THE BLOG
05/09/2013 05:35 pm ET | Updated Jul 07, 2013

My Son Was A Spaz. And Then He Wasn't.

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If you've never, ever, not even once thought that your child was a spaz, then I'm not sure you'll be able to relate to the struggles, challenges and frustrations of parenting an energetic child. My own son sometimes looked and acted like a spaz through those preschool years. Not just the "oh he's a boy," energy. No, he literally ran circles around and through our legs, never sat still, was always in motion. Always.

Even still, when someone referred to him out loud as a spaz, and not in an endearing manner, we were completely offended. The mama bear in me came out in all her glory and I just wanted to protect my cub from such a ridiculous claim. Thankfully, he was too young to notice, or remember today, but that moment in my child's youth is engraved in my memory forever.

That particular day, I was there to defend my son's honor and set the record straight. He most certainly was not a spaz, but rather, had an abundance of energy and was excited about life.

But one day after soccer class, when most high-energy kids would be tired and mellow, my son came home more energetic than ever. His non-stop craziness was, well, crazy. In the midst of spinning, jumping and waving his tiny little arms around, he yelled for help. I told him that I couldn't help him until he stopped all this movement, and that's when he said he couldn't stop and needed my help. As I embraced his body, I could feel it struggle and push against me. It was absolutely clear to us that he was no longer in control. Something else was.

We later learned that he had a sports drink at the recreation center after class and the culprit for his reaction was the artificial food dyes in this clear drink. Until that day, it never crossed my mind that ingredients in our food supply could be potentially unsafe for consumption. I trusted that our government was looking out for us and surely wouldn't allow anything into our food that wasn't tested and proven safe.

I was so very wrong.

In the months and year to follow, I practically earned a PhD in nutrition and food politics as I scoured the internet, books and knowledge available to learn everything I possibly could about the health and safety of our food. I read Marion Nestle, Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Robyn O'Brien and so many other experts who were once completely unknown to me prior to this event, but have now become food heroes I respect and admire, and some I've even had the pleasure to meet. These influential authors work tirelessly to help the American public become aware of the inner workings of our food supply and lift the veil on the concerns that others won't, or are afraid, to talk about. These are incredibly important conversations we must have in all of our communities so that we can make smarter choices about the food we feed our children.

It was surely an eye-opening education for me to learn that our government has approved chemical and non-food substances to be used in our food without long-term studies by unbiased third-parties. Many of these same substances are banned from other countries because they have either not proven to be safe, or parents have successfully voiced loud enough concern that they have been removed from the market.

With this new knowledge and insights, and help from an incredibly smart and forward-thinking pediatric specialist to guide us, we took on the challenge to determine all that was contributing to my son's hyperactive behaviors. At five years old, it was completely unacceptable to us to simply acknowledge that he likely had ADHD and that we should consider giving our child medication. Our journey to find answers included a food elimination diet, which for a child was no walk in the park. We worked hard and long to find foods and recipes that he would eat, while removing common triggers or food sensitivities like gluten, soy, egg, dairy, tree nuts, corn, peanuts and shellfish, along with artificial ingredients like food coloring and preservatives.

After a few weeks we confirmed a dairy sensitivity, or intolerance, and were reassured that artificial ingredients were a big issue for him. At the time, I remember wondering why we had never heard of anyone else having issues with artificial ingredients and even questioned whether we saw something that maybe wasn't really there. After sharing our experience at Feed Our Families, readers started leaving comments about their child or grandchild who had similar reactions to artificial food dyes. It was heart-breaking to read story after story, but also a relief to know that we weren't alone.

For me, knowing that so many children are affected by artificial food dyes and ingredients put a spotlight on the growing problem we have on our hands. I'm not the only parent to be concerned to hear that ADHD diagnosis for children has increased 24% over the last ten years or that 20% of doctors prescribe medication as an initial treatment for preschoolers with ADHD. When you also consider the increased amount of processed foods with artificial ingredients that our children consume, it's easy to start connecting all of these dots. For reassurance, talk to a kindergarten teacher about the hyperactivity level of the class after they've had neon blue frosting covered cookies.

What's a parent to do? There's two easy things we can do to help. First, follow your gut. If something inside tells you that your child might benefit in school, sports or life with a little less uncontrollable energy, invest three weeks for a food challenge to see if changes to their diet can help. Additionally, we can follow the UK's lead and send a message to the food manufacturers that we want the same artificial food dye-free versions of their food that they sell overseas. American children deserve it! By eating real food and cutting back on processed foods with these ingredients, you vote with your dollar every day.