The role of food in chronic illnesses in children

Andrea Mara speaks to paediatric neurologist Dr Maya Shetreat-Klein about the role certain foods play in daily chronic illnesses and conditions in children.

The role of food in chronic illnesses in children

I have three children, all of whom eat (pretty much) the same food, and have a (fairly) healthy diet, but for reasons I can’t explain, one of them suffers regularly from tummy pain.

This is exactly the kind of case study covered in Healthy Food, Healthy Gut, Happy Child – The Real Dirt On Raising Healthy Kids In A Processed World, a new book by US paediatric neurologist Dr Maya Shetreat-Klein.

In it, she notes the huge rise in cases of food allergies, asthma, and eczema, and questions why we’re accepting chronic illness as normal.

When I met her in Dublin recently, Dr Shetreat-Klein told me that she was always interested in how our bodies connect with food, but really started researching it when her then one-year- old son began having breathing issues, with what looked like the beginnings of asthma.

“He started breaking out in hives and rashes, and had a developmental plateau.As a paediatrician I was terrified. I was taking him to doctors who were my colleagues and nobody seemed really concerned.

"It showed me that chronic illness is the new normal. To me he was falling apart but to everyone else it was ‘this is just him – he’s an asthma kid’.”

She researched, and discovered eventually that he was allergic to soya.

“When we took it out of his diet, within three days, his breathing was better, and he only had a problem again through accidental exposure.”

She took what she learned through her son’s condition and put it into practice professionally.

“We don’t learn much about food and nutrition during medical training. The idea that what we eat can be so directly connected to our health and our brain function was really dramatic for me, and I began applying it in my practice and seeing all kinds of results.”

In her book, she is particularly concerned with gut health in children, so I asked her what we need to remove from our children’s diet to make it more gut-friendly.

“There are three categories,” she explains.

“First, read labels and avoid chemicals when possible. My top five things to avoid are foods with high fructose corn syrup, MSG, preservatives, artificial sweeteners and food dyes.

"Look at the label, and if there are things you wouldn’t have in your own cupboard, then you don’t want to feed them to your children.”

Her second category is sugar.

“Processed sugar causes a huge spike in insulin, a pro-inflammatory hormone in the body. A lot of the conditions we see in children — like asthma, eczema, ADHD — all have inflammatory components.”

The third category is a list of common allergens. “Many kids don’t have trouble with any of these, but even a very low level allergy can wreak havoc. The common allergens are dairy, wheat, soya, corn, egg, nuts including peanuts, and citrus.

“A lot of times I’ll have patients who’ve been allergy tested and their doctor has said ‘these are low level allergies, we don’t need to do anything’.

"But when I see them and the kinds of troubles they’re having, we might do a trial [of the allergen]— 30 days, that’s all you need — and we’ve seen dramatic changes.”

If however a child is sensitive to a number of foods, Dr Shetreat-Klein suggests getting advice from a nutritionist.

Removing even some processed food from our kids’ diet makes sense, but what about the good stuff — what should we be feeding our children?

“If we think back to how we were eating a couple of hundred years ago, it’s a wonderful guide for us. You know, eat eggs, but pastured eggs are better because when you have a healthy animal, you have healthy food from that animal.

"Fat has been demonised but it’s filled with nutrients. Egg yolks have cholesterol, which is incredibly important for the developing brain.”

Dr Shetreat-Klein keeps her own chickens at her family home in New York but acknowledges that not everyone can do that.

“You don’t have to keep your own chickens, because other people are doing that. We do have a lot of conveniences — it doesn’t mean it has to be processed food.”

Bitter compounds also have tremendous benefits on the body, she says.

“Things like the peel on fruits and vegetables have components of bitters, also dark chocolate, leafy greens, and chamomile tea. Bitters improve digestion, and help with bloating, so for kids who have tummy troubles, they’re phenomenal.”

I put it to her that the big takeaway from all of this is that if you find yourself glazing over when reading a package label, it’s a signal to put it back on the shelf.

She laughs and nods. “Right — the front of any package is very glossy and makes lots of claims, but the back, where the valid information is. And that’s exactly the part we need to read.”

Top tips

Introducing replacement foods:

  • Let your child surprise you — offer them new foods even if you think they won’t like them.
  • Be positive — especially with foods you don’t like yourself.
  • Teach them “not everything has to be your favourite”.
  • Offer foods again — it can take 30 tries to get a child to like a new food.
  • Phase in new foods slowly — it’s a marathon, not a sprint

Adapted from Healthy Food, Healthy Gut, Happy Child – The Real Dirt on Raising Healthy Kids in a Processed World, by Dr Maya Shetreat-Klein.

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