An Alternative History of Hyperactivity: Food Additives and the Feingold Diet

An Alternative History of Hyperactivity: Food Additives and the Feingold Diet

An Alternative History of Hyperactivity: Food Additives and the Feingold Diet

An Alternative History of Hyperactivity: Food Additives and the Feingold Diet

Synopsis

In 1973, San Francisco allergist Ben Feingold created an uproar by claiming that synthetic food additives triggered hyperactivity, then the most commonly diagnosed childhood disorder in the United States. He contended that the epidemic should not be treated with drugs such as Ritalin but, instead, with a food additive-free diet. Parents and the media considered his treatment, the Feingold diet, a compelling alternative. Physicians, however, were skeptical and designed dozens of trials to challenge the idea. The resulting medical opinion was that the diet did not work and it was rejected.

Matthew Smith asserts that those scientific conclusions were, in fact, flawed. An Alternative History of Hyperactivity explores the origins of the Feingold diet, revealing why it became so popular, and the ways in which physicians, parents, and the public made decisions about whether it was a valid treatment for hyperactivity. Arguing that the fate of Feingold's therapy depended more on cultural, economic, and political factors than on the scientific protocols designed to test it, Smith suggests the lessons learned can help resolve medical controversies more effectively.

Excerpt

In 1974, a self-help book written by Ben F. Feingold (1899–1982) entitled Why Your Child Is Hyperactive arrived on the shelves of bookstores across North America. On the surface, the Random House publication was not particularly exceptional. By the mid-1970s, hyperactivity, a disorder characterized by hyperactive, impulsive, inattentive, aggressive, and defiant behavior, was the most commonly diagnosed childhood psychiatric disorder in the United States. Many other books, including primers, self-help books, and medical textbooks, had also been written about the disorder. Medical journals such as the American Journal of Psychiatry (AJP), the Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry (JAACP) and Pediatrics had published hundreds of articles on the disorder and the pharmaceutical companies that advertised on their pages made millions on the sales of hyperactivity drugs such as methylphenidate, better known as Ritalin. the popular magazine Life had published a seven-page article on hyperactivity in October 1972. Perhaps most indicative of the emergence of hyperactivity as a disorder of both medical and social significance was the publication of two books, Peter Schrag and Diane Divoky’s The Myth of the Hyperactive Child: and Other Means of Child Control (1975) and Peter Conrad’s Identifying Hyperactive Children: the Medicalization of Deviant Behavior (1976), which questioned the very existence of the disorder.

Feingold’s Why Your Child Is Hyperactive was also contentious but in a completely different way. Unlike psychiatrists who blamed the disorder on unresolved family conflict, socioeconomic problems, or, increasingly, neurological dysfunction, Feingold, a well-known San Francisco allergist, argued that the ingestion of food additives triggered hyperactivity. Basing his . . .

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