Why Our Kids Don't Eat M&Ms (And Other "Pretty" Foods)
When Isaac was 3 he had a major, and sudden, behavioral change. He went from being super sweet and calm his whole life, to randomly screaming at the top of his lungs, throwing a shoe at me in the car, saying uncharacteristically mean things, and getting super hyper.
It was scary, to be honest, and for a long time, we had no idea what was going on or what the cause of it was. We suddenly found ourselves walking on eggshells, unsure what would set him off because the mood swings would happen at random. What would upset him one time would be perfectly fine with him the next time. In between, he would be his normal, sweet self.
He ended up getting strep throat several months after this behavior change happened, and was put on liquid antibiotics. The day after starting the antibiotics, just two doses in, it was honestly like he was possessed. He was completely out of control, screaming, flailing around, yelling at anyone and everyone. It was terrifying. I had remembered hearing something about artificial red dye causing behavioral issues and his medicine was bright pink.
I ended up calling his doctor to have them switch to an antibiotic that was free of red dye. Within two days he was back to “normal.” Normal being still having angry mood swings, but much fewer and less severe than when on the pink antibiotic. I thought I had found a solution/cause, so we started avoiding artificial red dye for him, which helped but not a ton. If he would have red dye, though, it was very obvious.
In the summer of 2016, which was when Gracie was born, Isaac’s behavior got even more intense. He was crazy hyperactive. My parents spent several weeks with us, both leading up to the birth and after. Isaac would get so wound up and hyper that we would have him go outside and do “warrior dash” courses to burn off some of his excessive energy.
When he would get super hyperactive it was like nothing would get through to him; you’d ask him to stop or calm down or ask him to do something for you, and it was like just couldn’t. He couldn’t control himself at all. And then it would fade and he would be sweet and calmer and then the process would kind of start over again. It was exhausting for everyone.
I started doing some research, ‘cause that’s what I do, and I stumbled upon a blog post from a mom that could have been written by me. I can’t find that post anymore, unfortunately, but in it, she described a story of her 4-year-old son who was happily playing with a toy on the floor and then had a snack of grapes and crackers. Fifteen minutes later he picked up and angrily threw the toy he had been happily playing with and started running around. That was Isaac.
I looked up the Feingold diet that she talked about working amazingly well for her son, and I slowly started connecting some dots. I realized that many of the foods that Dr. Feingold discovered some kids are sensitive to, Isaac had been eating a TON of that summer; grapes, tomatoes, mandarin oranges. He was eating all 3 of those on a daily basis that summer and his crazy hyperactivity would usually occur shortly after eating, especially lunch when he would eat the most of those foods.
I realize that to a lot of people it sounds far-fetched that foods, especially typically healthy foods like tomatoes, grapes, etc, could have such a huge, negative, effect on someone’s behavior. Before our experience, I probably would have rolled my eyes and said “yeah right.” But now that I know what I know, and after all that we’ve experienced, I’m a huge advocate for being aware of what foods our kids are eating and how it affects them.
We ended up trying the Feingold diet, at first just on our own, omitting the foods that are on the list to avoid as best as we could. The Feingold diet consists of two stages, stage 1 is far more strict where you omit all artificial dyes and flavors, and the artificial preservatives BHA, BHT, and TBHQ, along with a list of fruits and vegetables that are higher in salicylates, which are naturally occurring but some people are sensitive to.
In stage 2, you slowly start trying the fruits and vegetables to find which, if any, affect your child. Some people will be sensitive to grapes and tomatoes but do fine with apples and bell peppers, and others will be the opposite. Some kids are only sensitive to the artificial stuff. It really depends on your child. Regardless of the stage you are in, you never add back in the artificial ingredients.
Feingold offers a yearly membership that includes very specific foods they have researched and contacted the makers of to find out if any of those ingredients are included, because food companies are able to omit a lot of stuff from the food label so it’s hard to know for sure if there is BHA (an artificial preservative) hidden in something, or if the “natural flavor” comes from one of the high-salicylate fruits/veggies.
