a significant way (unless, of course, your child’s reaction is anaphylaxis). If gluten is in question, a bagel for breakfast, pasta for lunch, and so on. Watch for a return or exacerbation of symptoms during the next 24 to 72 hours. A reaction following reintroduction may present like a recurrence of the symptoms you’ve wanted to eliminate. Any symptoms associated with eating the food—whatever they are—mean that the body is unhappy.
From stuffy nose to emotional lability to ear infection to poor sleep, document what being off the food looks like, and what being back on the food looks like. Keep a journal because it’s difficult to see patterns unless you objectively record what you see in the moment.
As the body recovers, matures, and heals, physiological shifts can occur. Though every child is different, it is possible to try a reintroduction in a small way after six months or one year off of the reactive food. If the allergy is severe, it may take much longer and should be done under physician supervision.
One child’s peanut butter sandwich is another’s stomachache and another’s life-threatening reaction. After the initial period of 100 percent elimination, you learn how strict to be based on your child’s tolerance level.
Even though you may be focusing on one target goal, don’t forget to celebrate the steps getting there. Perhaps the problematic hyperactivity may take further steps to address, but better sleep and less eczema are fantastic!