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How I discovered that some foods were messing with my son’s brain.

by Kim Screen

His cheeks told me.

We’d already known my son had a dairy sensitivity as a baby, but we thought he had outgrown it. His original infant symptoms had disappeared.

But by age 3 we were having a very tough time with him behaviorally. (That is putting it quite mildly — I was losing my marbles and my husband was happiest not-at-home.) There were tantrums, constant meltdowns, severe hypoglycemia, and severe anxiety.

Our pediatrician recommended we try eliminating foods to see if that helped. We were surprised. At that point we simply had no idea that food could be affecting his brain and causing these behavioral symptoms. We were clueless about the food-brain connection, but desperate to try anything. So we gave it a go.

It can be tricky business identifying the culprits of food sensitivities. Dairy and gluten are the big ones, so I wanted to start there. But I had reason to believe they weren’t the full answer for us. One big reason, actually — my son’s cheeks.

That, and yogurt and jam.

You see, every time we gave him dairy-free yogurt his cheeks would get red and blotchy. Same thing with raspberry jam. Our nanny at the time kept telling me in Spanish, The jam does not like him. She noticed his cheeks right away, too.

I’m certain there were other foods that also did it. But for whatever reason I never isolated them as clearly. Just the dairy-free yogurt and raspberry jam. Such random, unrelated foods.

I felt like his cheeks were talking to me. If only I could figure out what they were saying.

Covered in sand, but his cheeks are talking to me here. Age 3.

I looked at the yogurt ingredients and didn’t see anything obvious to my untrained eye:

Organic Coconut Milk (Water, Organic Coconut Cream), Organic Dried Cane Syrup, Chicory Root Extract (Inulin), Pectin, Tapioca Dextrose, Natural Flavors, Algin (Kelp Extract), Magnesium Phosphate, Tricalcium Phosphate, Locust Bean Gum, Rice Starch, Live Cultures, Citric Acid, Carrageenan, Guar Gum, Dipotassium Phosphate, Vitamin B12

And the raspberry jam seemed even less offensive. How, on earth, could he react to jam that has only 5 ingredients? Here they are:

Raspberries, Sugar, Cane Sugar, Concentrated Lemon Juice, Fruit Pectin

O.K., I realize there is lots of sugar in jam. But I did not see sugar in other foods cause this same reaction in his cheeks.

But pectin is in both. But…pectin?

I wish I could say that I immediately made the connection and solved our mystery. But I couldn’t see it yet. I was too overwhelmed, too stuck on the biggies like gluten/dairy/soy/etc. And truthfully, I had always glazed over at ingredient lists. I couldn’t fathom becoming literate in so many random ingredients, though I really wanted to be an informed consumer.

Fast forward a few months — a few excruciating months filled with some of our family’s lowest lows — and my friend sent me a Ted talk that changed everything.

In the Ted talk, a mom of 5 and biochemist named Dr. Katherine Reid describes how she has completely managed her daughter’s autism symptoms through diet — with a special emphasis on removing MSG from her diet. The before and after videos of her daughter are absolutely incredible. I highly recommend it.

In my subsequent research I learned that MSG — also called free-glutamate — isn’t just about Asian food. More importantly, it hasn’t been removed from our food like we’ve been led to believe. In fact, I learned that MSG has been sneakily renamed 80+ different things and is in many foods found even in top health food stores.

And that pectin is one of them. Yes, pectin contains MSG. So do Dextrose, Natural Flavors, Citric Acid, and Carrageenan. All ingredients in my healthy, dairy-free yogurt I had been feeding my son.

They are excitotoxins, and they were making my son’s brain feel crazy. The complete list of these MSG ingredients is long and may surprise you.

Five days after removing MSG from my son’s diet I started observing changes. He sat calmly with me at the library for the first time in his whole life. A week later he began sleeping an average of an hour longer each night. He snored less. His anxieties gradually lessened. He could cope better. His hypoglycemia began receding. And 6 months into the diet, when he ate an off-diet food, his and our world did not come crashing down: he was more resilient.

Two and a half years later, we are still on the diet. It is an ongoing journey, for sure. There have been plenty of cheats, we’ve made plenty of progress, and there is progress yet to be made. We are constantly learning about food and making adjustments when we discover what works best for our family. It is not always easy, nor is it cheap. But the rewards are great — we are all so much healthier for it.

I thank God for those cheeks.

Happy cheeks and awesome bed head. Age 6.


Kim Screen

Mom of 3 healthy/unhealthy kids, on a mission to heal my family. Ambassador to Documenting Hope, whose mission is proving our kids can get better.