Harvey may only be seven, but he’s had to cope with something even adults would find intolerable: migraines up to five times a week for the past two years.
His mother Louise says, “He says it feels like his brain is twisting inside his head, and at times there was nothing I could do to console him. He used to say he wanted to kill himself; once I caught him trying to jump out of his bedroom window. It’s been incredibly upsetting and emotionally draining.”
Harvey is one of the youngest guinea pigs in an eight-part series, The Food Hospital, that puts people suffering from common but often debilitating conditions on a dietary regime. New scientific evidence is continually emerging that shows diet really can have a huge impact in preventing and treating the conditions we all worry about.
The Food Hospital tests some of this cutting-edge research on real patients; it also casts a cool scientific gaze on some common food myths and will rope in viewers for its own large-scale trials.
NHS dietician Lucy Jones, one of the medics behind the series, says, “People have access to such a wealth of information now, but there are so many contradictory messages and we don’t always have the right tools to discern evidence-based fact from hearsay. There is a lot of scepticism about treating particular illnesses with diet, not least among health professionals, so I hope the series will open up people’s eyes, because a lot of the interventions The Food Hospital has used are not the norm; this is a rapidly emerging area of science.”
Children can be notoriously difficult to diagnose, and even Louise doubted her judgement at times: “Because Harvey’s so young, people said there was nothing wrong with him, that he was just being naughty and I needed to be a stricter parent. But I could see he wasn’t well. He would go really pale and he could barely walk.”
Harvey was prescribed pizotifen, a standard drug for migraine, but eventually even the highest dose had little effect. Like the other Food Hospital patients, Harvey continued on medication while following a radical 12-week programme.
Like most boys he loves burgers and sausages, but Louise is very health-conscious and his diet contained lots of fresh food. The Food Hospital regime eliminated certain cheeses, processed meats, chocolate and citrus fruits, all of which contain amines: natural compounds linked to migraines.
Louise had already cut out well-known triggers including juice and cheese, but added to that list of banned foods were full-fat milk, peanuts, dried fruits and additives. Harvey was also prescribed vitamins and minerals: riboflavin, magnesium and coenzyme Q10, which are thought to help because of the way they act on the brain.
In the first week of the diet Harvey’s headaches disappeared and his behaviour improved beyond measure.
For a seven-year-old who misses ice cream and sweets it has been tough. And it’s been tough, too, on Louise, a full-time family support worker: she now has to make Harvey’s lunches and teas from scratch, including fish fingers and burgers.
But when I met Harvey, just home from after-school club, he seemed unfazed by the tough regime. The only thing he misses, he says, is chocolate, and he’s excited that he’ll soon be allowed it again.
Lucy Jones explains: “It’s really important for anyone who eliminates particular foods because of a suspected intolerance that they add them back at some point to see if the symptoms reoccur.”
Success stories like Harvey’s make heart- warming television.
But Catherine Collins, principal dietitian at St George’s Hospital in London, sounds a note of caution: “The problem about diet programmes on TV is that people are much more likely to comply with a dietician’s recommendations than they are in real life.
“In real life people find it very hard to make changes to their diet. Unlike popping a pill, changing your diet has such a significant impact on your life, and people have to recognise the long-term benefits against the short-term disappointments of not eating what they like.”
It’s certainly been worth it for Harvey and his mum. “My whole life has changed,” says Louise. “It’s not just that Harvey’s headaches have gone. Before, he was so down in himself; now he’s full of beans and his teachers have noticed his concentration has improved. Even my husband, who was sceptical, says the difference is dramatic. We’ve got our little boy back.”
The Food Hospital starts tonight, 8pm, Channel 4
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 22 October.