How Food Sensitivities Affect Behavior

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Wellness Mama » Blog » Health » How Food Sensitivities Affect Behavior
Note from Katie: Please welcome Sylvie McCracken, author of The Gelatin Secret, for this guest post on how diet can affect children’s behavior and how she reversed behavior issues with dietary changes. Enter Sylvie…

This is Sofia’s Story

Sofia is the 2nd of my 3 kids and is turning 5 years old this month. She is a happy little girl who loves learning to spell short words and run around with her 3 and a half year old brother and copy whatever her 15 year old sister is doing. She is strong and often lifts up her brother for fun although they weigh almost the same.

A few years ago, Sofia was not this happy and strong. In fact she was almost impossible. Impossible to reason with; impossible to get to cooperate; and quite frankly, exhausting to parent.

Before you dismiss this notion based on the terrible twos (or ones or threes for that matter), just know that I have three kids so this mama can handle a little terrible twos, no problem. Bring it. But this was way more than that. I used to jokingly tell my husband we needed to call the exorcist. (Make that half jokingly.)

When I first switched to a grain free diet to resolve my long list of health issues, I did so alone. My husband thought I was nuts until he realized I was feeling so much better after just a couple of weeks and starting to lose an insane amount of weight without limiting my portions or exercising much (65 lbs and counting). It wasn’t until I started reading the literature on how diet affects our neurotransmitters and brain that I started thinking that maybe changing Sofia’s diet would help! I didn’t want to get my hopes up. My husband is the one that is home with them all day since they’re unschooled I simply suggested we try getting rid of gluten and dairy (two of the most common food sensitivities) for 30 days and see what happens.

When we started this experiment, Sofia’s diet was what I then considered to be “healthy”. We bought organic as much as possible, including our grains and dairy, which were 2 of the food groups she loved the most.

Of course if you’re going to change a toddler’s diet (Sofia was almost 3 years old when we did this), it’s going to be very difficult if the family is eating something else so we just did it for the entire household.

The Test:

Remove gluten and casein (the protein in dairy) for 30 days to see what happens.

We didn’t switch them to eating organ meats, bone broth and vegetables right away but rather just swapped out pasta with gluten free pasta and had it less often while incorporating new meats and vegetables into the repertoire. They inspected the food at first and did a bit of grumbling… but they ate it.

Rinse and repeat for 30 days… except that a couple of weeks into it there was no doubt Sofia was a new person. We were never going back.

Over the following weeks we transitioned more and more healthy, nutrient dense foods into their diet and continued transitioning out the less nutrient dense foods like the gluten free grains we’d been relying on. They still love some gluten free pizza on occasion but when we eat at home which is most of the time, we try to make up for lost time by sneaking in the most nutrient dense stuff we can find and making sure they to include plenty of gut healing, bone building broth which they love.

I never intentionally reintroduced gluten into Sofia’s diet. I was curious as to what would happen but I knew inevitably I’d find out eventually. Sure enough, she managed to sneak a few bites of a cupcake at a party and the disaster ensued shortly after: vomiting within a few hours and exorcist worthy behavior for the next 3 days.

Do I think going gluten free is going to cure all behavior disorders from ADD to Sensory Processing Disorder?

Probably not. But will it improve the symptoms even just a little? It’s certainly worth 30 days of extra time in the kitchen to find out. Gluten is not a food group and you’re certainly not going to give your child a grain deficiency by depriving him or her from their beloved cereal for a few weeks.

3 Tips for Making Diet Changes for 30 Days

There are several things you can do to help make a diet transition easier.

1. Start Slowly

Swap out one meal at a time if that’s easier and let them adjust. Just switching from pasta to gluten free pasta is a great start. Experiment with new foods and you might be surprised at what they end up loving. My toddlers love dipping artichokes in ghee for instance and now eat sardines out of a can! A few years ago it was cereal for breakfast, a quesadilla for lunch and pasta for dinner.

2. Run Out

If you don’t want them to eat it, don’t buy it. Chances are your kids are not the ones doing the grocery shopping. If they’re used to snacking maybe they’d love these delicious tangerine gummies or some kale chips or macadamia nuts. You can play short order cook if you’d like but trust me, that will get old pretty quickly.

