Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Allergies and Me

Today, a New York Times article about a mother on a crusade against certain potentially allergy-causing foods caught my eye.

The subject of the article, Robyn O'Brien, sounds a lot like my own mother. In fact, many things that Robyn says in the article could have come from my mother's mouth.

A little background:

When we were young, my sister and I showed symptoms of hyperactivity. After visiting several doctors that recommended medication, my mother looked for an alternative and put us on the Feingold Diet, a rather radical diet that's based on the assumption that hyperactivity, irritability, tantrums, and pretty much any bad behavior in children is caused by allergies. Allergies, in turn, are supposedly caused by artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives, as well as many fruits and vegetables.

Once she learned of this diet, my mother committed to it with an almost fanatical devotion. We went to Feingold Association barbecues with cotton candy, Hebrew National hot dogs and food made from scratch. My mom cooked nearly all our meals from scratch, and since she doesn't particularly like to cook, taught me and my sister to cook from scratch starting from a young age - I was a skilled baker by the time I was 12 or so. She didn't allow us to use any scented products, including soaps, shampoos and scented markers. She even made Play-Doh from scratch, since the coloring from mass-produced Play-Doh can apparently be absorbed through the skin. Products like body spray, hair dye, make-up, lotions, temporary tattoos, and scented candles were the enemy. She sent a long list of Permitted and Banned foods everywhere with us so teachers, camp counselors, friends' parents, etc. couldn't plead ignorance.

Over the years, though, she relaxed the diet as my sister and I became successful athletes, academic overachievers, and generally well-adjusted people.

Now that I'm on my own, I pretty much eat whatever I want, though I tend to avoid artificial stuff out of habit, and focus on "whole foods" like fruits and vegetables that I cook at home. As far as I can tell, I'm only allergic to almonds, possibly strawberries (which gave me hives when I was a preschooler, but I've avoided them since), and some heavily preserved/MSG-laden food (like Boston Market food, which is gross anyway). Many heavily scented products give me a headache, though I use lightly scented products (usually from Trader Joe's as well as Paul Mitchell hair products) regularly, as well as make-up from the likes of MAC, Stila and Smashbox.

I'm not a particularly focused person, and I have the attention span of a fruit fly, but for the most part I don't consider myself hyperactive or ADHD. I consider myself a creative type who switches from one task to another 50 times an hour, with no ill effects. I've never taken Ritalin or Adderall, nor had any need to.

I'm a little skeptical of the Feingold Diet. As the Wikipedia article notes, the main downside of the diet is social. I would go to birthday parties and not be able to eat cake or ice cream; when schoolmates brought treats into school, I could rarely sample them. I could certainly not trade lunches or share food with friends, though I started cheating on the diet quite a bit starting in fifth grade or so (not allowing a sweet-toothed child any candy or soda is really, really tough, though there are a lot of great all-natural sweets and sodas out there).

Face it: people bond by sharing food and eating meals together. For many people, refusing an offering of food is to refuse friendship. I always felt a bit weird and outcast because I refused food, and many of my friends' parents became hostile or confused when I could not eat anything they offered me while I came over to play. I still remember whe one of my best friends' mothers bought Breyer's peach ice cream for me. Breyer's, of course, is an all-natural brand. But I couldn't eat the ice cream because peaches are one of the banned foods according to the Feingold Diet. (Naturally, peaches are now one of my very favorite foods now.)

In addition, I don't like how my mother used the tenets of the Feingold Diet as a reason to blame every bad behavior on something I had eaten. Whenever I misbehaved, my mother would shake me and scream, "What did you eat??!!" Sometimes, a child is being a little shit for absolutely no reason. I got punished for cheating on my diet lots of times when, in fact, I had done no such thing. I chafe at the idea that there is always rhyme or reason to a child's behavior. (Of course, later, I did cheat on my diet, and has a period where I did badly in school - but I attribute that to being a rebellious, experimental teenager, not hyperactivity or food allergies.)

However, I definitely think that avoiding processed food, foods with artificial ingredients (Yellow #5 and so forth), genetically modified food (good luck avoiding those), hormone-laced milk, etc. is generally a good idea. It's the simple principle that the closer to the earth a food is, the better it tastes and the healthier it is. Thus I drink organic, hormone-free milk and eat primarily organic foods. And yes, I eat lots of ice cream and cookies and candies, including a bit of processed junk - perhaps to make up for the relative lack of sweets I enjoyed as a child. I still can't stand soda and generally back away from obviously dyed foods, like bright red pork at Chinese restaurants. I still love to bake and cook from scratch. I don't plan to ever make a cake from a mix.

After eating a "forbidden food" according to the Feingold Diet - anything from a tomato to a Reese's peanut butter cup - I don't think that I'm less able to focus or function normally. After eating something sugary I experience the usual energy spike, but nothing out of the ordinary. I feel like this is 50% simply growing up and getting over my hyperactivity, and 50% evidence that sticking to the Feingold Diet wasn't totally necessary in the first place.

Obviously, if a mother is faced with a hyperactive child, she should explore all the options. Ritalin is certainly over-prescribed in this country, and there are myriad reasons why a child can be an unmanageable bastard - anything from brain chemistry to bad parenting. These things need to be taken on a case-by-case basis. In some cases a blend of medication, diet and therapy/behavior modification strategies might be best.

