March-April 2012 | Features in Bethesda Health

The Diagnostic Diet

Frequent ear infections? Behavioral issues? Attention problems? Nutritionist Kelly Dorfman believes the way to your child's health is through his stomach

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It started with Sugar Blues.

Kelly Dorfman was home from college and out grocery shopping near her family’s home in Pennsylvania when she stumbled upon William Dufty’s 1975 book.

The premise—that sugar was nearly as addictive and damaging as drugs—struck a chord, and she decided to ditch the substance herself. Before she knew it, she’d dropped 5 pounds and her complexion had cleared.

“I looked and felt better than I ever had,” she says.

That’s when Dorfman became a believer in the transformative power of diet—so much so that she changed her major from psychology to nutrition and went on to earn a master’s degree in nutrition/biology.

Nearly 30 years later, the North Potomac resident—her skin still clear and smooth—is nationally known as the nutrition detective. She specializes in helping parents change their children’s diets in order to address an array of problems, including recurrent ear infections, reflux, attention deficit disorder (ADD), and mood and behavioral issues.

The 54-year-old has been featured on CNN’s American Morning and Fox News, and she frequently speaks to groups at schools, hospitals, professional organizations and government agencies throughout the country about the connections between diet and childhood ailments. Now, she also has a book on the subject, What’s Eating Your Child? (Workman, 2011).

“My interest has always been in whether you could use nutrition therapeutically to solve problems,” Dorfman says, “especially for difficult cases.”

Most of her patients—two-thirds of whom are children referred by occupational and speech therapists, pediatricians and former clients—have consulted three to five medical experts before coming to her.

“Most people wander through regular medicine until they can’t find an answer,” says Dorfman, who has three grown children of her own. “I would like people to think about nutrition as a possible factor earlier in the process.

“Everything you do, from raising your arm to thinking a thought, has a chemical correlate,” she says, “and the true basis for that chemical reaction is nutrition.”

For example, Dorfman says insufficient choline (found in seafood, eggs, turkey, cauliflower and certain beans) limits your capacity to learn. Without enough zinc (abundant in shellfish, fortified cereals, beef, pork, lamb and turkey), kids won’t grow properly. And insufficient vitamin E (found in nuts, seeds, oils, leafy green vegetables and fortified cereals) has been associated with slow language development, among other problems.     

Lynn Balzer-Martin, a pediatric occupational therapist in Chevy Chase, has known Dorfman for a dozen years and often refers young children to her. “If children need to be referred for occupational therapy, speech therapy or psychotherapy, I want to make sure their body chemistry is optimal in order for them to benefit from the intervention,” she says. Many of those who see Dorfman experience improvements, Balzer-Martin says, sometimes “dramatic ones.”