I remember one young friend of my son's, an extremely high energy boy named Ricky Walker. He had been diagnosed as hyperactive, and was a real problem at his former school. His teacher there said that the only way Ricky could continue in her class was if he took medication.
Ricky's mother recalls those days all too vividly. "We were at our wit's ends, but didn't like the idea of starting Ricky on drugs. He said he hated school, and always dreamed up the most bizarre excuses so he wouldn't have to go. He was often sick, and many times I wasn't sure whether he was really sick or just trying to stay home.
"Sundance sounded a little impractical to me. But I visited the school, and was struck by the bright faces and spirit of cooperation I saw. The kids actually seemed to be enjoying themselves. With some apprehension, we enrolled Ricky. And at the same time we made the decision. to clean up his diet, to get rid of the junk food, the sugared cereals, the soda pop and hot dogs and donuts.
"At first, he didn't like any of this. He didn't want to eat whole wheat bread and he didn't want to go to Sundance, but within two weeks he was saying how much better he felt, and that he liked being able to choose his own activities. After that, Ricky became much happier, and actually got to the point that he was eager to go to school. One sign that this was the right direction was that Ricky was hardly ever sick after we made the changes. Even more important, though, was the change in his attitude. He became positive person."
Today, Ricky is a successful teacher of martial arts and skiing. I recently isked his mom whether she thought it was the change in school or the 'hange in diet that had made the most difference. "We made both changes at the same time," she answered, "so I can't separate them. They were both important-two good things that multiplied each other's benefits."31
If You Love Me, Don't Feed Me Junk Food
Among the many factors that shape the lives of children, nutrition often plays a critical role. What children eat exerts a profound influence over the molecular environment and neurochemical functioning of their brains, governing the way they process information, and influencing the way they think, learn, and act. Many studies have found, for example, that children with higher intakes of B vitamins and other brain-active micronutrients do better in school than those children whose diets are lower in these nutrients. Others studies have found that children who are exposed to heavy metals (such as lead, cadmium, or mercury) through their food, air, or water have reduced learning and memory, and impaired functioning of the central nervous system.32
A landmark 1990 study concluded that lead poisoning in childhood is the single most important predictor of criminality among adults, far outweighing poverty, the absence of a father in the household, and other major social factors commonly cited by criminologists. In 1996, Dr. Herbert Needleman and his colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine reported in the AMA Joumal that even nominal doses of lead, well below those associated with poisoning, can lead to antisocial behavior and delinquency in young boys.33
If exposure to even minute amounts of lead can disturb children's brain chemistry and behavior so dramatically, is it possible that other forms of chemical pollution, such as artificial food additives, might underlie some cases of ADHD? It was just this sort of question that led to the remarkable work of Ben Feingold, M.D., of the Kaiser-Permanente Medical Center in San Francisco.
In 1973, this distinguished pediatric allergist told a meeting of the AMA that food additives were responsible for 40 to 50 percent of the hyperactiv~t~v he had seen in his practice. He had found that a substantial number of hyperactive children improved dramatically when they stopped eating foods that contained artificial colorings, flavors, and certain preservatives.34 Add~tionally, he found that a variety of childhood learning disabilities and Other behavioral problems were reduced by the same diet changes.
The Feingold program is based on the fact that although most human beings have the ability to tolerate a certain amount of exposure to harmful substances, some of us are more reactive biochemically than others. Some of us are not having an easy time coping with a world where neither our water nor our air is pure, where we are exposed to countless chemicals every day that have never been known in nature until the last few decades, and where our food has been subjected to processing and refining that removes essential nutrients and adds a plethora of artificial chemicals. For children who happen to be especially sensitive, the three most troublesome chemicals-synthetic food dyes, artificial flavorings, and preservatives-can cause a host of physical, emotional, and mental reactions, and lead to being diagnosed as hyperactive.
Unfortunately, many parents, educators, and physicians believe that the Feingold program has been disproven. This erroneous idea stems from a series of studies undertaken during the late 1970s which purported to find Feingold's methods wanting, and which were widely quoted.35 But serious questions have been raised about the validity of these studies.36
One study, for example, eliminated only eight of the more than 3,000 additives in our food supply, and when children did not show major improvement, wrote the program off as worthless. Others were undertaken by the Nutrition Foundation, an organization funded by the makers of Coca Cola, Fruit Loops, C & H Sugar, and other junk food manufacturers.37 The studies took hyperactive kids, gave them doses of either additives or placebos, and then noted very little difference in response. But an analysis of the controversy, published in the journal Science in 1980, disclosed that the researchers had used doses of the additives that were far too small to produce a noticeable effect.38 In fact, when the amounts were raised to a level commensurate with children's actual eating habits, the hyperactivity/food additive link was confirmed. Some 85 percent of the hyperactive children reacted adversely when they were exposed to realistic levels of artificial colorings, flavorings, preservatives, and other synthetic food additives.
