There is a difference between having food preferences, favorite foods, and having an addictive-like preference for certain foods.

Most often these addictive-like behaviors are associated with dairy or wheat: Milk, cheese, yogurt, crackers, bread, grilled cheese, cookies, chips, pasta.

Mainstream medicine is starting to catch on that this is real, though ‘autism moms’ have known this for years.  The DSM-V has new guidelines on avoidant/restrictive eating disorders, and acknowledge that it is a real medical diagnosis now. (source)

We’re going to look a little more into how this works, and what we can do about it.

What’s the difference between preferences, picky eating, and addictive-like behavior?

Friendly reminder: I’m a mom, not a medical professional. I’m active in our special needs community both online and where we live, so I hear a lot about eating ‘issues’ that even the professionals can’t figure out.  This is my take on it. It is not medical advice, it is my speculation.  Please do not change your child’s diet without consulting with a qualified medical professional.

Preferences are mild and will not cause a meltdown or prolonged distress in the child.  My children enjoy quesadillas, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and milk with dinner, but if they don’t get it, it doesn’t change our evening.  There is no food that they ‘need’ to eat every day, and feel like they’re missing if they don’t have it.  They also ‘don’t like’ potatoes or tomatoes, but if they’re looking forward to going to the monster truck show at the fair, you can bet those baked potatoes are gone in no time.

Picky eating is when a child’s, or adult’s, dietary choices are limiting their ability to eat a balanced diet, are preventing them from enjoying social activities that center around food because they absolutely refuse to eat food other than a few specific foods.  You can learn more about picky eating in this free webinar (No, it’s not a parenting issue- stop feeling guilty if your child is picky).

Addictive-like behavior is when a child (or adult) experiences withdrawals when a certain food is not supplied. I’m like this with coffee. I make coffee first thing every morning, and I get a headache and have low energy if I don’t get it.   Most commonly I’ve seen children have addictive-like behavior with milk.  Gluten can do the same thing, but gluten is so common that it’s less likely to be noticeable until you take it away.

A tell-tail sign of addictive-like behavior is if you find yourself making a run to the gas station for milk in the middle of the night because your child absolutely cannot sleep without a cup of milk and has been crying for it since 8:00 PM.  You thought eventually they would go to sleep, understanding that you ran out and would be able to get some tomorrow. They didn’t.

What is making them addicted?

The molecules gluten and/or casein (the proteins found in wheat and dairy) are having a opioid-like effect on their brain (source).  What is an opioid-like effect? It’s like being on morphine.  Very addicting.

When the gut is not populated well with healthy bacteria, or it is damaged for some reason, these food molecules get through the gut wall and into the bloodstream before they are properly digested.  Then through the bloodstream, they make their way to the brain, just as morphine would if it was taken in pill form.

This may explain the ‘brain fog’ that children with autism and developmental delays appear to have.  The lack of eye contact, the inability to learn how their peers learn, the repetitive behaviors- it all is very similar to a person who is on heroin (morphine).

I think my child is addicted. Now what?

I talk about this in the picky eating solution, but for a brief overview:

  1. Pull the ‘less addictive’ substance first. If your child requires a sippy cup of milk at all times, first switch to being gluten-free. If they only eat sandwiches or pasta for all meals, take away the dairy first.  By taking away the one that they’re less addicted to, their gut will start to heal, and they will be less resistant to cutting out the other food.
  2. After 3-5 days, start to reduce the amount of the remaining food (gluten or dairy) by watering down milk or diluting it with almond or coconut milk slowly, and only allowing gluten at certain times a day, less and less, until it’s gone.
  3. Keeping strict gluten free/casein free for a week.
  4. Work to heal the gut.  When the gut is healed, these foods will stop having this affect on the children. Having a reaction like this to foods is sign of a leaky gut.  I followed the GAPS diet with my family to heal our gut, you can read more here.
  5. Sign up here for a free 30-day checklist to help you detoxify your home, increase gut-healing foods, and decrease stressers on the body.  It’s an attainable step-by-step plan to help you help your family heal.
  6. After 6 months to a year of gut healing, we were able to eat all sorts of foods again. We do continue to eat mostly grain free, though, because it helps keep us healthy.

This post came from answering questions that moms have had about The Picky Eating Solution. As a mom, I know that it’s more than just a parenting issue.  The Picky Eating Solution follows a holistic plan to turn picky eating around – and it is very effective! If you suspect your child’s picky eating is something more than just a temporary phase, I would encourage you to check out the free webinar here.

(top photo credit)

Webinar for Parents of Picky Kids: The Picky Eating Solution

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