3. Hold Your Ground

If you’re ready to make changes and you believe the food they’re currently eating is not what is best for them then say no, and stick to it just like you do in other parenting scenarios that are not negotiable (running into the street, seat belts on in the car, teeth brushing, etc). Our kids definitely noticed each change we made. Some days we got a mini hissy fit. Other days we were boycotted. Other days we got a full on kicking-on-the-floor fit (which, of course, we filmed for blackmailing later in life). 🙂

Thirty days will be over before you know it and it will likely change the way you view food forever. Happier kids are not a bad bonus either. 🙂

If this experiment seems daunting and you could use some hand holding throughout the process, check out my ebook, The Paleo Survival Guide: Getting Started with Paleo. With chapters on how to transition your toddlers, your teenagers and spouse; how to eat real food on the go and while traveling, sleep optimization and exercise and many recipes to get you started right away it is sure to help you get on the right track.

If you have teenagers you’re hoping to transition to a healthier diet this interview with my teen on her perspective on paleo may be helpful to you.

About the author: Sylvie McCracken is a celebrity personal assistant and mom of 3 by day, paleo enthusiast and author by night. She and husband, Eric, each lost over 65 lbs with paleo and continue to improve their family’s health with food and lifestyle tweaks. She blogs at HollywoodHomestead.com.

Has your children’s behavior been affected by food sensitivities? How did you deal with it? Share below!

Sources
Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. WellnessMama.com is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.

Comments

51 responses to “How Food Sensitivities Affect Behavior”

  1. Kelly Collins Avatar
    Kelly Collins

    This is a very informative post! I will be sure to pass this along to my doula families!

  2. Jill Sidlowski Avatar
    Jill Sidlowski

    I’ve been reading A LOT about gluten and have a 5 year old that I’d love to experiment with…can’t figure out if “it’s just him” or the fact that he’s the youngest of 3 boys or blah blah blah. But my question is this…WHY does gluten cause these problems in mood/behavior????? I totally believe the testimonies, but don’t understand WHAT it is about the gluten that causes some of these “side effects”. Can anyone share a resource that gives that sort of explanation?

    1. Janet Avatar

      This is a good article and there are lots of references at the bottom of the page. Hope it helps

  3. Valerie Avatar

    Yes, absolutely. My third child started having issues (allergies, skin problems that wouldn’t quit) when he weaned from breastmilk at one year of age and was eating processed foods (organic cereals). We cleaned up his diet, but not enough. Fast forward to four years old and it finally dawned on me that he was so well behaved in the early mornings before breakfast. So, since I was finally home and not working and could feed him what I want with no interference from daycare or school, then I completely changed his diet to grain, dairy, and added sugar free, as well as complete digestive enzymes with every meal and probiotics. He is a different kid. Much more manageable and happier all around. I wish it were easier for all parents to be able to do a dramatic diet change before resorting to other measures like medications. I totally understand how hard it is to change things when you work and you don’t have complete control. And, we also had to do it as a family, because I can’t afford to feed 6 people 6 separate diets. We all eat grain, dairy, and added sugar free now.

  4. Nicole Sternad Avatar
    Nicole Sternad

    Please add artificial DYES to this list and it’s momma-approved!!! Dyes are sooo incredibly powerful; toxic, neurologically damaging & gut-bending!!! Any child w/ neurological challenges shpuld be immediately
    Placed on a gf fd dye free diet.
    It’s LIFE CHANGING.
    WE have the ability to help our children. ?

  5. Desiree DeNourie Avatar
    Desiree DeNourie

    Hi, my son is allergic to milk, so therfore is milk free. For similar reasons to yours, I decided to have him go gluten free as well. To help support him, my other two sons and I are going milk free, and gluten free. The added bonus for them is the possible alleviation of their chronic sinus issues and headaches. I agree with you about if this diet helps even a bit, it’s well worth it!

