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I put my son on a low chemical diet

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I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I knew it would make life harder. I knew I would get kickbacks. But I was desperate.

You know those moments as a parent, when you’re in the company of others and there’s that one kid who is running around like a maniac, hitting other kids who looked at them the wrong way, spitting on toddlers, pushing the bigger kids and acting like they have a V8 turbo engine trapped inside of them? Well, that’s my son.

He’s been hard work since day one. As a baby, he was difficult to settle for sleep and difficult to feed. As a toddler, we fought over putting shoes on, taking shoes off, having a bath, leaving the park, eating food… I know these are normal toddler tantrums but they felt 10 times more exaggerated than when I went through the same things with his older sister.

I stopped going to friends’ houses.

He would be too rough with their kids. He would overwhelm my friends who didn’t have kids. With every catch up there was another child upset and I would patiently endure a lecture from their mother about how inappropriate my son’s behaviour was.

He’s now eight years old and suffice to say, I’ve had my fair share of emails from his teacher, meetings with the principal and ‘action plans’ for managing his behaviour. I know that by week two or three of a new year, his teacher will make contact with me.

My favourite encouragement that one of his teachers used to say was “cool your engine”. It’s appropriate because he can impersonate a semi-trailer’s compression braking better than my husband can. His kindergarten teacher said to me, “don’t worry. He’s nice naughty, not nasty naughty.” Phew, I mean if we’re going to compartmentalise naughty, then I’m glad that he’s the first one.

He’s not deceitful, manipulative or nasty. He’s high energy, crazy, loud, irritable, prone to anger, anxious. His school reports read ‘enthusiastic’, ‘energetic’ and ‘vibrant’. His teachers are always so polite.

I felt like a bad mum, like it was my fault. So I tried harder: more couch time, more cuddles, more talks, more incentives for good behaviour. More boundaries, more structure, more routines. I’ve read all the parenting books specifically focused on ‘challenging’ children. I’ve cried. I’ve prayed. Only one thing helped.

A number of years ago I decided to see through the hype, the loud car impersonations, the constant harassing of his sister, the yelling, the ‘growling’ and what I can only describe as him being ‘wound up’.

Here’s what I saw: he’s a caring, affectionate, sensitive, ambitious, strong, clever, helpful, problem solving little boy who longs for friends, company and security. I’ve been focussing on this ever since, and things have definitely got easier. It feels so good to just accept him for who he is rather than fight it—no matter how crazy he is.

Over the past 12 months, however, I felt that something more is at play.

The tipping point for me was an incident at his grandparent’s house, multiple emails from school in the same week and the fact that when we were correcting his behaviour we saw just how much it was affecting his self-esteem. “I’m just a bad boy,” he would say, “I can’t be good.”

One evening we were talking to him about being rough with other children and how it is not ok. He was angry and wound up. It was the third conversation on the topic that week. I asked him what he was angry at most. I said, “are you angry at me, the other person or yourself?” Through sobs and fits of tears, he pointed to himself. My heart broke. I had to help him.

So here we are, following a low chemical diet, to help him feel calm. Two days in and we’re already seeing a change.

Developed by the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, the elimination diet is not about sugar or ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ foods. It’s about reducing food chemicals, namely salicylates, amines and glutamates. These chemicals occur naturally in lots of whole foods and can also be added to processed foods.

These chemicals build up in the body.

For most people, this doesn’t affect them at all. Individuals who are intolerant to these chemicals have much lower ‘thresholds’ which means that even a small amount of chemicals, tips them over the threshold and they experience symptoms.

Symptoms are wide and varied and can include skin irritation, gastrointestinal upset, behavioural issues and irritability, sinus issues and headaches.

The process is that you follow the low chemical diet strictly for four to six weeks. All high chemical foods are completely out. It is a tough diet to follow. After that time, you hopefully experience a decrease in symptoms.

The next step is to follow a challenge protocol. You can’t follow the low chemical diet forever, it’s too restrictive. So, one by one, you start to add foods back in that are rich in each chemical group. As you systematically add them back in, you keep a food journal and track your symptoms. If you react, you know which type of chemical you’re intolerant to and if you do the challenge protocol correctly, you also know how much of each chemical you can tolerate.

It’s best to follow the diet under the supervision of an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD). It’s not suitable for everyone and you need to ensure your diet stays as balanced as possible. They can also help you with the challenges and tracking them correctly. There is no point doing this horrible strict diet if you don’t end up with hard and fast outcomes at the end!

If you’re thinking that your child might benefit from this diet, don’t go rushing into it.

As I said, it’s tough, and it wasn’t easy getting the family on board. There were kickbacks (mostly from the daughter) and because we believe in family mealtimes and inclusivity with foods, we’ll be following the diet too so that we keep eating the same things at our shared meals.

Here is a checklist to help you decide whether this solution is right for you:

Is your child a fussy eater?

Yes – Don’t do this diet. It’s too restrictive, work on improving the fussy eating first.

No – Proceed to next question.

Have you ruled out any underlying medical conditions for the symptoms with your GP?

No – Don’t do this diet. Rule out any diseases, gut disorders, ADHD, and other cause of skin conditions or behavioural issues.

Yes – Proceed to next question.

Do you have the capacity in your life to follow a diet strictly for the next 12 weeks?

No – Don’t do this diet. You have to stick to it strictly otherwise there is no point.

Yes – Proceed to next question.

Is your child’s behaviour just kids being kids?

Yes – Don’t do this diet. No kid is perfect. Heck, even adults have tantrums.

No – If you feel there is a level of hype, crazy, irritable and wound up behaviour that isn’t normal, then you may benefit from this diet.

Being a parent is hard, I’ll be the first to admit that.

I also know that you can feel alone in your struggle and I want you to know that if you have a child that has pushed you to your wit’s end, that I understand. My advice would be to stay as calm as possible, love them unconditionally and if you’re considering a low chemical diet get as much support as you can! You can also follow my progress in my Instagram stories.

If you’re ready to get started, check in with my colleague, paediatric dietitian Michelle Bulman at The Healthy Eating Hub.

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