4 nutrition tips for kids with special needs

Saad and Ray Dinno

Getting your child to eat a balanced meal can be difficult. Many parents have picky eaters, but perhaps even more challenging is navigating serious food allergies, intolerances and chronic health conditions on top of this. To help, we’ve put together some tips to keep in mind when it comes to feeding a child with dietary restrictions and other medical conditions. 

Understand allergies and intolerances

According to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), the eight major food allergens are milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and crustacean shellfish. Allergies to any of these foods can escalate into anaphylaxis, a severe, life-threatening reaction. Yet, many children also develop food intolerances and mild allergies over time that can make meal time complicated. Addressing and identifying troublesome foods can require eliminating them from your child’s diet for a substantial period of time, to see how they do without them. Allergy testing can also be used to fully understand and evaluate a child’s allergies. 

If it seems your child struggles with an intolerance or mild allergy to an unknown food, one possible solution is to eliminate a certain food for a few weeks. When we eat problem foods too frequently, our bodies develop a delayed immune response, making it more challenging to locate the source of the issue. Eliminating a food and then reintroducing it weeks later will make an intolerance or mild allergy more apparent. However, be sure to consult your health provider before making any drastic adjustments in your child’s diet.    

Other options to alleviate symptoms include enzymes and probiotics that can help aid proper digestion. These can be found at your local pharmacy or grocery store. 

Rebalance digestion 

Children diagnosed with ADHD often have digestive imbalances and altered gut microbiomes, sometimes caused by gluten and dairy. The gut, or “the second brain,” sends excitatory and calming neurotransmitters to our actual brain, and when our gut is imbalanced, so are the neurotransmitters. Children with ADHD therefore have too many excitatory neurotransmitters and not enough calming ones, which can lead to hyperactivity and an inability to concentrate.  Because of this gut-brain connection, a healthy micronutrient diet, probiotics and Omega 3s can help with your child’s ADHD symptoms. Fish oil supplements, which may be unpleasant smelling and tasting, can also help. Try incorporating these into a meal or even blending them with food. And, don’t forget that a good night’s sleep is also key to restoring the body’s natural balance.  

Go easy on gluten

Gluten intolerances are common, but not the same as celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that requires eliminating gluten from your diet altogether. Gluten can be challenging to avoid, as it is found in wheat, barley and rye – all very commonly consumed grains. Some common symptoms of a gluten intolerance include bloating, abdominal pain and irregular bowel movements.

If your child has a non-celiac gluten sensitivity, try to follow similar precautions as you would for celiac disease. The good news is that as more people are eliminating gluten from their diet; more gluten-free products are becoming available. Be sure to always check that products are labeled certified gluten-free before purchasing. And, don’t forget that many healthy and fresh foods are already gluten-free, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, lean meat, fish and poultry.   

Remember the rainbow

Overall, it is important that children consume a balanced and colorful plate. This means including fruits and vegetables of all colors of the rainbow: red peppers, oranges, squash, spinach, blueberries and blackberries. Beyond just fruit and veggies, children should consume a balanced portion of fats, carbs and protein. Where we get these, however, makes a difference.  For instance, carbohydrates should come from foods like potatoes or other vegetables. Fats should be healthy fats from avocados, nuts and olive oil and proteins should be lean cuts of meat, beans and fish.  

Understanding and identifying intolerances, allergies, digestive imbalances and the role of a healthy diet is critical to helping your child achieve optimal health. We hope these tips help you build a balanced plate specific to your child’s needs. 

Pharmacists Raied (Ray) Dinno and Saad Dinno are co-owners of Acton Pharmacy, West Concord Pharmacy, and Keyes Drug in Newton.