  6. Kristin Avatar
    Kristin

    I apologize this is long, but I don’t know how to make it any shorter… My son was diagnosed with moderate/severe ADHD when he was 3 years old. This was not surprising considering that it runs STRONG on BOTH sides of the family. We have tried every type of prescription medication out there to treat ADHD. At 6 years old now, my son was on the one kind of medication that worked the best for him and on the highest dose safe for him. It got to the point that he was so impulsive that he was EXTREMELY destructive to the point of becoming a danger to himself and others and disruptive with the attention span of a flea – while on medication. I was doing everything I could to help him, but still told by others (in a round-about way) that I pretty much just needed to be a better mother (real self-esteem booster). Something had to give because I had ENOUGH of people ridiculing my son for being so hyper (which others interpreted as being naughty) when he could not help it, nor could I stand being told by others that I wasn’t a good enough mom and I just wasn’t making him behave and he needed behavior therapy. I had heard that some foods can cause hyperactivity and when I talked to his dr about it and about getting a referral to see some kind of specialist, she looked at me like I was crazy and didn’t think there was any correspondence between the 2. Needless to say, I did not get any referral or advice other than to keep shoving a pill down his throat everyday and behavior therapy. So I took things into my own hands. I did my research and, though we have not found every trigger yet, he is 100% off medication and so is the rest of our family. I found the WORST triggers were ANY kind of corn syrup, food dyes, cured meats (nitrites), and artificial preservatives. So I switched my family to an all natural diet. Pretty much EVERYTHING we eat is homemade because I can’t afford to buy everything organic. And you know what? It tastes better, we feel better, and I’ve gotten into a habit that FORCED me to be organized because we were NOT going to go out to eat because I didn’t know what I was going to feed them. I wasn’t going to pay the price of the crazy-hyper child. My parents thought I was crazy when I started doing this until they saw for themselves what happens when you give him something that is on the “NO LIST”. Even his kindergarten teacher became a believer. Who would’ve thought that all I had to do is feed him REAL FOOD! My family all follows the same eating guideline as we enforce with my son. When we come across something that is on the list that is off limits, we find a way to make something we can have. I expected anarchy when I started this journey, but they tried the new foods (though frequently reluctantly) and found they liked what I made BETTER than what they couldn’t have. Everyone is used to trying new things and has no problem trying it (including my 6 & 8 yr old). I am working toward feeding my family grain free now. I am SO happy that I no longer have to protect my son from the ignorant people who don’t know how to handle a hyper child…because he now has the energy and attention span appropriate for a boy his age. Your site has helped me SOOOO much and I don’t know what I would’ve done had I not found it. Thank you!!!!

    1. Kristie Avatar

      This is awesome! I would love to hear more about what you eat from day to day!

  7. Sharleen Avatar
    Sharleen

    I would love to give this a go. Do you know if the change will help my 10 year old to focus more? His Concentration that is. Thanks

  8. Sarah Avatar

    Does anyone have success with substitute cheese products? I desperately want to get my 5 year old daughter off dairy (because she acts like a 3 year old, and is angry and frustrated ALL THE TIME), but all she wants to eat is cheese cheese and more cheese.

    1. Sylvie Avatar

      Hi Sarah,

      Is she already off gluten? If not, perhaps leave the dairy for now and deal with gluten first. If so, what about other foods that she likes? Perhaps letting her choose some meals from a paleo (gluten free/dairy free) cookbook will help.

      Over time, they just stop asking for whatever food it is that isn’t available anymore.

      Hope that helps!
      Sylvie

  9. Anne Avatar

    My difficult child had great improvement with GF/DF! We also saw great I improvement with coffee (because it is a stimulant) and doTERRA essential oils three times a day. Message me and I can elaborate!

  10. Nadia Avatar

    Love this post. My 6 month old had colic and still has digestive issues with reflux. I’ve worked with the chiropractor and illuminated all dairy. She’s better but still has reflux.

    My gut is a mess though. I’m extremely intrigued with this diet, and skeptical.

    I still breastfed too. Plus my 2 year old has such emotional meltdowns its crazy.

    Is it worth a try? How do I get started? We don’t have a lot of money, so is it inexpensive to do?

    Thank you so much for all your help!!!

    1. Wellness Mama Avatar

      It is totally worth it… It sounds like you would all benefit! As the articles states, start out with little changes. Not only will this minimize disruptions, it will also help your budget. And while some people get sticker shock when they see prices, remember before you faint: you won’t be carb loading. Veggies are full of fiber that is very filling, and meat is heavy with protein. You may find that while things cost a little more, you eat less.