The Feingold organization does all of the work to provide a shopping list of all of the acceptable foods (for both stage 1 and stage 2) so you can choose foods that you know are free of what you’re trying to avoid. They also have a load of other resources.
In January 2017 we decided to really try the program and signed up for a year membership so I could learn which products made by which brands were on the acceptable lists. We followed stage 1 for a long time, and then slowly started introducing stage 2 foods.
The difference in Isaac has been astounding. We first noticed it some when we took out the artificial dyes, but when we stopped grapes, tomatoes, and oranges it was like he was a different kid; he was himself again. My parents came to visit at Christmas in 2016 before we even started the full program, and they couldn’t believe the difference in him. There was no more need to send him out for his “warrior dash” runs because he wasn’t out-of-control hyper anymore.
That next summer, in 2017, we went to Germany to visit them, when we were slowly starting to introduce some stage 2 foods. It was difficult trying to decode German foods and what was safe and what wasn’t, but it went pretty well, especially because Europe’s food laws are way stricter than ours are considering artificial ingredients.
There was one incident that stood out though, and really drove home the effect certain foods have on him. We were exploring Tubingen, Germany, a super cute town, and we stopped at a street market and bought the kids a few fresh apricots. I thought apricots were on the stage 1 “safe” list. Turns out I was wrong about that.
Fifteen minutes later, Isaac’s good mood shifted and he was suddenly super stubborn and irritable during lunch. We went back to my parent’s house right after lunch, and he proceeded to literally run circles around their downstairs (it was in a loop that connects) for hours. He was bouncing-off-the-walls hyper. It finally faded a few hours later.
The Feingold diet is nicknamed “The ADHD Diet,” because a lot of children that have been diagnosed with ADHD find great relief removing these foods from their diets. Some kids have even been able to get off medication completely (under the supervision of their doctor of course).
Isaac was never diagnosed with ADHD, but to be honest, he probably would have been had we not intervened and found the Feingold diet, even though he doesn’t actually have ADHD.
If you’ve been reading this and it resonates with you because you’ve experienced similar, unexplained behaviors in your child, I would really encourage you to go to the Feingold website and read up on it. It’s a wealth of information, and it has honestly been life changing for us.
I know it can be overwhelming to look at the list of foods to avoid in stage 1. If it just feels like way too much right now, maybe try even just removing artificial dyes from your child’s diet at first. A lot of kids react to artificial dyes, even if the other foods aren’t an issue, and whether or not they have ADHD.
So many kids have adverse reactions, in fact, that in 2010 Europe mandated that foods with artificial dyes need to be labeled with a warning that they may cause hyperactivity in children. Sadly, because the FDA “certifies” the colors and marks them as “generally recognized as safe,” a lot of people don’t know the harm they can cause.
A lot of companies do know the harm though, so it is easier than ever to find kid-friendly food without the artificial dyes. Many mainstream companies are also starting to change over to natural dyes because of consumer pressure to take the unnecessary and harmful junk out of our food.
So, this is why we bring our own treats (like dye-free candy-coated chocolate candies) to birthday parties and eat things like Tomato-Free Sloppy Joes. This is why you may hear my kids say things like “we can’t have that, it has salicylates in it.” This is also why every recipe we post on here will be free of artificial dyes, flavors, and BHA/BHT/TBHQ.
When we made the initial diet change, I would still make baked goods for others using food dyes, which is something I quickly became uncomfortable with so I stopped. In good conscience, I can’t make food for others that I wouldn’t feed my own family. Not every recipe will be stage 1 appropriate for the Feingold diet though; although Isaac can’t have tomatoes, Aaron and I still eat them in things and occasionally the girls too.
We hope you found this informative and helpful. We’re not sponsored by or connected to the Feingold Association in any way, we simply just want to share our story in the hopes that other lives can be helped by it. When Isaac was at the height of his symptoms we often felt fearful, isolated and alone. If you’re in a similar situation with one or more of your kids, please know that you are not alone.
If you have any questions or want more information or help, please don’t hesitate to contact us. Our email is firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can DM us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.
It takes a village.
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