Think nutrition doesn’t make a difference for learning, behavior, or focus problems? Think again! At Child Decoded, we emphasize looking deeper than the symptoms and building your child’s function from the foundation up.
Judy Converse LDN, an expert in pediatric nutrition, explains why in-depth nutritional assessment could be the most impactful step you can take.
By Marijke Jones
Q: Does improper nutrition affect learning disorders, behavior, mood, sensory integration issues, sleep, or focus?
A: Judy Converse: Why on earth would anyone think it doesn’t?
Judy Converse is alarmed. A licensed, registered dietitian/nutritionist (LDN) who has worked exclusively with infants, children, and teens for over 20 years, Ms. Converse has seen some disturbing trends in children’s health during that time.
“We’ve normalized illness,” she says. “It’s become the new normal to accept sickness, be it kids getting colds and flu more often; or skyrocketing rates of learning disorders, behavior disorders, and sensory integration issues; or an increasingly high need for epipens and inhalers. Over 50% of kids have some form of chronic illness … and that’s according to the CDC, whose data are conservative.”
This phenomenon, says Converse emphatically, is not normal.
“We are confusing common with normal. This is absolutely NOT normal. You do not need to accept this as the state of things.”
When I asked the above question, Converse responded:
“Here’s the thing: Learning and behavior and sensory issues are physical health issues as much as or more than they are ‘psychological’ or ‘developmental.’
“Normal development depends on nutrition.
“Nutrition is the single most important thing for a brain to have what it needs to grow, function, learn, and do everything it is supposed to be doing. A child’s brain uses 40% of all the food energy eaten. In other words, almost half of what a kid eats is digested just to give fuel to the brain.
It’s extremely complex on a biochemistry, nutrigenomics, and physiology level, but also incredibly simple: No food = no brain. Lousy, inadequate, or inappropriate food + toxins = a brain, but it will be more scrambled.
“The literature is just voluminous on all the nutrition underpinnings of sensory dysregulation, behavior, mood, impulsivity… it involves complex chemistry of zinc, iron, magnesium, toxic metals, how proteins are digested, what kinds of fats kids eat, and more.”
Here’s what can happen with an imbalance of the nutrient iron:
A child can have normal hemoglobin levels (what a pediatrician would look for in an iron screening), but still be needing iron. [This is, BTW, one of the strengths of a Functional Medicine approach: individual markers can be ‘within normal range’ – perhaps just a little high or a little low – but when looked at relative to each other, the whole picture can tell a very different story.]
And what happens if a child is iron deficient?
The balance between iron, zinc, and copper in the blood is crucial for behavior, learning, mood, sleep, and focus. (Fun fact: Too much free copper in the system relative to zinc will result in aggressive behavior.) We need iron to make and break down serotonin and dopamine, essential components in mood stabilization, behavior regulation, and sleep.
So, basically, if you’re trying therapy or meds for behavior or mood regulation, or therapy or tutoring for learning disorders, and your child’s iron is chronically low, you are working against your child’s basic biochemistry.
And that’s just one nutrient!
There are many, many ways that a child’s nutritional intake, or their functional processing (or lack thereof) of certain nutrients, can impact their ability to learn, regulate their behavior, or concentrate.
The good news: In-depth nutritional assessment and guidance can correct most, if not all, of these imbalances and restore much of your child’s optimal health. This will absolutely affect his cognitive, emotional, and sensory function.
And much of this approach relies on the low-tech solution of FOOD. How much, what kind, what to avoid, how to supplement.
The bad news: It’s a lot harder to find in-depth nutritional evaluation and guidance than you may think.
Many physicians and other healthcare practitioners are not trained in more than the basics of nutrition. “Following the food pyramid” really isn’t specific or individualized enough. The detailed evaluations Converse does are time-consuming, but reveal a great deal about how a child is (or isn’t) using the everyday fuel in his system.
Some practitioners leapfrog over these basics and employ more sophisticated solutions, some of which can impair an already depleted or overwhelmed system. Often, a closer look at what a child is actually eating and how well that is serving him would actually have been more effective.
This is one area where looking at the fundamentals could be the most important step you can take.
Here are some guidelines to help you find the professional you need:
Look for a licensed dietitian/nutritionist who has specific training or experience working in pediatric nutrition (children are not just little adults – the needs are different), as well as in integrative health or functional medicine. (Colorado does not require a license to practice nutrition, unlike 47 other states that do. This makes it confusing for parents and providers alike.)
Converse adds, “I don’t think other professionals should be doing nutrition assessment and care, any more than I should be doing OT or PT or play therapy or psychology. These are each dedicated professions that require specific training and licensure. I would suggest families steer clear of a provider who dabbles in nutrition as a side line.”
Ask how much specific nutritional guidance they give in terms of actual food, not just supplements or foods to avoid.
Or, just call Judy. She works with functional medicine expert, Jill Carnahan MD at Flatiron Functional Medicine and has worked with clients locally, nationally and globally since 1999. She has helped countless kids accept, enjoy, and tolerate foods they couldn’t or wouldn’t eat before, leave their paraphernalia (inhalers, etc.) behind, avoid or have more success with medications, stop catching every bug that comes around, and start enjoying life (and school!).
Her motto is simple, but something many of us have found frustratingly elusive:
Your kids get to be healthy.