Whenever Norhidayah Jamaludin sends her three young sons to the daycare centre, she brings along their packed breakfast, lunch and teatime snack.
Although the daycare centre provides meals for the children, her sons cannot eat the catered food as they need a special diet.
Her boys – Adam Haris Mohd Faris, seven, Aiman Haris Mohd Faris, five, and Aqil Haris Mohd Faris, three – have eczema. It is an inflammatory skin condition that can be triggered when they eat food such as dairy, wheat and soy.
When an allergic reaction occurs, Norhidayah’s sons suffer from itchy rashes, and dry and scaly skin.
“My sons tend to develop eczema flare-ups after eating chocolates, breads and doughnuts. It leads to rashes around their elbows, buttocks, face and torso. It is pitiful to see them itching and crying in pain,” says Norhidayah, 33, an engineering lecturer.
Allergies are common especially among children. It occurs when a child’s immune system reacts to substances known as allergens. There are many causes of allergies and the symptoms vary from mild to severe.
Children with severe food allergies could develop anaphylaxis, a life threatening reaction which could result in breathing difficulties and death.
Aiman has asthma too. Whenever he eats food he is allergic to, he suffers breathing difficulties and has been hospitalised many times.
Three years ago, after numerous consultations with paediatricians, skin specialists and homeopathy doctors, Norhidayah and her husband Kapt Mohd Faris Ismail decided they needed to make lifestyle changes.
“Doctors recommended omitting wheat, nuts, soy and processed food, from their diet. I have to be mindful of their food choices to lessen my sons’ chances of developing a food allergic reaction,” says Norhidayah, who decided she’d prepare home-cooked meals for her sons to minimise their exposure to ingredients that could trigger their allergies.
As busy as Norhidayah is, the working mother doesn’t have the option of grabbing buns and pastries from convenience stores for her sons. Fast food favourites like nuggets, burgers or fries aren’t on their menu either.
Eating out is challenging for Norhidayah’s family as they need to constantly determine if dishes contain preservatives, oils and food colouring that could trigger allergic reactions.
They stopped eating out at fast food outlets and restaurants.
Chocolates, ice cream and cookies and sugary treats that the kids (and parents) enjoy had to be removed from their home too.
The Health Ministry’s Institute for Public Health’s senior dietitian (research) Dr Noor Safiza Mohamad Nor says parents should look out for tell-tale signs of allergy conditions in their children. It could include sneezing, nasal congestion and watery eyes. Each child with an allergy reacts differently, depending on the allergens.
“An allergic reaction to food can have many symptoms, in varying degrees of severity. Parents must be aware that a small amount of food allergen may cause a severe reaction.”
While food allergies can develop at any time, the good news is some children outgrow these problems.
“Allergies to milk, egg white, wheat or soy are usually resolved in childhood (after five years old). Allergies to peanuts and shellfish are generally longer and lifelong,” explains Dr Safiza, adding there are two tests – skin test and blood test – to detect allergies.
Some parents create food diaries, or symptom diaries, for children with food allergies. A food diary serves as a chronological listing of food a person has consumed and symptoms they have experienced. It helps doctors narrow down and identify allergic triggers and ingredients that cause allergic reactions.
On weekdays, Norhidayah wakes up at 5am to prepare her sons’ meals. She ensures they have balanced meals with protein (fish or chicken), carbohydrate (rice) and fibre (vegetable). Their tea-time snacks are usually seri muka, yam cake, and vegetable fritters, all made from rice flour.
“The Internet is a wonderful source for gluten-free recipes. I have also joined several support groups where members share tips and recipes for burgers, nuggets and cutlets,” says Norhidayah who joins a local eczema support group
It is challenging for Norhidayah to juggle between work, household chores and catering to her children’s special diet. Thankfully, her husband is a great help at home.
“My husband wakes up early to help with household chores, such as the cooking and washing up,” says Norhidayah who usually prepares sauces and pastes for her children’s meals during the weekend.
But Norhidayah and Mohd Faris persevere because their sons’ skin condition has improved tremendously. Aiman rarely gets asthma attacks unless he’s down with a cold.
“They are growing bigger and developing a stronger immune system. Slowly, I am trying to introduce them to newer food groups like milk, eggs and nuts. Hopefully over time, they will get over their food allergies, and lead a normal and healthy life like other children.”
Going the natural way
Like Norhidayah, system analyst Suzenati Lamamma, 37, also believes in the benefits of a special diet.
Suzenati has put her 10-year-old son, Dini Muhammad – who has mild autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – on a gluten-free diet.
Dini used to have digestive problems like vomiting and diarrhoea after eating processed food, breads and fast food.
Not all doctors recommend dietary intervention for children with ADHD as the evidence of its efficacy is mixed.
But Suzenati decided to try out a gluten-free diet for her son rather than put him on medication that calms hyperactivity in children.
She is continuing on this path as she has seen imrovement in Dini’s condition.
“I am not comfortable giving him drugs and stimulants. I prefer to give him proper nutrition and natural remedies. Some research studies and homeopathic therapy say food with gluten and dairy can cause distress to the gastrointestinal tract. So, I have opted to put him on a gluten-free diet,” says Suzenati, a mother of three.
You will not find junk food, sweets, carbonated drinks or chocolates in Suzenati’s kitchen. Her kitchen has healthy homemade snacks, spreads and drinks, as well as organic wet and dry ingredients. Freezer compartments are stacked with plastic containers of homemade burger patties, nuggets and ice cream.
Though Dini is her only child who requires a special diet, Suzenati has switched the entire family’s meal plan to suit his needs. She says it saves time to prepare one meal, rather than make different dishes, to cater to everyone’s needs.
“It can be a challenge to control Dini from eating things that can affect his digestive system. To avoid such a complication, everyone eats the same food and snacks at home. The plus point is everyone is eating healthier food minus MSG, preservatives and additives,” says the working mother who has a maid to help her.
Suzenati is careful with ingredients that her son consumes. Sourdough bread (believed to contain less gluten), rice cookies, chocolate spreads, and chicken stock powder are made from scratch using organic products, without preservatives or artificial food colouring.
But organic products, pesticide-free products and antibiotic-free meats do not come cheap. On average, these items cost between 30%-50% more than regular items. But Suzenati doesn’t mind forking out extra money as long as her son’s dietary requirements are met.
“Even though organic products cost more, is it still cheaper to prepare meals at home than eating out. Cooking at home allows me to control the family’s salt, sugar and oil intake,” says Suzenati, who has attended several gluten-free cooking and baking workshops to improve her culinary skills and repertoire.
She has also joined several support groups for autism, ADHD and gluten-free on Facebook. There, parents share recipes and sell homemade products catered to people with special needs.
She encourages parents of children with food allergies to consult doctors concerning their children’s diet.
“Seek help from support groups. Do your research on food preferences for your children. It takes a bit of time and effort to prepare these food items but it is definitely worth it.