  11. Angela Avatar

    It’s so good to hear about this and I’m happy that people are getting answers. I have personally found that diet needs to be customized to the individual. I tried going grain-free/paleo for almost a year and it was awful. Now I avoid avocadoes, coconut, eat grains but very little wheat, limit my meat to 2 ounzes or less a day and I feel amazing and am losing inches. I focus mainly on fruits and vegetables, olive oil, lots of rice, vegetarian meals mostly, and it works for me. There are three members of my family that eat more paleo and one that eats more like me. We too have had our battles with behavious and food sensitivities and dairy turned out to be the biggest culprit.

  12. Danielle Avatar
    Danielle

    My whole family has recently gone grain free and dairy free (except for me on dairy because I’m pregnant and feel I need that source of fats/proteins). This was prompted by an autoimmune disease my husband and daughter have and because of my son’s severe digestive difficulties. We all feel better and my daughter’s mood is much better, a byproduct we weren’t expecting. I can relate to exorcist worthy behavior 🙂

    My question is this: my son clearly has digestion that is not unhealthy and we are working to heal that. Do you think food sensitivities come from digestive system that is in need of healing or for another reason?

    Giving up grains was not challenging as far as the theory behind it. However, taking dairy away feels like I’m depriving my kids of excellent sources (when from grass-fed cows and raw milk) of good healthy proteins and fats.

    Thoughts?

    1. Sylvie Avatar

      Danielle,

      I hear you. Food sensitivities are often linked to gut health. You could read up a bit on “leaky gut” or read the GAPS diet book by Natasha Campbell-McBride for more info.

      I think with dairy there’s a chance you could remove it temporarily and that your child will be able to tolerate high quality dairy after some healing has taken place. Also, not all dairy is the same. You could try re-introducing grass fed butter for instance and might find that they do ok with that but with milk all hell breaks loose. It will take some time and some n=1 experimentation.

      Hope that helps!
      Sylvie

  13. Kelley Avatar

    Thank you so much for your post. We too made the switch to gluten free. My oldest daughter had horrible asthma and allergies. After eliminating refined sugars, food dyes and gluten she no longer has asthma. She can sleep lying down, not propped up. My son used to have horrible eczema, we had him allergy tested and nothing showed up, BUT when we went gluten free, and bean free his eczema went completely away. This wasn’t just a little rash, he was covered in horrible scales and he would scratch till he bled. The many things prescribed never worked well, but the diet change helped perfectly! Then my youngest daughter was exactly what you were describing, I too joked about exorcists. She had absolute un-normal behavior and hitting and screaming and flailing, yet she seemed to not really know what she was doing. Gluten free helped her, but not completely. She still had major breakdowns that lasted hours and sometimes days. It was very hard. Then we heard about Dr. Finegold and I started eliminating foods that mask acetylsalicylic acid. Those included cucumbers, spinach, tomatoes, strawberries and citric fruits. It seems like a lot, but it’s so worth it to see my baby girl (4) being happy, and delightful and not feeling like she can’t be in her own skin. She’s a new child. Food definitely is the BEST Medicine. Thanks again.

    1. Sylvie Avatar

      Wow, that’s amazing Kelley! So happy that worked out so well for you! Thank you for sharing your story 🙂

  14. Heather Avatar
    Heather

    This is a fantastic post! I’m a grown adult woman and still don’t tolerate grains in any form or I suffer not only digestive pain to extremes but my mood goes South quickly. I tolerate hormone-free plain Greek yogurt just fine, along with hormone-free, sugar-free whey protein isolate but I don’t eat foods with casein due to the same reasons. Even the difference between whey protein concentrate (more casein and lactose) and whey protein isolate (no casein, no lactose) is noticeable in a very short amount of time.

    Thank you for posting this because I think this is an issue so often overlooked and it frustrates me to no end that society can’t see food truly is either poison or medicine to our bodies. Bless you!

  15. Angela Avatar

    Just to clarify. Casein isn’t the only source of protein in dairy. It is the protien that typically causes allergies but the whey protien, sans casein is an extremely good source of protein.

