As a toddler he couldn’t sit still, even while watching TV. Eventually when he was five he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and prescribed the controversial medication Ritalin.
Although many parents are opposed to its use, Ritalin has made a big difference in the life of her son, Aston (6), says Tanya Oosthuizen of Fourways, Johannesburg. “It calmed him and helped him to concentrate.” But the breakthrough came when tests showed Aston was allergic to certain foods and they were eliminated from his diet. “When he started eating more healthily he became a happier child.”
This discovery was a great relief to Tanya (36), who’d been concerned about Aston’s odd eating habits and the trouble he had adapting at school.
He was different even as a baby. “He didn’t like being wrapped in a blanket and avoided grass. Later we discovered he would eat only certain foods. When he was older he began to put on weight because all he would eat were noodles, eggs, cheese and milk.”
Aston would pace up and down or stand while watching TV. He also tended to become highly agitated about small things – loud noises, crowds and bright lights.
She and her husband took him to a psychologist and an occupational therapist, who said he had sensory sensitivity. Meanwhile he bounced from school to school.
Eventually he was referred to a doctor at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital. “That’s where we got help at last,” Tanya says. “Aston was diagnosed with ADHD; he didn’t have sensory trouble.”
Ritalin was prescribed and it not only improved his concentration but also suppressed his appetite. His unusual eating habits apparently stemmed from a desire for salt, which worsened his ADHD and affected his weight. Once on the medication he quickly found his feet at a new school.
Everything went well until Tanya gave Aston a puppy and he developed shortness of breath. Tests showed he’s allergic to dogs, cats, pollen, grass, feathers, gluten, peanuts, milk and eggs. These foods were eliminated from his diet, he was given an asthma pump and the dog went to a new home.
Tanya realised that if he ate the right things he didn’t need Ritalin. He hasn’t taken the medication for two months and is doing well. “He’s calm and loving,” she says.
We asked an expert
It’s not unusual for children with ADHD to be allergic to certain foods, says Natasha Stegen, a dietician in Vryheid in KwaZulu-Natal and a member of the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Support Group of SA.
“Allergies cause inflammation in the body, which can lead to nutritional deficiencies and behavioural abnormalities and aggravate irritations,” she says.
“Food to which the body is sensitive damages the small intestine and interferes with the absorption of nutrients. Children’s choosy eating habits can cause additional nutrient deficiencies.
“About 70 percent of hyperactive children suffer from allergies and a shortage of vital fatty acids. The most common allergies are to dairy products, wheat or gluten and artificial colorants and flavouring agents.”
This is why the symptoms of ADHD can be relieved with the right diet.
Dietician Natasha Stegen’s tips for a diet to help with ADHD
- A low-GI diet helps to keep blood sugar levels constant. “Sugar causes hyperactivity even in children who don’t have ADHD.” S Avoid artificial colorants, flavourings and preservatives.
- The child should take in supplementary fatty acids such as omega 6, which is found in vegetable oils, and especially omega 3, which is found in oily fish.
- The child must eat enough fruit and vegetables, drink enough water and consume enough fibre.
- To ensure the child takes in enough amino acids they should eat protein-rich foods such as lean chicken, fish, red meat, low-fat dairy products, legumes, nuts and seeds (avoid the nuts and seeds if they’re allergic to them).
- Give your child a good multivitamin and mineral supplement.
- Probiotic supplements promote good digestion.
- Avoid fast food and processed foods – they often contain lots of sugar, bad fats (trans fatty acids) and artificial colorants, flavourings and preservatives (food additives).
- If the family follows a healthy lifestyle it makes it easier for the child to do the same.
- Read food labels to check for ingredients to which your child is allergic.