I’m Gonna Buy Me, One of Ben’s T-Shirts
This was perhaps a little surprising considering how much research shows the Feingold Diet doesn’t help ameliorate ADHD or hyperactivity and that most serious science in the field doesn’t give the Feingold Diet the time of day anymore. But that can happen when the last piece of serious science on the subject was published over ten years ago.
Krummel et al., (1996) are pretty direct when they say:
“Numerous double-blind studies of the Feingold hypothesis have led to the rejection of the idea that this elimination diet has any benefit beyond the normal placebo effect. Although sugar is widely believed by the public to cause hyperactive behavior, this has not been scientifically substantiated. Twelve double-blind, placebo-controlled studies of sugar challenges failed to provide any evidence that sugar ingestion leads to untoward behavior in children with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or in normal children. Likewise, none of the studies testing candy or chocolate found any negative effect of these foods on behavior. For children with behavioral problems, diet-oriented treatment does not appear to be appropriate.”
Now, the role of Nutritionist is one I would like to have a lot of respect for; after all, who is against nutrition? However, it turns out that just about anyone can call themselves a Nutritionist. It also seems that my general lack of respect for the title of “Nutritionist” isn’t limited to just me.
The Feingold Diet, for the uninitiated, was named after pediatrician and allergist Ben Feingold. It is a so called, elimination diet, where certain foods or additives are removed from a child’s diet. This leads to a theoretical improvement in a child’s behavior. Among the usual suspects are various food additives and dyes e.g. (red #40).
The Feingold Diet has never officially included sugar in its banned substances list. However, Feingold practitioners may advise the removal of sugar (of one sort or another) in addition to the complete Feingold Diet, if the diet by itself is not enough to reduce behavior problems. Dr. Feingold himself mentioned that cane sugar was suspect.
The diet does have some empirical support (Conners et al., 1976; and Rowe & Rowe, 1994). It looked fairly legitimate at one point in time. It also had its champions. At least one name should be familiar to those of us in the autism world. The late Bernard Rimland, who was better known in his latter years for his alternative theories; encouraging chelation for kids with autism; was an outspoken defender of the Feingold Diet.
Dr. Rimland raised a number of interesting criticisms including the fact that the disproving studies couldn’t possibly have studied all 3,000 additives prohibited in the diet. Of Dr. Rimland didn’t explain how anyone could have accomplished this feat. He also mentions that the darn kids were sneaking “illicit food” during the study.
In a very interesting passage he writes:
“Who needs artificially colored and flavored food anyway? For millennia the human body - and mind - has evolved and thrived on real food. It is prudent to feed our children and ourselves real food, not the denatured, "refined," additive-laden artificial foods that emanate from factories. What is the cost to us, to our country, and to our civilization of allowing ourselves to be seduced into consuming the gaudy colors and deceptive flavors that are used to make non-nutritious food appear desirable?”
Anyone reading the above passage shoudl quickly note the logical fallacies present. Such fallacies inlcude the argument by rhetorical question. Argument from tradition. The fallacy of the false dilemma. Argument from adverse consequences. And another false dilemma. So, Dr. Rimland racks of 5 fallacies in 4 sentences.
But it isn’t just Dr. Rimland. There seems to be a fundamental logic problem in the whole nutritionist cum Feingold culture.I remember the first time I realized there might be something funny with Feingold Diet was in High School, when I read a pro-Feingold book that stated that even if what the Feingold Diet treated was not really an allergy, it was okay to call it such, because the problem was analogous to an allergy.
However, that book was written in the late 70’s and it was already 20+ years old when I read it. Different time….right? Different standard of proof.
In the early days the Feingold supporters had a very scientific looking way to help parents and caregivers navigate through which foods were a problem and which were not. The simply would add or take away a food item and over the course of a week see what would happen. And just like that, post hoc, ergo propter hoc, the answer would be made plain.
This represented a can do attitude on the part of Feingold and company. It involved the parents, it put the power and control in their hands. In today’s alternative medical circles some people would call them “health care freedom fighters” or some such title.
However, we have reason to be a bit cautious here. Hoover & Millch (1994) found that after giving supposedly sugar sensitive children artificial sweetener and telling their parents it was sugar, the parents rated the children’s behavior significantly worse than controls. This result seems to indicate that even the people who know a child the best, can still fall victim to the confirmation bias and other self-trickery. Post hoc logic, even when dressed up to look like science, still isn’t science.
Keeping the above fact in mind look here. It is a bit disappointing to see the same pseudo-science being pushed 30 years after the fact to justify a diet that is largely negated by the research, and that hasn’t been seriously researched since 1994.
At one time the Feingold diet seemed like a plausible treatment. That day has come and gone, because the majority of the research didn't back it up. But the Feingold advocates are still promoting their theory which has seen little or no change since the last bit of science on the issue. Once again, the observation that the more science changes, the less woo does, is proved to be true.
Conners CK, Goyette CH, Southwick DA, Lees JM, Andrulonis PA. (August 1976). "Food additives and hyperkinesis: a controlled double-blind experiment.". Pediatrics 58(2): 154-66.
Hoover, D. W., Milich, R. (1994). Effects of sugar ingestion expectancies on mother-child interactions. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 22(4), 501-15.
Krummel D. A., Seligson, F. H., Guthrie, H. A. (1996). Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. 36(1), 31-47.
Rowe KS, Rowe KJ (1994). "Synthetic food coloring and behavior: A dose response effect in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, repeated-measures study". Journal of Pediatrics 125: 691–698.