Finding a Method for the Madness: Our Journey of Changing Behavior with a Food Elimination Diet

Bear with me, as this will be a long one, but is an important piece of our get-back-to-the-farm decision.

H has always been active and challenging, even as a newborn (what newborn isn’t?).  He had gone to a new level around the time he turned 3 years old.  His listening skills were nonexistent, he challenged every request, and he never stopped moving.  He was having night terrors once or twice a month, which my google research and pediatrician both said were normal and harmless and he’d eventually grow out of them.  At the time the night terrors consisted of him crying and looking awake, though he really wasn’t.  We would hold him and tell him everything was okay, though he didn’t seem to even know we were there.  After a few minutes, he would yawn and quickly return to normal sleep.  He was grouchy and moody a lot.

I consider myself a positive parent and do my best to allow as much as I can and say yes as often as possible.  But there are always times when you have to say “no.”  Many times I could redirect him towards other things.  But when something really set him off an hour long tantrum would ensue.  He would also be very aggressive during his tantrums.  He would hit and kick as well as scream and cry.  There are still marks on the back of his bedroom door from where he kicked over and over when we locked him in his room during a particularly violent tantrum.  (I hate that we did that, but we didn’t know what else to do at the time. Most of that time one of us was in there with him just making sure he didn’t hurt himself.)  I kept telling myself he was just an active kid and even a bit hyperactive.  TS was concerned about the H’s level of aggression during the tantrums.  Finally in the spring of 2014 I finally admitted to myself that this wasn’t just normal active challenging preschooler behavior.

Our investigation into the cause of H’s behavior problems started with Tuesdays.  On a particularly bad day, I made the connection that many of the worst days we were having were Tuesdays.  Not every Tuesday was terrible, but a lot of them were.  We had bad days on other days of the week but never as epically bad as Tuesdays.  One Tuesday I remember H dumping a container of bubble solution in the kiddie pool and then screaming and crying for an hour because he wanted it back in the container.  I feel like most kids do stuff like that and get upset, but being inconsolable for an hour?  That seems a bit much.

The next Tuesday as we were leaving our local kids’ consignment shop, I handed H a DumDum from the jar by the register and a lightbulb went on in my head.  TUESDAYS were the days we went to this shop and I always gave him a DumDum as we were leaving.  It didn’t seem like much.  A DumDum is the smallest lollypop that exists to my knowledge and there was no other time H was allowed candy.  We never did have many sugary treats at home and H didn’t even know what “dessert” was.  But we went to this store at least twice a month, always on a Tuesday, and I always gave him a DumDum as we were leaving.  It was obvious.  I never gave him a DumDum after that and Tuesdays were no longer any worse than any other day.  By this time he was having night terrors every few nights and we didn’t have any idea what was causing them and assumed there was nothing we could do about it.  The violent tantrums were still happening as well.

A few weeks later I came across a book at our local thrift store called “Is This Your Child?” by Doris Rapp.  This book changed everything for us.  It’s about how undetected food allergies can cause a whole range of problems including behavioral problems like hyperactivity and aggression.  It has an in-depth food elimination plan to identify problem foods, which can then be eliminated from the diet.  You can find it on Amazon here: As soon as I read it, I knew I wanted to try the elimination diet.  H had a few weeks left of his 2-morning-a-week preschool left before summer break.  I spent that time menu planning for the trial.  TS was on board, but because of his hectic work schedule the planning was all up to me.

We started the elimination diet the first week of summer.  It was a rough week.  We eliminated ALL refined sugar, wheat, dairy, corn, artificial colors and preservatives, and soy.  The time I spent in the kitchen doubled since I had to make most everything from scratch.  Much of what we did eat was repeated a few times throughout the week since H is a picky eater anyway.  On the 3rd or 4th day of the elimination diet we happened to be at our pediatrician’s office for his sister S’s 18 month checkup.  I was talking with him about H and telling him what we were doing and I noticed H was sitting pretty calmly while we were talking.  Usually when we were at the doctor’s office he’d be climbing the table, trying to get in the spinning chair, and I’d have to physically prevent him from opening the drawers and cabinets.  The pediatrician said he’d heard a lot of anecdotal evidence about behavior problems being linked to food and though he didn’t know of any definitive evidence, there was no harm in us trying the diet.

