Thousands of hyperactive and disruptive children are prescribed drugs to improve their behaviour. Yet according to nutritionists, a simple change of diet may be all that's needed. Sarah French reports

The tiny curls crawl haphazardly across the page, finally exploding in an angry black scribble halfway down. The writer, Reece De'Allie, has given up, apparently no longer interested in completing the assignment to write a story. Compare this aborted attempt with the next sample of neat, carefully crafted letters that are uniform in size and consistent in the way they form short words that fill the page.

The tiny curls crawl haphazardly across the page, finally exploding in an angry black scribble halfway down. The writer, Reece De'Allie, has given up, apparently no longer interested in completing the assignment to write a story. Compare this aborted attempt with the next sample of neat, carefully crafted letters that are uniform in size and consistent in the way they form short words that fill the page.

It's almost as if they've been written by two different people. Perhaps the second writer is older, more advanced in their learning. In fact, both samples belong to Reece and the difference in their quality is not down to his age or ability - it's because of what he eats. The first was written on a diet of flavoured crisps and tinned spaghetti; the second produced after breakfasts of cereal topped with seeds and evening meals with lots of fresh vegetables washed down with fruit juice with added vitamins. With added sugar and additives removed from his diet, Reece's handwriting undergoes a profound improvement. And it's not just his written skills that transform when blue ice lollies and other "goodies" are banned; his reading, concentration and general behaviour change for the better too.

Reece's mum, Joanne De'Allie, explains: "The best way to describe him before was like a Yorkshire terrier. If the doorbell went, he'd go mad, running around like crazy. After we changed his diet he was a lot calmer and wasn't even bothered if someone came to the door."

Reece was one of 30 children aged six to seven from a London primary school to be selected for an experiment by Patrick Holford, a leading nutrition expert, to identify how diet affects behaviour. Twelve of the children, including Reece, were identified as being disruptive, hyperactive or as having learning difficulties. For seven days, the children and their parents were asked to stay away from food and drinks containing added sugar or additives and to increase their intake of essential fats found in fish and seeds and in fish oil supplements important for brain function. After a week, four of the 12 children showed a dramatic improvement in their learning and behaviour.

"Reece became much more interested in his school work; he'd go to bed when he was asked to and would even ask 'can I read to you tonight, Mummy?' which he never did before," explains Joanna. She didn't believe the experiment would work, but the change in Reece was so profound during the new regime that she couldn't ignore it. "The change in him when he ate a packet of prawn cocktail crisps or had a blue ice pop was so dramatic it was like an allergic reaction," she says. "When we took out the sugars and additives, people commented on how much better behaved he was. He's still full of mischief but he's a lot calmer. I would recommend any other parents to consider what their hyperactive child eats before they take them to the doctor for tablets."

The transformation in Reece is remarkable, but can hyperactivity really be tackled by something as simple as stopping your children from eating crisps? Patrick Holford, who conducted the experiment for the launch issue of A: Allergy Magazine, says that up to 90 per cent of hyperactive children benefit from eliminating from their diet processed food and foods that contain artificial colours, flavours and preservatives. It's not just the presence of the actual chemicals themselves, but also the fact that certain chemicals, so-called "anti-nutrients", can rob children of the preferred levels of minerals such as magnesium and zinc, and that deficiencies in these minerals are linked with ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactive disorder). But he adds that chemicals aren't solely to blame.

He believes that any child who is showing behavioural difficulties should be tested for food intolerances and allergies. "E numbers in foods are causing significant problems for children, but they aren't the full story. Children aren't just reacting to chemicals; they're reacting to certain foods themselves. I estimate that broadly half of all children have intolerances to some food or have some chemical insensitivity. Of those, one third is reacting to chemicals and two thirds are reacting to foods."

Hyperactive children are often intolerant of wheat, chocolate, eggs, milk and other dairy products and some fruits and vegetables such as oranges, blackcurrants and tomatoes. In a study of 78 children, The Institute of Child Health found that 70 per cent reacted to food additives, 64 per cent showed a reaction to chocolate and cow's milk and 57 per cent reacted to orange, while 45 per cent reacted to cow's milk, cheese and wheat.

