Before a consultation, Dorfman asks parents to submit any relevant medical or psychological records, a three-day diary of what the child eats, a list of medications and nutritional supplements the child takes, and recent test results. Sometimes simply recording what a child has eaten for three or four days and tracking the symptoms and behavior can yield remarkable insights, she says.
During the first session, she asks about the child’s history and symptoms—looking “for patterns just like Sherlock Holmes.” The culprit might be a food or ingredient the child has eaten. Then again, it might be a nutrient missing from the child’s diet.
“A lot of people tell me the answer in their story and they don’t realize it, or they’re confused, or their hunches have been overridden by a pediatrician,”
Dorfman says. “It’s very rare that I’ll say, ‘Do you think gluten could be bothering your child?’ and they say, ‘Oh, gee, I never thought of that.’ I encourage people to develop their own intuition about their kids’ medical problems or what’s bothering them. Often they just need a confidence boost.”
After the potential problem is identified, Dorfman works with the parents on an action plan. “I don’t do meal plans because they don’t work with kids,” she says. “You have to work within the structure of what people are normally eating and help them make better choices.”
She recently helped a 6-year-old who had serious impulse control and anger management problems. At school, he had beaten another child, sending him to the hospital. The offender’s parents had consulted medical specialists and had been told that their son might have bipolar disorder or oppositional defiant disorder. He was put on antipsychotic medications. Even then, “you couldn’t talk to him or reason with him,” Dorfman says.
When she reviewed his diet, Dorfman learned that the boy ate nothing but Froot Loops for breakfast and lunch, and pizza for dinner. “Two-thirds of his diet was dye and sugar—and it was really messing up his nervous system,” she says.
Dorfman started by eliminating the Froot Loops and letting him have pizza three times a day since it was the only other food he’d eat. Then she introduced new foods gradually. “He went through withdrawal like he was at the Betty Ford Center,” Dorfman recalls. But by the end of the week, his behavior had improved dramatically.
“I work with a lot of kids who are able to get out of special-needs classrooms or classes for emotionally disturbed children” by eliminating problematic foods, Dorfman says.
Kids with ADD and autism, she notes, are particularly sensitive to food dyes. In fact, of the autistic kids she has worked with, “about a third are dramatic responders to dietary interventions if you catch them early enough, meaning under age 4,” Dorfman says. With many of these kids, their development, learning and behavior become sufficiently “normal” over time that they are no longer considered autistic.
Renee and Steve Bress have been working with Dorfman since their then-2-year-old was diagnosed with autism in 2004. “She’s the first person who gave us any hope that there were things we could do that would make him better and healthier,” Renee Bress says.
On Dorfman’s recommendation, the Bresses removed food colors, artificial ingredients, preservatives and pesticides from their son’s diet. They increased his protein, added supplements and eventually eliminated gluten, casein (milk protein) and soy.
“He’s a totally different kid than he was seven years ago,” Renee Bress says of her son, who’s now 9. “He’s sleeping and eating better; he’s healthier; his receptive and expressive language has caught up; and he’s connected to us and likes to play with his peers. We’ve done a lot of different interventions—but I’d say diet was responsible for about 50 percent of his progress.”
Dr. Ioana Razi, a pediatrician in Northwest Washington, D.C., who sometimes refers patients to Dorfman, believes doctors don’t pay enough attention to nutrition when treating kids’ health problems. In many cases “it should be at the very top of initial prescriptions,” she says, “because it has a strong, positive effect; the results are often striking.”