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Navigating the mine field that is healthy eating in children


Just about every day, new research is published on the effect of food on children’s behaviour. From red cordial to too much wheat, parents are told sugar is bad, dairy can affect mood and additives can make children hyper active.

Schools have stepped into the fray, with one recently sending a note home in a three-year-old- child’s lunchbox telling her mother to stop sending chocolate slice into kindergarten. The note told the mother to re-evaluate her food options. The cake was leftover from birthday celebrations.

Parenting blogs are filled with overflowing advice about avoiding behavioural problems with foods containing additives, artificial colourings, sugar, wheat and diary all off the menu.

But how much research is there into the area? And can bad food really be blamed on behavioural issues?

Food additives and hyperactivity in children

A study by UK research group at Southampton University found a link between certain food additives and increased hyperactivity in children.

Professor Jim Stevenson started his research when he discovered that restricted diets appeared to have a positive effect on children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

For his research, children were give one of two mixes of artificial food colours or additives, or given a placebo.  The additives were found to have a small effect on the hyperactivity among two groups of children aged three years, and the eight to nine years.

For some children the effects were small, for others it was substantial.

Reactions to chemicals and additives in food

The Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Allergy Unit in New South Wales regularly sees children with behavioural problems, such as hyperactivity, and researchers have found that foods can lead to many different reactions.

Some people who are sensitive to natural food chemicals such as the Vitamin C in potatoes, parsley and cabbage, may be sensitive to one or more of the common food additives such as preservatives, artificial colours and flavourings. Reactions to these are varied and can include hives and swelling, headaches, mouth ulcers, nausea and stomach pains.

The website says children can “become irritable and restless, and behavioural problems can be aggravated in those with nervous system disorders such as ADHD.” The website also states babies who are breast-fed can have food intolerance reactions due to chemicals in the mother’s diet getting into breast milk.

The verdict

While there are claims that special diets can help with specific behavioural problems, most doctors agree that these are not backed up by scientific evidence.[1]

The best possible diet for babies and children is to choose from a wide variety of fresh foods from the five healthy groups which include:
  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Grain foods including bread, pasta, rice and corn
  • Dairy including milk, cheese and yoghurt
  • Protein including chicken, eggs and tofu.
Most specialists recommend that it’s wise to avoid sometimes foods such as fast food or junk food, or foods such as commercial lollies and cake that are full of preservatives and additives[2]. It is a good idea to avoid sweet drinks such as cordial or juice. And food and drinks with caffeine aren’t recommended for children because it can stop the body from absorbing calcium well. It’s also a stimulant which means it can give children artificial energy.

What should you look out for?

If you do decide to cut additives and colourings from your children’s food, it’s important to know what you are looking for and to seek advice from your doctor. The Raising Children website has extensive information and guidelines here

Choice also has some great information and guidelines here
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