In 1985, Lancet published the most convincing evidence to date In an extremely well designed study, 79 percent of hyperactive children Improved when suspect foods were eliminated from their diets, only to become worse again when the foods were reintroduced. Artificial colorings and flavorings were the most serious culprits; sugar was also found to have a noticeable effect.39
When parents are willing to try the Feingold approach, the results can be extraordinary. One such mother, Gayle Giza, described a long history of disappointment and frustration with her son, Mark. Finally, she tried the Feingold program. Mark was willing, she says, because he "had become so unhappy with his life by the time he was ten years old, he welcomed a chance to change things.... After we began the program he no longer had problems which we hadn't even identified as problems! He could come to the dinner table and sit down without spilling everything, could go to sleep without rocking, and stopped talking out in his sleep. He stopped incessantly teasing his sister, being argumentative, and could now turn off the TV without a confrontation. I soon received a letter from his teacher, which said, 'Mark is a pleasure to have in crass.' after ten years of worry and search ing, I can't describe the feelings this brought. Needless to say, I still have the letter. Mark had no problems with reading or spelling after that, and sixth grade was a real success story.... The day our ten- year old told us, 'I really like me the way I am now,' I knew no amount of effort would have been too much."40
Of course, a program can generate marvelous anecdotal success stories without being grounded in scientific testing. It may work for a few kids here and there without being of any use to the vast majority. Do programs that improve nutrition and remove chemical additives in children's diets actually have value on a large scale? I have found that the scientific literature supporting such programs, though not widely known to the general public, is impressive.
A series of studies in the 1980s removed chemical additives and reduced sugar in the diets of juvenile delinquents. Overall, 8,076 young people in 12 juvenile correctional facilities were involved. The result? Deviant behavior fell 47 percent.
In Virginia, 276 juvenile delinquents at a detention facility housing particularly hardened adolescents were put on the diet for two years. During that time, the incidence of theft dropped 77 percent, insubordination dropped 55 percent, and hyperactivity dropped 65 percent.42 In Los Angeles County probation detention halls, 1,382 youths were put on the diet. Again, the results were excellent. There was a 44 percent reduction in problem behavior and suicide attempts.43
These and other studies have found that when troubled youngsters are put on a healthy diet based on nutrient dense foods like whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, and avoid sugar and artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives, the results are predictably outstanding.
Supplementary vitamins and other essential nutrients also often help. A number of double-blind placebo-controlled studies have found that the frequency of antisocial behavior in juveniles is lowered significantly by appropriate supplementation.44
One remarkable double-blind, placebo-controlled study actually compared Ritalin directly with vitamin B6. Published in 1979 in the journal of Biological Psychiatry, this study found that high doses of vitamin B6 actually did a better job than Ritalin at reducing hyperactivity.45 Vitamin B6 is, of course, far cheaper (Ritalin prescriptions cost $30 to $60 per month), and far safer than the drug, and the study's protocol was outstanding.
In 1992, Jane Hersey, executive director of the Feingold Association of the United States, explained why she and others work as volunteers for the organization:
"I hear some chilling stories from parents of troubled children. They are told that their children are abnormal and have a deficiency that can be corrected by Ritalin. Some doctors call it 'replacement therapy,' es though the drug were a naturally occurring substance. We hear about teachers and counselors telling parents-'If you really loved him, you'd agree to give him the medication.' We hear of doctors prescribing Ritalin or Valium to two-year-olds. We know of parents coerced by treatment centers to agree to multiple medications, and of families facing bankruptcy as a result of these expensive yet unsuccessful therapies. We know of ADHD groups run by professionals with a vested interest in the choice of treatment, and of pharmaceutical industries supplying money to such groups. The trend appears to be growing, and with frightening speed."46
(The Feingold Association of the U.S. can be contacted at: P.O. Box 6550, Alexandria, VA 22306.)
One Million American Schoolchildren Change Their Diets
Perhaps the most amazing study of all those ever undertaken regarding the Feingold diet and children occurred when no less than 803 public schools in New York city were put on the diet for four years.47 Dr. Elizabeth Cagan (the chief administrator of the Office of School Food and Nutrition Services for the New York City Public School System Board of Education) and Barbara Freidlander Meyer (city-wide nutrition education supervisor) decided to test what effect, if any, the Feingold diet would have on academic performance. Over a period of several years, they gradually eliminated all artificial colors and flavors, and the preservatives BHA and BHT, from the schools' cafeterias, while also reducing the amount of sugar available.
It was an extremely large-scale, ambitious, and ingenious experiment. The dietary modifications were introduced in a series of steps that took place simultaneously in all 803 schools. The alterations took place in the school years 1979-1980, 1980-1981, and 1982-1983. The reason no changes were made in 1981-1982 was to insure that any results that might be obtained during the course of the experiment would in fact be due to the dietary improvements, and not due to some other unknown occurrence that might be taking place simultaneously.