For children with autism spectrum disorders, bringing awareness to food choices can improve behavior patterns
It is common for many children with autism spectrum disorders to avoid most foods and navigate toward a comfort in eating only a few of the same food choices every day. If this sounds familiar, you are not alone in facing this huge challenge.
Many children with autism spectrum disorders avoid foods due to oral, motor, and/or sensory issues. Orally, they may struggle with food placement in the mouth, chewing, and swallowing. Motor issues may keep a child from being able to move the food around, chew and swallow, and even pick up food. Sensory issues can create problems such as the taste or smell of foods causing a gag reflex, or a desire to run away from the horrible smell. Even the sight of certain foods can create this desire to get away. Just know, it is real. Neurologically, sensory issues create actual physical pain.
Some children do not have sensory issues and just exhibit food avoidance. Either way, mealtime for many parents can be downright dreadful – but it does not have to be. It is important for parents to learn how to teach a child how to overcome not wanting to try healthy foods. This is because many health issues such as attention, behavior, and mood problems, eczema, allergies, migraines, joint pain, and autoimmune disorders are now linked to poor gut floras.
Yes, the gut is connected to your brain and body.
What you eat affects how well the brain can regulate neurotransmitters and hormones necessary for many functions related to attention, behavior, and moods. Food choices even control sleep patterns.
What Is the Gut-Brain Connection?
Did you know that 70 percent of our immune system is in the gut? It is estimated 100 trillion good bacteria (microbes) live in your gut, supporting the growth of friendly, harmonious flora. This diversity of flora is extremely important to your health and is affected by two things: What you eat and your age.
Of course, we cannot control age, but we can control what we eat.
Let’s look at this further.
In your gut live innate cells called dendritic cells. Their job is to pick up antigens (think of these as the bad guys) in your gut by sensing protein patterns in the food you choose to eat. Unfriendly protein patterns get attacked by your immune system with T cells. This process creates inflammatory particles (cytokines) that damage the body by going through the walls of the gut and attacking the body, joints, skin, and brain. You may have heard this termed as “leaky gut.”
What is really going on is that your body does not recognize many of the poor foods that enter the body, so it attacks them, creating a process that allows harmful particles to enter the body instead of staying safely in the gut. Inflammation results as other areas of the body, such as the body, joints, skin, and brain, get attacked.
This is bad news for all picky eaters, especially a child with attention, behavior, and neurological problems because his/her brain already struggles with processing information. Typically, a child with ASD takes information into the brain through the senses and integrates that information differently than a typical brain. This means that the action that results from this incoming information can be inappropriate or not on target, creating neurological struggles.
How You Can Build a Healthy Gut and Brain
The good news is you can improve brain functioning with the right food choices, just as you can impair it with poor ones. This means you can create a healthy brain and body by building a healthy gut flora diversity through eating healthy, brain-boosting foods.
I have been helping families for over 20 years learn how to eat healthy. I took my creativity and knowledge to another level this past year and created a nutritional café in my office, where I offer Food Play for Kids. My goal is to help kids that do not, cannot, or will not try new healthy foods overcome their food avoidance. My Food Play for Kids program consists of one-on-one visits where we play with food. We mash and smash a variety of fruits. I allow younger kids to slingshot them, nerf blast them, and generally have fun. The older kids explore, trying new recipes as we go along.
My favorite session is vegetables, where the child gets to juice each vegetable. We actually make our own yummy fruit and veggie juices. I love the look on the parent’s face when the child drinks a green juice and truly enjoys it. All the kids love when we put carrot, apple, and green juice into water guns and go outside my office to have a safe juice war. They all love my smoothie bar session, too!
I keep it fun. I teach parents how to make fruits and veggies super cool. Most important, we fortify the gut by introducing foods that will stop the inflammatory attack that occurs in the gut and body when we eat the wrong foods.
Try these 8 natural steps I have used with my children and also recommend in my office:
- Eat foods that are pre-biotics. Pre-biotics contain indigestible fiber that triggers the growth of good bacteria. Try asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, leek, onion, bananas, oatmeal, and legumes.
- Rebuild the gut flora with probiotic choices. Probiotics are “good” bacteria that help keep your gut healthy. Try homemade fermented foods such as sauerkraut, miso soup, yogurt, and even sourdough bread.
- Avoid toxic ingredients in your food choices. Sodium bisulfite and sodium sulfite, polysorbate 60, caramel and carmine coloring, Blue #1, Blue #2, Green #3, Red #3, Red #40, Yellow #5, and Yellow #6, high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are just a few examples.
- Choose non-toxic, healthier versions of favorite foods. There are many healthy, clean versions of favorite foods. Look for certified organic and read ingredient labels. Choose foods in refrigerated aisles and avoid the boxed, canned, packaged, and processed foods. Stop eating fast food and drinking soda all together.
- Pick foods high in omega-3 and 6 to boost and regulate brain function. Try acai, nuts (walnuts, pine nuts, and pistachios), seeds (pumpkin and sesame), flax (oil, seeds or meal), hemp (seeds or meal), cold-water fish (wild salmon, trout, and herring), avocado and green leafy vegetables (kale, spinach, and collards).
- Start exploring fruits and vegetables to move toward plant-based meals. Talk about fruits and vegetables. Teach your child what each fruit and vegetable is, what they do to the body, and how easily they can change form and tastes. Tell them why a carrot is orange and how it protects our skin, teeth, nails, eyes, and more.
- Learn how to eat, shop, and prepare clean and healthy meals. The most common problem people have today is not knowing what to eat, how to shop for healthy foods, and how to put it all together and cook great meals. Take a course or visit a nutritionist to find out how to tackle this very common roadblock.
- If your child is a picky eater, you must first identify if a sensory issue exists and seek out an occupational therapist. Then play with food with your child, shop together, grow a small garden, juice veggies and make smoothies, and find recipes together. Get your child touching, smelling, and being in the present moment with real food.
Learn more at: drlisasulsenti.com