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  • Writer's pictureJoan Medlen

When Food is the Culprit

Food Allergy.

Food Intolerance.

List of types of diets

Food Sensitivity.

No matter the label, it means everyone’s unhappy.

Your child’s unhappy because his body is always “talking back.” You are unhappy because your child is struggling. He might be telling you through his behavior. His body might be telling you through it’s reactions (hives, dry skin, gas, diarrhea, constipation, hair loss, and more). He might be feeling so unsettled that he chooses not to eat – but he can’t tell you why he’s not eating. He loses weight. He gains weight.  And on it goes.

The list of reactions, physical and behavioral, that can be due to a food allergy, intolerance, or sensitivity is endless and random.

What’s a parent to do?

Step One: Trust your gut. 

What I mean is parents know when something’s up.  I am a big fan of parents’ instincts when it comes to kids and health. Our son’s toughest experiences are prime examples of  times when Mother knows best.

Step two:  Be plan-full in your approach.

Too often, when we, as parents, believe we know what’s up, we implement the solution before fully understanding the problem. What happens is an immediate issue may be solved, but more may be lurking in the background.  This is almost always true when it comes to food allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities.

When our son, who has Down syndrome, autism, and is nonverbal, had what we termed, “life-limiting diarrhrea” (though he scheduled it well – always between 10:00 and 11:00 in the morning), my research led me to lactose intolerance. I removed all lactose from his diet. Voila! The diarrhea was gone.

Then I read an article about emerging issues in Celiac Disease. Hmmmm.  I read, “Lactose intolerance may be a sign of early stages of Celiac Disease.” Great.  We had done a Celiac panel and it had come back negative. So I moved forward, haunted by this article. Two years later, the diarrhea was back. Sure enough, his Celiac panel had changed. We implemented a gluten-free diet, the appropriate treatment, and life has been great ever since.  I don’t know that we could have changed the course given the information available at the time, but we could have if it happened today!

The best approach is an evidence and practice-based, systematic approach. This can be a difficult thing to do without some support and coaching. Which leads me to…

Step three: Work with a qualified medical professional using a systematic approach.

This is especially true when tests come back “inconclusive.” So what does this mean? It means making a commitment to follow a well-documented approach to discovering food intolerances, sensitivities, and allergies. Not every blood test will reveal what you need to know, though most allergies will be easier to discover.

Food intolerances and sensitivities are more difficult. This is due, in part, to a growing scientific understanding of how our body demonstrates them. For example, a person who is gluten intolerant, rather than having a true allergy to gluten called,  Celiac Disease, will produce “inconclusive” tests when a Celiac panel is done. Yet your “Mommy Radar” is screaming that is the issue!

This is when it’s useful to work with a Registered Dietitian who has experience with an elimination diet. Elimination diets are tricky things.  To do it well and get the best results requires commitment. It takes time and planning. It also takes a lot of patience when dealing with your child. Working with a dietitian skilled in this area will help you survive the experience with more hair left on your head. It’s still a lot of work, but the dietitian can help guide you and your child through the process as quickly as possible.

The dietitian may or may not choose to use blood work to help define where to start when re-introducing foods. The science around those tests such as ALCAT (1) and LEAP’s MRT testing (2),  are in a grey area of acceptance. (3) Used in combination with an elimination diet protocol, however, they can be a useful tool in discovering what your child – or you – are most sensitive to.

I am on the fence about use of the blood work given the scientific controversy. However, the research curve for food intolerance – rather than allergy – is definitely increasing. I expect the landscape to change dramatically over the next five years.  Like many things, the blood tests are expensive and not typically covered by insurance. It doesn’t do any harm, other than the trauma of the blood draw and your bank account and it may provide some direction in the process of an elimination diet. In my opinion, these tests must be accompanied by the elimination diet to truly uncover your child’s puzzle.

The widely accepted gold standard remains a well-executed elimination diet and reintroduction of foods. It requires the partnership of a qualified health care professional, such as a registered dietitian, and someone who will coach you from beginning to end in a manner that is useful to you and your child. For parents of children with Down syndrome and related disabilities, this means working with an dietitian who understands your child’s “health personality” and is able to understand the difference between behavior that is communicating a reaction to food and behavior that is communicating a reaction to something else (a person, an environment, the need to make choices, and the list goes on).

You never know, you may find that your child has no negative effects to food. That’s a good thing!



Want to know more about doing an elimination diet? I’d be happy to talk with you to see if it’s something you are interested in working through with me for yourself or your child. Click here to schedule a 30 minute “Get to Know You” conversation.


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