By the 5th day TS said he could tell a difference in H as well and by the 6th day we were both sure.  He was still active and challenging.  But he seemed far less aggressive and when he did get upset he snapped out of it quickly.  He seemed to have less “nervous energy.”  We also noted that he had not had a night terror all week.   So on the 7th day, we decided to start the trial phase of the diet.  Dairy was first.  We kept the diet the same, but gave him a few pieces of cheese throughout the day and a cup of milk in the afternoon.  We had gone to the lake that morning and had a picnic lunch.  On the drive back we gave H my ipad to play and then took it when we got home.  He was always upset when he had to give up the ipad, but this day he cried and screamed and carried on for an hour.  He was then grouchy the rest of the evening.  It was looking like dairy was going to be the cause, but it could have just been a bad day or he was tired from the trip to the lake.  (In hindsight, we should have done our first food test on a day we’d be home.)  After we put the kids to bed, TS and I were discussing the day and whether or not we thought we needed another day or two of testing dairy before being sure about it.  I remember saying “If he has a night terror, we’ll know.”  And sure enough, about an hour after being put to bed, we heard H crying.  That night terror was worse than the previous ones – not only was he crying and looking at us without seeing us, he was reaching for things that weren’t there and trying to run away.  We knew at that point that the dairy had to go.

Over the next two weeks we tried to add other foods back in, one day at a time.  When we found something that triggered H we would have a day off as well before adding something new.  At the end of the month we were dairy, sugar, corn, egg, soy, and artificial color/preservative free.  We were thankfully able to add wheat back without any negative effects.  We did additional test (and re-test) days throughout the summer and after a lot of trial and error we figured out that citric acid causes some of the worst behavior we’d seen from H.  That was difficult to figure out and even more difficult to eliminate.  It’s in SO many foods, even in organic and natural foods such as canned tomatoes.  We were able to add eggs back in after the re-test day showed no negative effects.  We are now able to use sugar in VERY small amounts and corn is also okay in small amounts if it’s not several days in a row.  We have had to remove honey and all citrus fruits.  I spent a lot of time that summer making tomato sauce from scratch using tomatoes from the farmer’s market, learning to make dairy and sugar-free bread, making chili from scratch using dried beans rather than canned, and just trying to find foods that H could (and would!) eat.  Towards the end of the summer TS himself had his own food revolution, but that’s a story for him to tell.

Nine months later we have pretty much got this figured out.  H is still an active kid and still has trouble listening.  But we haven’t had an hour-long tantrum in months.  He has not had a single night terror that we couldn’t attribute to something he ate that he shouldn’t have.  We have been able to manage his diet with preschool snacks and only had one major slip-up when they gave him white cheese popcorn by mistake.  It’s been really hard.  It’s almost impossible to eat out or prepare a meal last-minute.  I spend a whole lot more time thinking about food than I want to.  I really wish I could just order a pizza sometimes.  I know H really misses yogurt.  That was his favorite food previously and he still occasionally asks for it.  We still make mistakes and occasionally miss something on a food label.  For example, the frozen turkey purchased last minute for Thanksgiving was assumed to be just a turkey – but instead it was “flavored with butter.”

A really difficult adjustment to make has been the doubling of our food expenses.  A gallon of rice milk is $7.00 at least.  Organic chicken (necessary due to the artificial colors and who knows what other contaminants in conventional factory-produced meat) is $6.99 a pound at least.  We have to buy the organic versions of many foods which are more expensive.  Though I’d prefer to eat organic anyway, it has become somewhat of a necessity.  Organic foods inherently have fewer ingredients and most are easy to decipher.  It’s a whole lot easier to avoid certain ingredients when you’re looking at a list of 5 instead of 25.  The expense of eating this way is one of the major factors in us wanting to move to a farm.  We cannot continue to spend so much money on food, especially when having such high household expenses (mortgage, power for all the excess space, etc.)  Growing our own food and having much lower household expenses may be the only way our family can survive without going into massive debt.  Changing our diet (and the associated change in our finances) has been a huge adjustment for our family but the difference in DS’s behavior has been well worth it.  I highly recommend that anyone having trouble with their child’s behavior at least try the elimination diet as described in “Is This Your Child?” by Doris Rapp.  It certainly can’t hurt to try it and it may make all the difference in the world.  If anyone reading this has had a similar experience, please leave a comment!  I would love to hear your story


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