According to Mr Holford, the figures are even higher for children with autism - up to 90 per cent are sensitive to gluten grains or dairy food. Allergies may begin even before a child is born, with some infants predisposed to hyperactivity because of poor nutrition, severe stress, allergy or illness during pregnancy. For example, many women follow the generally accepted good advice of drinking lots of milk during pregnancy but if the mother has an undiagnosed intolerance to dairy foods she may be doing her baby more harm than good. In one study, 72 per cent of hyperactive children were hyperactive in the womb. But while a child's own history may be damaging their mental health, cultural history may be preventing us from doing anything about it. Mr Holford points to a refusal by society to recognise that diet has a direct effect on behaviour. "There is cultural resistance to the idea that what you eat has an effect on the condition of our mental health. Logically, that's a strange stance to take since we know and accept that alcohol, for instance, affects our behaviour."

Many parents are reluctant to remove milk from their children's diets simply because children have for generations been given milk - and with many hyperactive youngsters, it's the only thing they will drink. While mental health problems in society increase - one in four people will suffer some level of problems at some time in their lives - the connection between food and mood still isn't made and children are given drugs instead. This year, up to a quarter of million prescriptions for Ritalin, the most common drug prescribed for hyperactive children in the UK, will be handed out.

A high percentage of parents who contact HACSG (The Hyperactive Children's Support Group) already have hyperactive children on medication. "Parents come to us because they're looking for an alternative," says Sally Bunday, who founded the group 26 years ago. It offers advice and support to families whose lives have been made a misery because of a child's behaviour and a lack of understanding over how to deal with it. "There's not enough 'official' information and most GPs aren't aware or don't accept the link between nutrition and diet and mood, behaviour and learning. The message just isn't sinking in; the whole situation is a mess. I don't know how much research will have to be done before it's accepted." Medical professionals instead turn to other potential causes such as poor parenting, the family situation, problems at school, parental behaviour and emotional triggers based around the home.

"The cause of hyperactivity is, to all intents and purposes, hidden. One dad we have helped has a 12-year-old son who was ruining family life. We suggested he got him tested for food intolerances and since the danger foods have been taken away he's a different boy. But that family shouldn't have had to suffer for 12 years. After all this time we should be much further on than we are. Parents should be getting proper support but it's just not happening."

A version of this feature appears in 'A: Allergy Magazine', the UK's first magazine about allergies, published today by ELECTRIC INK and produced in conjunction with the charity Allergy UK. The magazine offers advice, information and tips from allergy sufferers themselves and the people who treat them. For further information and to subscribe visit


Advice about additives

The nutritionist Patrick Holford suggests there are only a handful of "safe" additives in food: colours E101 (vitamin B2), E160 (carotene, vitamin A); the antioxidants E300-304 (vitamin C), E306-309 (tocopherols, like vitamin E); the emulsifier E322 (lecithin); and stabilisers E375 (niacin) and E440 (pectin). His book Optimum Nutrition for the Mind (Piatkus, £12.99) investigates in greater detail the links between diet and mental health. Alternatively visit

Get the right juice

Be wary of anything calling itself a "fruit juice drink". These are not 100 per cent juice, but have added water and either sugar or sweeteners - usually Aspartame. Maureen Jenkins, Allergy Nurse Consultant to Allergy UK says: "It's better to give 100 per cent fruit juice, either freshly squeezed or long life. This can be diluted with water, if desired. A separate multi vitamin and mineral supplement, suitable for children, can be given separately if the child is not having a good mixed diet rich in fruit, vegetables, mixed proteins and cereal products.

Where to go for help

The Hyperactive Children's Support Group is a registered charity that has been helping children and families for more than 25 years and provides information packs and articles on a range of subjects. They also run clinics and workshops and can help keep you up to date with information on nutrition, food supplements and food additives which could cause problems. or call 01243 551313.