MANY years ago, before the Internet provided information at our fingertips, some parents of children with special needs at the centre where I volunteer discussed if sugar really made our children hyperactive.
We had children with different diagnoses such as autism, ADHD, Down’s Syndrome, epilepsy and Prader-Willi Syndrome. This came about when we found that our children could not sit still and learn without getting restless and fidgety. We wondered if there was something in their food and drinks that affected them.
I told them I am sensitive to sugar and allergic to many commercially used artificial colouring, flavourings and additives. Too much sugar makes me very happy and giggly (they used to think I was drunk or on something), and then I’d get all quiet and downcast, after which I’d eat more sweet things and drink more sodas, teh tarik and sweetened coffee.
In those days, I used to eat a lot of highly processed food too. It is no wonder I got health-related problems a lot earlier than my friends. It wasn’t just about getting overweight but also general ill health, poor concentration, poor sleep and allergies that made antihistamines my best friend.
I wondered if the children were affected like I was. So we reviewed our weekly menu. Sure enough, we found that we were giving our children rose syrup or orange cordial for lunch, and warm chocolate drink for breakfast.
We also gave them jam sandwiches for breakfast, and cream biscuits for breaks. These were food we grew up with and we never gave it a second thought. After all, we didn’t do too poorly, did we? How wrong we were!
Just thinking about those days makes me cringe at how ignorant we were about how food directly affects our body, health and behaviour. We always talked about dieting, but we never knew how to go about it. Many of those diets have been debunked today.
Back then, we didn’t know much about highly processed foods, synthetic food additives, simple carbohydrates, different types of sugars and sweeteners (natural or artificial), artificial colouring, transfat, hydrogenated oil and preservatives. We didn’t realise they were so pervasive and well hidden behind names we didn’t recognise. We know better now.
During one of the Hari Raya open houses at a hotel, we witnessed something that became the benchmark for the rules we made for our children. Our kind and generous host, who was also oblivious to how food affected behaviour, had prepared a beautiful table laden with sweets of every kind, complete with chocolate fountains.
Of course our children made a beeline for it. By the time we corralled them to their respective tables, they had stuffed sweets into their pockets and cakes into their mouths. They could sit still only for a few minutes and then dashed around the ballroom, some screaming with glee. They were literally bouncing around with energy.
They went for more despite efforts to stop them, and they refused the “proper” dinner that had been prepared.
The next day, we called for a meeting to review what went wrong. Was it our staff, teachers and volunteers who suddenly could not handle the children? What had brought about such a disastrous and embarrassing outcome?
The only thing we could conclude was the amount of sugar that they consumed. So we made a point to steer away from such “sinful” delights. No more sugary drinks, just plain water. No more sweet biscuits and sandwiches.
In just one week, we saw how different our children were — less restless and fidgety, and definitely happier during class and play.
We shared our thoughts with the parents. We also asked them to follow this routine at home. The parents realised their children fared better with this mindful eating.
We also decided to work with our sponsors and hosts with regards to our children’s dietary requirements and limitations. This initially took away their fun in putting together goody bags filled with sweets and such. What’s a party without cakes, sweets and sodas, right?
Fortunately, they were very understanding and appreciated our concerns. They too learnt something that they would try to practice — a healthier way of eating by making the right choices.
(The views expressed here are entirely from the writer’s own experience and observations.)
Putri Juneita Johari volunteers for the Special Children Society of Ampang. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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