  16. Mary Avatar

    I know this May be off topic, but I was wondering if gelatin consumption can effect breastmilk production? I have been losing weight and my 2 1/2 month old has had really green stools and slow weight gain. I restarted gelatin around 2 weeks ago. He is a great nurser and my 7th baby. We have had a clean diet for years due to behavioral problems with my eldest child. I have never taken gelatin while nursing before, but we have had homemade broth on a regular basis for years (while nursing). Any correlation?

    1. Sylvie Avatar

      I honestly don’t know but I would suggest stopping and see if that makes a difference.

  17. Penny Avatar

    Hi. I realised when my youngest son was 3.5months I needed to cut gluten out of his diet so cut it out if mine as Brestfeeding. Never would have believed it would have really effected me but I’ll never go back and my son is doing great. I’ve read a lot of info on gluten and grain free diet and would like to convert my 3.5yr, which during week is easy. But my problem is my partner who is very stubborn and thinks GF is a joke won’t join in, and my older son like many boys is his dad’s shadow. I can already see it becoming a problem with my younger son now 13months is already noticing he not eating the same as Dad and his big brother. I don’t want him to feel excluded, ideas.

    1. Diana Avatar

      Penny,

      I feel your pain. I don’t even allow gluten in the house as I am so allergic I cannot even touch it. My husband and adult children realize that I’m not making it up, but they still think they ‘have to have’ gluten. It’s making my son so sick and he won’t listen. I think he believes it’s just my age or something.

      If they eat at my house, they eat gluten free and I try to be as imaginative as possible. Tonight I made chicken and dumplins from the Betty Crocker cookbook, but instead of flour I used the pizza crust mix from Namaste. Best dumplins I ever made!

      But they get sick of meat and veggies and I get discouraged.

      Just DO what you can and try, try, try.
      Let God clean up their mess that results from their poor decision making. Pray for them every day. Hmmm. Maybe I should take my own advice! Haven’t been doing that lately. 🙂

      Just never give up.

    2. Sylvie Avatar

      Hi Penny,

      I wrote a bit about that in The Paleo Survival Guide but honestly, you could also use the tips in the article above to transition daddy. They work for big kids as well as little kids 😉

      I would strongly suggest asking your husband to just support you and your baby for 30 days even if it’s a joke to him. Just 30 days. Hopefully by then he’ll experience so many benefits he’ll be sold.

      Hope that helps!
      Sylvie

  18. Andrea Avatar

    My son is 6 and recently diagnose with ASD, anxiety and also sensory issues. We are slowly trying to make the transition to no grains or dairy. We are stuck on the Quinoa pasta, try to introduce spaghetti squash but he would NOT eat anything!!! It’s very frustrating to watch him inspect the food and not eat it. His therapist says it’s part of his sensory disorder. Any advise, on how I could get him to eat? I’ve tried EVERYTHING!!!

    1. Sylvie Avatar

      Hi Andrea,

      I must admit I don’t have firsthand experience with ASD so my advice is not ASD specific. If you’re already off the gluten, that is amazing!

      What about zuchini noodles? If alternative noodles don’t fly what about forgetting pastas altogether? Perhaps finding other meals they’ll like will be an easier route.

      Hope that helps!
      Sylvie

    2. stacy Avatar

      My daughter is very particular with foods. She is now 9 and was tested for food sensititivites. She had 38 foods she reacts to so we are very limited. She can not have gluten, corn or oat sooo not easy, but well worth it. She enjoys rice pasta ( not as grainy as quinoa) Van’s and Annie ‘ s both make a rice pasta/ mac n chs. She also enjoys the Bob’s Red Mill gluten free pizza crust. She is very aware of texture. Hope that helps! Sidenote: she was diagnosed with Anxiety disorder(selective mutism) and ADHD. She was on 4 meds daily just to get through the day. Since implementing the diet we have been able to remove 3.of the 4 meds and she is better than when she was on them. I wish great results for all researching this for their child.

