Nutrition intervention trial looks promising for SEN kids

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Nutrition

Preliminary results from an intervention trial that aimed to change
eating habits in a UK school and provide an omega-3 supplement are
positive with regards to behavioural benefits, says Foods for the
Brain, and may spur further research.

The charity, which exists to spur further research into the connection between nutrition and cognitive function, initiated a seven-month trial in Cricket Green SEN (special educational needs) School in Merton, which involved daily long chain fatty acid supplements (eye q), omega-3 fish oil and omega-3 evening primrose oil, a balanced nutritious diet, an exercise regime, and a multivitamin.

Patrick Holford, chief executive of Foods of the Brain, told that it is very clear that vitamin supplements do increase cognition. There have been 13 controlled clinical trials to this end, ten of which have produced positive results.

The effects of diet on behaviour are clearest in relation to sugar - for instance, if you miss breakfast and blood sugar is low concentration is hampered - and the effect of exercise on coordination.

"We wanted to explore what happens when you do it all together, to see if we are able to effect a change,"​ he said.

At this stage, only the part of the results have been analysed, relating to Teacher Conner's ratings.

On average, a 5.6 per cent reduction in restlessness and impulsiveness was seen; a 9.3 per cent reduction in inattention; a 9.2 per cent reduction in hyperactivity and impulsivity; a 9 per cent reduction in social problems; and a 10 per cent significant reduction in anxiety and stress.

Holford said that "a lot more juice"​ can be squeezed out of the results, by the preliminary results are just to say that it worked.

"Whatever we did produced a significant improvement in behaviour in most of the kids."

"We may find there is a small number of children who have benefited enormously,"​ he said, adding that it is generally clear as at trend that children with the worst symptoms and diet tends to have the best results.

A key aspect of the trial was that it is not just changing what children eat, but changing thinking around food, both in schools and in the community.

The researchers spent time with parents in workshops, and Holford said be thinks this is where the Jamie Oliver campaign over school meals went wrong: it did not do enough to engage parents and children and get them motivated.

He stressed that the research was a pilot project, and not in any way a placebo-controlled clinical trial. Nonetheless, he does hope that it will be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

"As an open trial using the children as their own controls, it is a perfectly valid piece of research and there is no reason why it cannot be published,"​ he said.

While clinical trials work well for drugs and vitamin pills, he said that they are not an appropriate instrument if looking at a whole change in nutrition.

The next step for Food for the Brain would be to get funding to look more closely at what nutrient does what, and possibly conduct a trial across more than one school to the effects of intervention can be compared with a placebo.

Following an assessment conducted last year, the UK Food Standards Agency, does not plan to recommend omega-3 and vitamin and mineral supplements for all school children, on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

Holford agreed with this on a national policy level.

"But if you are a parent, is it worth doing? The answer is definitely yes,"​ he said. "There are no side effects, and the worst outcome is that you would waste a few points if it does not work."

He does not envisage a future where supplements be given to all children for free, a view based on the fact that a benefit would be unlikely in the top performing children who already have a high standard of nutrition.

Moreover, taking supplements is really a part of food. "In the same way as the government encourages us to eat fruit and vegetables, it should also be encouraging us to take multivitamins,"​ he said.

But except in cases where families are on benefits or where children have special educational needs, the onus, Holford believes, should be on the parents to provide.

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