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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

avoiding food dyes: decreasing meltdowns and improving our health

A couple of years ago I read in a magazine about how food dyes and coloring are not good for children's behaviors. In fact, they can lead to kids acting aggressive, defiant, and lead to attentional issues. We have a busy boy, who already has tons of energy to spare (something we love but also find tricky to manage at times). We did not need anything extra causing behavioral issues in our growing boy. So we started experimenting with avoiding food dyes in our foods, but specifically his snacks and things he ate daily.

I also read this incredible book about a regular mom who had several kids and one became allergic to some foods... so she started researching more about what they were eating. She could not afford to change everything at once. She made small changes and decided if she made 20% of changes and 80% was the old way, that was better than nothing. This really resonated with me to make small changes of my own in my family's health.

Here's the review, I encourage you to read this!

Sugar & Coloring = Challenging Behaviors
We already knew our boy is sensitive to sugar. I say it's like an allergy for him, similar at least. It's not life threatening, thankfully, but it's definitely something he doesn't tolerate well. He gets busier, more active, louder, and his meltdowns occur - huge highs of excitement and loud noises and bouncing everywhere, down to very low lows where he's crying and upset over every little thing. Along with decreasing food dyes, we limited sugar.

We're a sweet-tooth family, admittedly. We don't deny our kids' the fun treats that all kids get at amusement parks or at birthday parties. That's our choice right now and we manage it. But in our home and with things we can control we limit sugar and have eliminated food dyes at this point.

Everyone around us noticed a difference in our son's behavior, patience level, and activity level when we decreased food dyes from his diet. We didn't see that drastic of a change, but we noticed it helped and didn't hurt and it was obviously healthier, so we've continued about two years now.

What I do notice is when he does have food dyes (mostly birthday party cupcakes or cake frosting coloring) he's off the wall sometimes. It's not good emotionally to feel that way, to have huge highs and lows, but also physically can make a belly ache and headache.

Research Shows... 
So we believe in avoiding food dyes. There is a lot of research out there as to why it's important to try to consider eliminating these from our kids' diets.

Here are a few articles I found:


The GOOD Stuff
Finding which foods do NOT have dye in them was a huge trial and error! It took me SO much longer in the grocery store the first few months when avoiding dyes.

I was SHOCKED to find out how many foods have dyes in them. Shocked. I should not have been so surprised with marketing as it is to kids- colorful- but I really was shocked I did not realize this before now. 

My advice: go shopping ALONE the first month of eliminating dyes. You need extra time.

I'm going to give you a ton of ideas... but I need to put it out there I'm by NO MEANS a health nut or organic person. I'd love to be someday, but our budget and schedules don't allow that, and I'm a lover of food (Italian!!!) so I cannot possibly avoid all things bad for me. So... here are ideas. But if you see me eating ice cream like every summer evening this next few months, especially while pregnant, don't judge! :)