Anyway, it was interesting to see that skepticism of the American food supply - from the perspective of allergic kids - is still alive and well. I do think the food supply is a minefield of genetically engineered, preserved, colored, processed junk, but I'm very skeptical of the assertion that allergies are on the rise among children. However, there's really no downside to feeding children whole, unprocessed, organic foods, except for a nominal increase in price and increased need to cook at home. However, I don't necessarily think that superbly restrictive diets such as the Feingold Diet are a cure-all suitable for all children, as some people would assert.


Anne said...

That diet sounds quite interesting. I remember some acquaintances going on the South Beach diet and being shocked that they were supposed to not eat carrots. I think your peaches experience struck me the same way. The idea of eating organic, unprocessed foods is something I am definitely behind and I do try to cook fresh healthy food as often as I can, but the selective rejection of healthy, good-for-you foods in service of a Diet has always made me uncomfortable.

I hadn't heard of this particular diet before but I do see how it could make for an awkward childhood. I would have hated not being part of the group at birthday parties etc. but it sounds like it was a positive influence on your food choices in the long run.

Unfortunately, I developed bizarre food allergies in my early 20's and so far they are not aggravated by stuff with artificial colors and flavors as much as they are by raw foods like soy, potatoes, carrots, almonds, and fruit like peaches and nectarines(sigh). I wonder what Dr. Feingold would say about that (I still eat them though).

Anne said...

Also, from what I have heard, the bright red pork at Asian restaurants is actually due to a reaction with the soy sauce, not an added colorant. I'll be damned if I can verify that though.

Snicker said...

Just because your mom joined the Feingold Association and received the materials that is no guarantee that she always used the best judgement. My children grew up on the Feingold diet, but after my "target" daughter had been on the program for awhile we were able to ease up on the restrictions...and that included eating peaches! When my kids would go to a birthday party I would tell them to go ahead and eat the cake but to please "choose the slice without the purple rose." They never wanted to drink the Kool-Aid anyway. The longer we stayed on the basic diet the less of a problem an occasional infraction would cause.

I'm sorry that your mom didn't understand that the time when strict adherence is needed is just in the first weeks when you are running a test and trying to figure out if the additives/salicylates are a problem. Part of the diet involves reintroducing and testing out things to see if they bother you. We added back all of the salicylates and found that they were not a problem, but my daughter chose to avoid too much milk since it made her whiny.

My kids felt that eating petroleum-based additives was gross, and chose to shun them. We encourage parents to let their kids choose if they want to eat something or skip it. Of course the other side of the coin is that the parents shouldn't "rescue" the child if she has made the decision to eat something she knows is going to cause problems for her.

The newer information the Feingold Association now publishes is amazingly liberal because there are so many natural options and because we have been working for over 30 years to simplify it as much as possible. Our annual "goodie baskets" this year were filled with all natural candies and other treats that look like the synthetic versions. They included red & white striped candy canes, lollipops of all colors, jelly beans, gummie bears, natural M&M type candies, licorice, chocolates, and bubble gum. We have just published our annual Fast Food Guide to what's okay to eat at the major chains.

We are not dealing with allergies, as you write, but with sensitivities. In fact, Dr. Feingold did not believe that the additives "caused" any of these problems, but that when a child who was very sensitive was exposed to them, they had the capacity to trigger reactions. And we certainly do NOT believe that all behaviors are caused by diet!! If you were to read our newsletter and other materials I think you would see what our position is.

I don't blame you for having such a negative feeling about the restrictions you experienced; you should not have been forced to follow such a strict regimen unless there was a compelling need. But my guess is that your mom was motivated by very good intentions. I suspect you don't have kids of your own, but when you do your anger might soften a bit as you see that babies don't come with instruction books and most of us just do the best we can. If you do have kids, you may want to keep the Feingold website handy ( since chances are any children you have will be chemically sensitive as well. You may want to take a look at the program they way it is supposed to be used.

Jane Hersey
Feingold Association of the US

Forever Chic said...

Yes, it really did have a positive impact on my food choices. Almost effortlessly, I eat balanced meals and a balanced diet, and I have an intimate relationship with food - I really enjoy planning meals, trying new recipes, etc. And I really appreciate how some foods make me feel stronger and healthier, while some make me feel grumpy or irritable.

Good points all. I didn't mean to quibble with the Feingold Association or the Diet per se; rather I was relating my mother's idiosyncratic way of enforcing the diet. I think the Feingold Diet is wonderful in more ways than one, and if and when I have kids I will probably follow most of it simply because I believe it tends to produce healthy children who enjoy cooking and eating food. Your comments also lead me to believe the diet has evolved in wonderful ways since I was on it in the 80s and 90s.

Also, my memories of going to Feingold Association barbecues are some of my happiest memories. I absolutely loved them.

Alana in Canada said...

Interesting and timely post for me to read. I thought you might be interested to know that Harper's Magazine has an interesting and very brief article this month about allergy hysteria.

I still think the best way to ward off allergies is to ease up a bit and let kids eat a little dirt...but then my kids aren't really allergic to anything. (Of course, I let them eat dirt....)