There’s an experiment going on right now–but it isn’t being conducted by scientists. It’s being conducted by parents. In 30 million kitchens across the U.S. that experiment is called “What Can My Child Eat?” In families with children with autism and allergies, the result of that experiment can either be a day of relative calm and comfort, or it can produce anything from brain fog, digestive discomfort, and mood swings, to pain, seizures, skin outbreaks, and severe digestive distress.

While the debate continues as to whether or not lab scientists have isolated a single one of the many factors that a growing numnber of doctors say may contribute to autism, families still have to cope and they still have to feed their children. Citing the conservative statistics of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) pediatrician, Dr. Kenneth Bock, reported that one in 100 children (one in 48 boys) have autism–although just two years ago it was one in 150. One in 16 children has ADHD, one in 11 has asthma, and one in four has allergies. A staggering one third of all children are affected Bock told the group gathered for “Food Solutions: Managing Autism, ADHD, Asthma, and Allergies,” held at New York’s Urban Zen Center

Children (and adults) with allergies (and food sensitivities) react to many common foods and food ingredients that other people don’t react to. As doctors like Bock tell it, a child with autism is by definition a child with an overwhelmed immune system, an impaired gut, a higher presence of microbes, candida, and toxins, and many food sensitivities and intolerances. Gut issues are directly linked to issues with attention and focus, so that a child with food sensitivities will also likely be a child who experiences symptoms anywhere from the withdrawal or lack of speech seen in autism to the brain fog, hyperactivity, and/or difficulty in focus seen in children with attention deficit disorder (ADD).

According to Stephen Cowan, MD, a pediatrician in Westchester, N.Y., who also spoke at Food Solutions, “The gut and the brain are not two separate things. They are interconnected.”

Referring to “leaky gut” a condition common in the so-called “spectrum” kids, in which an impaired barrier of cells lining the intestines allow poorly digested food molecules to enter the bloodstream where they can trigger allergic and other reactions. Cowan said that “a leaky gut is like a leaky mind, you can’t digest things and you can’t retain things that you need to retain.”

When parents bring their children into his office for a consultation, Cowan reports that “I can often predict that the child’s favorite foods are pizza and macaroni and cheese”– and these are the same foods that children are most allergic to. According to Bock, gluten, the main protein contained in wheat and other grains, can trigger immune reactions, while casein, a peptide in dairy can break down internally to produce an opioid effect — such that children are literally drugged by food.

That’s why the mainstay of parents trying to nourish their immune-challenged children is the Gluten Free Casein Free Diet (GFCF) as well as the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD).

Glucose, present in high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is yet another no-no since it can feed yeast (which worsens gut issues) and contribute to mood swings due to the abrupt rise and fall of glucose in the bloodstream. Moreover, mercury is used to make HFCS which is present in many processed foods, including sodas, juices, yogurt, and ketchup. While some studies question whether mercury in vaccines is a key trigger for autism, according to Bock, “a range of environmental factors contribute, Studies correlated closer proximity to power plants with mercury emissions with increasing rates of autism.” HFCS is also addictive, and aggressively marketed by food and beverage companies, who according to Cowan, spend $10 billion a year.

In this nationwide lab experiment in which food suppliers push unhealthy food items, while the public naively believes that government regulators protect them, “we’re lab rats,” Cowan points out. “Studies show that when you try HFCS, you can’t get enough of it, you want more and more and more. It releases chemicals, it’s just like you pressed a button.” Yet instead of acting on a national level to curb unhealthy foods, “we blame the victim,” says Cowan.

All too often the victims are children.

Transitioning children from harmful foods to which they’re addicted to healthier ones is a challenge borne by parents. That’s why at Food Solutions, dietician Amanda Archibald and nutritionist Stefanie Sacks introduced a range of healthier options. Although healthy vegetables topped the list, the nutritional team also offered samples of favorite products (rice milk and a dairy and wheat free Mac and Cheese) so parents know what to look for. Simple recipes that participants teamed up to prepare offered easy and nourishing ways to ease food transitions.

The bottom line said Cowan is that force feeding children is counter-productive. “If you want your child to eat more vegetables, let him see you eating them.”

What’s your experience transitioning yourself or your kids to healthier foods?