There is more anecdotal, rather than conclusive scientific, evidence that dietary intervention is beneficial for children with special needs. But many parents have tried food therapy, hoping their children’s condition would improve.
“There are studies claiming certain food may reduce symptoms of attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). But there isn’t strong evidence to support the relationship between ADHD and ASD symptoms and a specific food diet,” says Health Ministry’s Institute for Public Health’s senior dietitian (research) Dr Noor Safiza Mohamad Nor.
Numerous articles on the Internet claim that children diagnosed with autism and ADHD are more receptive when certain foods like white sugar, food allergens (milk and eggs) and processed food are eliminated from their diet.
While this may work for some, it could worsen symptoms of ADHD and ASD in other children, Dr Noor Safiza warns.
“Vitamins and minerals are important for a child’s health. But high doses of supplements exceeding Malaysia’s Recommended Nutrient Intake (RNI) can be harmful and toxic to a child’s body. High doses of certain vitamins and minerals could affect the nervous system, kidneys and liver,” she says.
Some children with special needs have medical conditions like food allergies, eczema and gastrointestinal distress. When a child starts to act up, some parents assume their diet could be the culprit.
Some clinical studies claim these children can benefit from a gluten-free and casein-free diet. It means omitting gluten (found in grains like wheat, barley and rye) and casein (protein found in milk) from their meals.
The theory is that children with autistism process peptides and proteins in foods with gluten differently.
A chemical reaction occurs, causing side effects like hyperactivity and shorter attention span. Some researchers believe an alternative diet leads to a healthier gut, and calmer children.
But most doctors caution against adopting such diets blindly because there is no concrete evidence that it works.
Parents should be aware of health concerns when they practise dietery intervention, says Dr Noor Safiza.
“If parents do not monitor the diet carefully, there could be risks of poor food intake, inadequate nutrients, weight loss and growth problems. Stress and anxiety could also occur due to changes in their regular diet.”
It is understandable that parents are constantly looking for alternative ways to help their special needs children.
And with the Internet at their fingertips, they have access to various websites, blogs and social media channels like Facebook and Instagram for information on alternative treatments, therapies and supplements. But many of the experiences people share are unverified.
A few clicks on the mouse could lead desperate parents to unproven therapies promoted as cures, be it in the form of volcano mud, juices or exotic plants.
In some countries, there is research on medical marijuana as treatment for children with severe autism to calm meltdowns and tackle harmful behaviours. Dr Noor Safiza advises parents to be mindful when selecting herbal supplements or formulations for children with special needs.
“In Malaysia, there is no research evidence that herbal supplements can reduce hyperactivity. Read product labels before making food choices for your loved ones.”
She encourages parents to consult a doctor or dietitian before giving specific diets or vitamins/mineral supplements to their children.
“Children with special needs can get sufficient vitamins and minerals from a variety of fresh food and a proper balanced diet. This is a healthier option than depending on a single food or specific diet.”
She explains that lacking nutrient-rich foods can affect the child’s energy level, brain function and mood. Lack of iron (found in red meat, poultry and fortified cereals) results in tiredness and feeling weak. Food like egg, dairy products and wholegrain cereals are rich in Vitamin B that helps combat irritability.
“There is a natural substance in our body called serotonin which improves mood and feeling.
“Serotonin is released in the brain and its production is closely related to nutrients like protein (tryptophan), Vitamin B, folate and selenium. Parents should aim to get all these important nutrients through nutritious meals for their children.”
Dr Noor Safiza says complementary and alternative diets can be added to a child’s medical treatment, provided they are safe and affordable.
“Parents should discuss safety and efficacy issues of alternative diets with a dietitian. Several alternative treatments have safety and side effect issues especially when it involves high doses of vitamin or mineral supplements.
“Each child is different and the side effects may be different too. Some of the therapies or products are expensive because they are not locally made. Parents should take note of this as well.”