Why feeding kids the BRAT diet may be a big mistake

I’ve learned a whole lot this week thanks to one terrific ER doc at the Nationwide Children’s Lewis Center Close to Home location.

She was amazing and I wish I’d thought to ask her name!

For years, Z has suffered from fairly frequent stomach pains. We’ve been to the doctor, Urgent Care and even the ER many times. Sometimes they tell us it’s gas, other times it’s “cause unknown.”

Typically, as a home remedy, I have offered bananas, white rice and applesauce anytime my daughter’s stomach bothered her. I thought of them as stomach-soothing foods. What I didn’t know is that her underlying problem all along was constipation, so I was making it much, much worse by offering these “binding” foods.

Bottom line: while the so-called “BRAT diet” (aka bananas, rice, applesauce and toast) is helpful when kids are recovering from an illness involving vomiting or nausea, those foods are binding and should be used sparingly – and probably not for an ordinary, everyday tummy ache.

Our belly pain story

It took us quite a while to find the cause of our poor daughter’s tummy troubles. Unfortunately, her pain got worse and worse over a period of months while we struggled to find answers.

At first, I chalked her stomach pain up to anxiety, because it often arose when she was stressed or nervous. Stomach pain is a common anxiety symptom, so this seemed to make sense.

Then, she began having urinary symptoms which seemed to take precedence over the tummy aches. I took her to our primary care doctor, who is wonderful, but both an office urinalysis and a two-day culture came back as clear and normal.

Still, Z continued to have both stomach/back cramps and symptoms of a urinary tract infection, which was perplexing. Our doc admitted she was stumped, and referred us to a pediatric urologist.

Before we even got to make that appointment, however, my daughter’s stomach pain took center stage again. While enjoying an afternoon at the zoo – a non-stressful, fun activity – she was literally crippled by an attack of severe stomach pain so bad she could barely breathe through it. The pains seemed to come in on-again, off-again waves for about 25 minutes – and then they stopped as quickly as they had started.

We rushed her to the Children’s Hospital Urgent Care nearest our home. A quick exam ruled out appendicitis. After another urinalysis came back clear, they did a belly x-ray and voila: we had our answer. I’ll never forget seeing that scary x-ray full of large, dark areas that looked to my untrained eye like horrible tumors or growths!

All this time, we thought our poor girl had a combination of diarrhea, stomach aches and a urinary tract infection. In fact, ALL three sets of symptoms were caused by severe constipation that had been going on (and building up) for many weeks.

By offering her the BRAT diet anytime her tummy bothered her, I’ve literally been inadvertently hurting my daughter while trying to help her. It’s tough to get my mind around. I’m so thankful we finally got answers!

I am hoping this post will help other parents in the same boat. It’s true that anxiety can cause stomach pain, but constipation is one of the most common causes of tummy troubles in kids.

And constipation can be a sneaky devil! I thought that because Z had loose stools or diarrhea occasionally, it meant that she couldn’t be constipated – when actually, those can be symptoms of constipation.

The mysterious urinary symptoms really threw us for a loop, too – including our primary care doc. It turns out that urologists (and my wonderful ER doc!) think of constipation any time a patient has UTI symptoms with a clean urinalysis. Constipation can cause pressure and constriction of the bladder and urethra, resulting in burning, pressure, inability to pee, a constant need to pee or even blood in the urine.

Like I said, I learned a lot this week. I learned why sometimes we need both generalist doctors and specialists. I also learned to listen to my functional medicine health coach, because some time ago she suggested that Z might need a little help “going” but I was convinced that couldn’t be the cause of all her symptoms! Turns out, Colette was right.

And now Z has a whole lot of dark green leafy vegetables and other fiber-rich whole foods in her future. These are things I’ve encouraged all along, but now I get to say “it’s literally your medicine! Please eat it!” and remind her of the pain caused by NOT eating those things.

Do you have a kiddo who is prone to stomach aches, too? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments below or over on Facebook.

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About the author

Proud and loving midlife mama. Lucky and devoted wife. Dog, cat and snake mom. Travel nut. Natural born writer. PR and social media pro by day - tattoo doula by night.
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