  19. Elisa Avatar

    We had a very similar experience with dairy. My daughter was diagnosed with a dairy allergy when she was 3 months old. At age 3 the allergist determined that she had out grown her allergy and we could start reintroducing it. She had always been a little difficult, colicky, unhappy. As we added more and more dairy she started to get worse. She started exhibiting a lot of anger. She started having panic attacks and was always anxious. By age 5 we had to stop going to crowded areas such as malls or community events, even restaurants were off limits. At age 6 we went to a child psychologist which suggested we put her on Zoloft. A few months later we found a play therapist that specialized in anxiety. After 3 months of weekly meetings she too suggested we consider Zoloft. We then tried occupational therapy for her sensory processing disorder, as suggested by the play therapist. They suggested having her tested for autism. At this point we were feeling completely lost as a family.
    One day I was putting a clay mask on my face that contained yogurt. She asked to join me and I started putting it on her face. She immediately broke out in huge hives. We started removing dairy from her diet and within a month her anxiety had declined a lot. Her anger had subsided and she was able to make decisions without a full on tantrum or panic attack. A fog had lifted off her brain and she started blossoming and thriving socially. Its been a great change in her and our lives.

    1. Sylvie Avatar

      Wow! That’s an amazing, Elisa. I’m so glad you figured that out.

    2. Jennifer L. Avatar
      Jennifer L.

      Elisa,

      My son is 4 and it sounds like we are on a similar path as your family went through with your daughter. We have been gluten free for about 3 months and there is noticeable improvement, but we still have a ways to go. Now I am wondering about going dairy-free. He doesn’t consume much dairy now, but does love cheese.

      Just wondering if you have any advice/suggestions as far as, how did you handle school for your daughter? We are having a terrible time trying to find a preschool for our son, that is a good fit. I am also concerned about sending him to kindergarten next year (it’s full day here), as I don’t think he will be able to handle it due to his sensory and anxiety issues. Also, how do you handle trying to go out in the community? Is it getting better for you? Going to get groceries can be difficult for us sometimes, let alone trying to go anywhere with a crowd or noise.

  20. Megan Avatar

    My son is 17 mo and has been on a dairy/gluten free diet since 1yr. I was wondering if your daughter is still on this diet? Just curious if sensitivities can be outgrown?? He had excezma is the reason we changed. Thanks!

    1. Quianna Avatar
      Quianna

      Was your son tested for dairy and gluten allergies? My sons eczema is getting worse by the day and I feel food is to blame even though tests come back negative. Going dairy and gluten free is very daunting so I’m trying to warm myself up for the transition.

      1. Kelley Avatar

        My sons test came back negative, but we went gluten free and bean free and his eczema went away completely.

      2. Kierstan Avatar
        Kierstan

        My son has eczema too, he is gluten/dairy/corn free- we never got tested, I just knew it was food related and started with the usual suspects. Tests for intolerances aren’t very accurate, they are measuring for life threatening reactions not moods or ibs type stuff. I am my own doctor when it comes to things like this and cured my newborn daughter’s “reflux” by eliminating at least a dozen different things before we saw relief. I’m now starting to add things back in with great success. You can do it, so much more rewarding to “cure” your body of illness rather than great the symptoms… like putting steroid creams on my son’s eczema, no way!

        1. Ashly Avatar

          Yes, tests are definitely not always accurate. My son had a reaction to cashews a few years ago. Just recently his allergist did a blood test and it looked good, so he wanted my son to try an in office food challenge. Well at the challenge they put a drop of cashew butter on his gums and he had an instant reaction. His doctor says the only fool proof test is a food challenge.

      3. Susanne Dennis Avatar
        Susanne Dennis

        My son had very bad exzema. After I switched to goat milk and cut out all dairy his skin improved noticeable. Over the years he grew out of it

    2. Sylvie Avatar

      Hi Megan,

      My daughter does not seem to be as sensitive to high quality dairy as she used to be. As for gluten, I haven’t tried and don’t plan on intentionally exposing her to it. I recommend reading Wellness Mama’s article “Gluten is Not a Food Group” linked within this post.

      Hope that helps!
      Sylvie

    3. Becki Avatar

      We took our daughter off dairy and de-toxed our home 23 years ago because she was sick all the time. She would cough so hard she’d throw up and her immune system was shot. 18 years later, she was able to add small amounts of dairy back into her diet, but that was after adding in essential oils, homeopathic medicine, and totally changing the way we clean our home.

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