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For years, the only known treatment for hyperactive behavior was daily doses of Ritalin, an amphetamine-like drug that suppresses hyperactivity. Many parents, of course, were uneasy about putting their children on a drug. But short of calling in an exorcist, parents were given no other choice. Even then, Ritalin worked in only 50 per cent of the children for whom it was prescribed. And while behavior improved, concentration and learning skills did not.
Ten years ago, real hope emerged. The late Dr Benjamin Feingold, an allergist and pediatrician in San Francisco, proposed that hyperactive behavior is caused primarily by food additives. (He also suspected aspirin-related compounds known as salicylates, found in various fruits.) Placing a hyperactive child on a diet free of those additives and compounds, said Dr Feingold, produced a dramatic improvement in behavior in 50 per cent of the children treated. Dr Feingold published his dietary theory and programme in two popular books, Why Your Child Is Hyperactive (Random House) and The Feingold Cookbook for Hyperactive Children (Random House).
Parents of hundreds of thousands of hyperactive children, eager for an alternative to Ritalin, put their children on the diet. And happily, many children improved. Yet in other children there was no change. Because the Feingold diet worked for some children - but not others - critics began to wonder if there was any real basis to the claims that the Feingold diet was a success. And many pediatricians flatly rejected the notion of any link between diet and hyperactivity. (Some still do.) Other pediatricians, however, believe that the Feingold diet sometimes fails because it doesn't consider all possible triggers. It's true that food colouring, flavouring and preservatives (such as BHA and BHT) can cause hyperactivity. But, say these doctors, so can sugar, milk, wheat - or any other food, for that matter. And they point out that hyperactive behavior was first described in medical journals over 100 years ago - long before artificial additives became standard food ingredients.
These doctors have found that once the offending food or food ingredients are identified, diet therapy for hyperactivity works quite well - in almost all cases. One of those pediatricians is Dr William G. Crook, of Jackson, Tennessee.
'In my opinion,' says Dr Crook, 'too much of the controversy over diet and hyperactivity has revolved around the food colors, dyes and additives, rather than taking a broader look at the child's diet and considering the possibility that the hyper­activity may be related to adverse or allergic reactions to other common foods, including sugar, milk, corn, wheat, eggs, choc­olate and citrus fruits.
'In my experience and in the experience of many other phys­icians who have placed their patients on properly designed and carefully executed elimination diets, most hyperactive allergic children will improve within five to seven days after being placed on such a diet. However, in approximately 20 per cent of my patients, the symptoms do not improve significantly until the offending food or foods are avoided for eight to fourteen days.
And occasionally, a three-week period of avoidance is required' {Pediatrics.)
Whether your child responds sooner or later may depend on age. Over the years, Dr Feingold observed that younger children seemed to respond much sooner than older children and teen­agers, probably because older children have been exposed to chemicals longer. Either way, parents who see their little hellions transformed into cherubic darlings in a matter of days feel their prayers have been answered at last.