Foods we've found that AVOID food dyes:
  • Annie's Macaroni and Cheese- This was one of the first things we switched over. It's slightly more expensive but healthier. It's a staple in our home. 
  • Peach Yogurt- We buy the store brand (Hannaford, Market Basket, Wal-Mart). All do NOT have any coloring in them. 
  • Stonyfield Yogurts- This is the only type of strawberry yogurt we can buy, all other store brands or other brands have red dye in them. 
  • Chobani superhero individual yogurts- These are mixed berry but NO dyes! It's HARD to find berry flavored without the red dye in them. My kids love these! A great on the go snack or breakfast addition. 
  • Wal-Mart, Target, Hannaford store brand cereal bars - APPLE flavored only. Nutrigrain bars used to be at the top of our list. Nope not so much anymore. They all have red dye in them. We are safe with the apple flavored ones though. These aren't totally healthy, but when on the go they are helpful to us for snacks. 
  • Chocolate chips or chocolate covered raisins- Instead of M&Ms we use these in trail mixes and various treats. 
  • Vanilla or chocolate frosting for cakes and cupcakes, and plain cake mix. Check the chocolate, some have red dye.
  • Goldfish and Cheez Its- We don't get these often, but they're good for snacks at the beach and they do NOT have dyes. 
  • Annie's Fruit Snacks - These are the only ones I've found without food dyes- and they taste better, too! They're way more expensive, but when we only buy them sparingly or for Easter baskets and Halloween treats, it's OK. 
  • Granola bars: Annie's, Sunbelt, Kashi, KIND - These were a hard one to find! Every single other granola bar we found had stuff in them. All more expensive, but way healthier. 
  • Horizon peanut butter crackers- Apparently yellow dye goes into other crackers! SHOCKED on this one. PB crackers were a staple for us. Not so much now. 
  • WATER- we don't do juices or drinks. When we have birthday parties though we'll by Honest Kids juice boxes. In the summer with sports, we sometimes do Vitamin Water. 
  • Ice cream- we avoid the sprinkles since they are colored. We aim for yogurts with chocolate chips if needed. 
  • Waffles and pancakes- We make our own on weekends for breakfast and always make extra for the freezer. I was shocked THIS WEEK to find out the box of Market Basket brand blueberry waffles I'd picked up as a quick meal (I'm pregnant and exhausted these days!) had red dye in them, and yellow dye and a zillion other things. We also buy real maple syrup, luckily we live in a state where we can easily get it. Way more expensive but SO much better!

Other healthier options:
  • Hormel lunch meats- no preservatives. 
  • Homemade taco seasoning- no need for salt! 
  • Target brand dye-free cough syrup, Tylenol, etc. for colds. This was a big one! I had no idea they included dyes. 
  • Target brand chewy vitamins- Children's Up and Up Gummy Multivitamin (next to the Lil' Critters' ones). I had no clue to look at dyes in vitamins. You'd think these would just be healthy?!
  • Sarah Lee whole wheat bread- has no corn syrup or sugary extras. I had no idea to look for this in breads. 
  • Skippy or Jif natural peanut butters are cheaper options and healthier than regular. 
  • Welch's natural strawberry jelly has no corn syrup or preservatives. We make our own every Christmas time, but if we run out we purchase this. We do TONS of just peanut butter sandwiches, because my kids prefer it, so we don't use a ton of jelly. But if we do, this one is a good option. 
  • Plantains, pretzels, and crunchy snap peas are good options for snacks that don't have dyes in them. Some popcorns, and definitely things like Cheetos and Doritos have dyes in them. 
  • Soaps, shampoos, etc. The ones that are totally jazzed up with kids' character cartoon people on them and colors on the outside- HAVE DYES in the inside! YUCK. I am sure it's not as bad as actually ingesting the dyes, but I just don't want to know I'm lathering my kids in yucky stuff that's bad for them, when I'm trying to CLEAN them in the tub! So we use clear or Burt's Bees options in the tub when we can. 
  • Fresh or frozen veggies and fruits, not canned.
  • Cereals - We do a lot of oatmeal, but also for cereal we stick to basics like honey nut cheerios and raisin bran. 
  • Holidays- for Easter, Halloween, etc. we stick to regular chocolate, or snack foods like yogurt covered raisins, Cran-raisins, etc. They don't need the extra sugar!
  • Check sauces- Ketchup, barbecue sauce, and salad dressings. 
  • Check toothpastes! We use Tom's.
  • Go blueberry and strawberry picking! We pick tons in the summer months and freeze them to put in yogurts, smoothies and on pancakes all year long. It's way healthier than buying them at the store in the winter with pesticides on them. It's also the BEST activity for kids.
  • Cheese- buy a huge block and shred it yourself. Less preservatives. 
  • Pasta-I try to do half and half whole wheat and plain. My family doesn't like the wheat, but when I do a mix it's less of a taste change.
  • Apple sauce- I buy no sugar added store brand apple sauce for the fridge and individual cups for summer outings. My kids don't mind it at all and I think it tastes fine. I like to make my own in the fall, but when I am on the go these work great. 
  • Pizza- Make your own! It's so much better! Buy dough and different toppings at the salad bar even. It's fun and fewer preservatives.
  • Granola- I make my own sometimes, but also I've found some gluten free options which is healthier as far as wheat causing sugar and carb highs and lows in kids.
  • Outings- When we go out to amusement parks or something for a day, I pack our own snacks and sandwiches, mostly to save money and time so we don't have to stand in line for food but can eat whenever, but also to be healthier. This doesn't work at fairs! Everyone wants a corn dog and covered apple right?! 
  • Rewards- Try stickers, pennies, bouncy balls, instead of M&Ms and fruit snacks. We used treats for potty training... but we also used ponies, and books and toy cars. Try to choose the latter when you can. 

