Advice Column, Child, Education, Health, Lifestyle, Nutrition, Parenting, Toddler

Food’s influence on childhood behaviour and learning

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  • Category Advice Column, Child, Education, Health, Lifestyle, Nutrition, Parenting, Toddler

Worldwide, allergies are on the rise, and in South Africa a staggering 40% of sufferers are children, according to the Allergy Foundation of South Africa – affecting quality of life and learning potential. The problem, and solution, to common allergy symptoms, says world-renowned nutrition expert Patrick Holford, is diet.

“One in three children with behavioural problems have allergic reactions to foods. Other than overt physical reactions, individual food allergies can affect thought processing and cause irritability, agitation, aggressive behaviour, nervousness, anxiety, ADHD, autism, hyperactivity and learning disabilities,” says Holford.

A trial study conducted by Dr Joseph Egger, head of the Pediatric University Hospital in Munich, Germany, and his team in 1985, which studied hyperactive children to find out whether diet could contribute to behavioural disorders, found that 79% of the children participating reacted adversely to artificial food colourings and preservatives, but also found that different foods produced the same symptoms in different individuals.

“In the 1980s, researchers found plenty of evidence that allergies affect any system in the body and are behind a diverse range of symptoms, yet this research has largely been ignored since,” says Holford.

Patrick Holford is a pioneer in new approaches to health and nutrition, specialising in the field of mental health. Having suffered throughout his childhood and adolescence with migraines, sinus infections and ear infections, Holford sought a solution and discovered that his troubles were due to milk and yeast allergies.

“The truth is that the majority of people are likely to suffer for years not knowing that they have an allergy – but also not knowing how to treat it,” says Holford.

Not to be confused with an intolerance or sensitivity, an allergy is an exaggerated physical reaction to a substance where the immune system is involved. As our personal defence system, the immune system releases chemicals when it comes across a substance it doesn’t like. The chemicals released by the immune system in response to an allergy result in symptoms such as mood-, attention-, memory- and intellectual impairments, as well as behavioural problems, overt physical ailments and delayed reactions that make pinpointing the allergy difficult. Other symptoms of a food allergy include nausea, cramps, flatulence, fatigue, throat trouble, sweating, skin rashes, acne and boils, migraines, apathy and confusion, depression, and paranoia.

“The good news is that you can grow out of most food allergies and reduce your child’s allergic potential,” says Holford.

According to Holford, the best way to prevent and reduce allergic potential in your child is to stick to the following dietary guidelines:

  1. Completely remove wheat and dairy products from their diet for a month or so and see if their symptoms improve.
  2. Have an IgG ELISA food allergy test done and see a nutritional therapist.
  3. Improve your child’s digestion by including plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables and seeds in their diet.
  4. Ensure you keep antibiotics and painkillers to a minimum, as they damage the digestive tract.
  5. Include fish in their diet to ensure that they are getting sufficient Omega 3 oil, Zinc and Vitamin A.
  6. Avoid foods containing chemical food additives. The most common ones to look out for are aspartame, tartrazine and MSG.
  7. Eat whole, natural foods as much as possible.
  8. Choose organic food (free from pesticide residues).


For further information on food allergies, nutrition and childhood behavioural problems, visit

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