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‘Milk and Cookie Disease’: The new childhood health condition caused by diet

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Most kids love a tall glass of milk, mac and cheese, and dessert.  But for some, their love for noshing is causing more than just a sugar rush—it’s actually causing a disease.

It’s what pediatric otolaryngologist Dr. Julie L. Wei calls ‘Milk and Cookie Disease.’

What is Milk and Cookie Disease?

Wei spent years treating children who were otherwise healthy, but had chronic runny and stuffy noses, coughs, sore throats, constipation, and fatigue.  When the children weren’t improving on prescription medications, Wei – who practices at Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando, Fla. – started asking questions.

She discovered that in many cases, her patients were eating lots of dairy and sugar throughout the day and snacking right before bedtime.  This food was likely backing up into the stomach, the esophagus, and the throat and causing reflux, cold- and allergy-like symptoms, and sleep problems.

Wei recommended her patients eliminate all dairy and sugar before bedtime, and their symptoms improved significantly. “That’s why I call it the ‘Milk and Cookie Disease,’ because I believe so many American children may be suffering from these symptoms for the same reason,” she said.

A growing problem

Kids are sitting down less for meals and snacking more than ever. In fact, about 25 percent of children snack after dinner, according to a survey by the American Dietetic Association Foundation.

Wei estimates approximately 50 to 75 percent of children have Milk and Cookie Disease, eating lots of dairy and sugar, as well as snacking before bedtime.  They are otherwise healthy but have these symptoms without any other medical reason.

Five-year-old Jonathan Giambrone is one of these children. A heavy snorer since he was a baby, his enlarged tonsils and adenoids made it difficult to sleep. “It was really hard for him to take in a breath; he sounded like Darth Vader,” said Becky Giambrone, Jonathan’s mother of Winter Park, Fla.

Eating also became such a chore that he would pick foods that were easy to swallow, like yogurt, smoothies, applesauce and cottage cheese. And every night he would drink chocolate milk before going to sleep.

Yet all this dairy and sugar was actually causing reflux, which made it even harder for him to breath. After learning about Wei, Giambrone cut down on Jonathan’s nighttime snacking and allowed him to drink only water before bedtime.  “In a three week period, we noticed a substantial difference,” she said. Jonathan also had his tonsils and adenoids removed two weeks ago, which Giambrone hopes will make even more of a difference.

If you think your child may have Milk and Cookie Disease, here’s what you can do:

Make a doctor’s appointment

If your child’s symptoms are lingering or not improving with medication, Wei suggests seeing a pediatric or general Ear, Nose and Throat doctor who can check for enlarged adenoids or tonsils, rule out any other medical condition, and recommend surgery if necessary.

Keep a food journal

“We’re busy people; no one’s really thinking about what their kids are eating,” said Wei. She found that parents are often surprised by how much dairy and sugar their kids are eating each day when they started to keep track of it.

Stop the bedtime snack habit

Your child shouldn’t have any snacks 90 minutes to two hours before bedtime to avoid food sitting in the stomach before bed. Nix all milk, juice, soda, and snacks with dairy and sugar – and offer water only.

Avoid or minimize dairy and sugar in the evening

Your kid can still enjoy ice cream, but he should eat it after school – not after dinner.

Offer healthy snacks only

If your kid is still hungry after dinner, rather than a bowl of cereal, offer healthier options like a banana or whole grain crackers, which are less acidic.

Treat constipation

A balanced diet filled with fiber rich foods like fruits and vegetables and whole grains can relieve constipation. A laxative can temporarily help too, but if your kid isn’t getting better, it’s best to talk with your doctor.  “You really have to unclog the plumbing if you want to minimize the problem up top,” Wei said.

Julie Revelant is a freelance writer and copywriter specializing in parenting, health, healthcare, nutrition, food and women's issues. She’s also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.