Oy ve. I'm overwhelmed.
Yup. Pretty much. It's very overwhelming at first to figure this out and navigate the food label reading process. I still don't have it perfect. No joke after two years, a week ago I bought something I thought was fine only to find it had 3 of the dyes in it!

For me, what's helped is realizing I do NOT need to be perfect. I cannot be in this day and age and with our busy lives and limited budget. I cannot buy all organic food even if I wanted to. BUT I CAN make SOME changes that make all of us healthier in the long run. 

So start small. 
For us, that meant switching from Kraft Mac and Cheese (which I've heard they are fixing lately to have less bad ingredients in it! Yay!) to Annie's Mac and Cheese. It was one change that added a few dollars more a grocery trip, but we didn't feel it as bad since we didn't do all the changes at once.

Everything in Moderation: Teach Your Children
I think it's also important to do everything with food in moderation. We can't possibly avoid all treats, particularly as parents of young kids. Birthday parties happen almost every weekend it seems.

We have to teach our kids to recognize how these foods impact their bodies. My son can say "I can't have more than one cookie today because I don't want my body to go all crazy and get in trouble." 

He knows what sugar does to his body. He still wants treats, of course, and we still allow them, but we don't overdo it. We do one treat a day. We order the child's size ice cream, and prefer to order the yogurt or sugar free vanilla when it's available.

We also compensate when we do have that yucky stuff. We make sure we "get the energy out" after eating it by drinking TONS more water and by running around purposely to help our child even out again. We serve more veggies and fruits that day. 

At birthday parties, I help the host with passing out cake slices. This way it's a win-win, I'm helping, which I like to do anyway, but also I can request a smaller slice for my kids, and even wipe off a little frosting if I need to. I do this inconspicuously. I don't make a big deal. My kids don't see it. And so far (age 4 and 6) they don't even notice anything different. If we are at a party and there is juice or punch AND a cake/cupcake, my kids choose which one they want. I bring water bottles. Sometimes I allow them to have both, depending on the day, but typically they make the choice and are fine with it. Again, not making a big deal in front of friends, it's a quiet conversation and we play it by ear.

My daughter just had a birthday. Her cake of choice was Frozen, covered in BLUE BLUE BLUE icing and frosting. Yikes. Just looking at it I felt sick to my stomach! BUT it was her day and it was one day of the year, so yes, I allowed her to do what she wanted. But to compensate, we served fruits and veggies at her party for snack foods and she drank tons of water later on in the day.

It's OK to make changes that are healthy and also to keep some things the same for a while until you're learning more and working with your family.

Do your best! Just make one small change. I swear it'll make a difference. 

Note: Just eliminating sugars or food dyes is NOT a cure-all to behavioral or attentional issues in children. There are oftentimes other factors happening. It helps to document, keep track of things BEFORE making changes, do this for at least 3-5 days. Then make one change at a time and see how it goes for a week or two before changing more. It takes time, patience and effort. But it's well worth it for happier and healthier kids!

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