Children: they aren’t what you feed them

Dogma trumps science in a new book telling parents how they can improve their kids’ mental health by changing their diets.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

Topics Politics

They Are What You Feed Them: How Food Can Improve Your Child’s Behaviour, Mood and Learning, Harper Thorsons, 2006.

Alex Richardson, researcher in nutrition at Oxford University, is a scientist on a mission – a mission to transform family life and childrearing in general, but in particular in relation to diet. But Richardson’s book starts from a most unscientific premise. ‘Food and diet really are key to making the most of your child’s potential, both physically and mentally. We are what we eat, and our children are what we feed them.’

In fact, whereas animals are merely the result of natural processes, human beings are also, and more importantly, the product of society, of human intervention in nature. Both animals and humans eat and excrete, but only humans make history. All animals, including humans, feed their young: only humans teach them to talk and think, read and write, dance and sing, become active members of society. Emphasising the centrality of food and diet to the project of child-rearing implies a bleak anti-humanist outlook that reduces human beings to the level of animals.

Richardson’s book is based on a series of dubious assumptions. Because these are widely held and firmly believed, the author can appeal to the prejudices of her readers rather than offering scientific evidence. The first is that in modern society we are experiencing an ‘epidemic’ of developmental disorders on such a scale that these now affect ‘one in four’ of all children. Under this umbrella Richardson includes attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia and dyspraxia, autistic spectrum disorders and behaviour, conduct and oppositional defiant disorder. She never explains what these conditions have in common or asks what social and cultural factors might have contributed to the dramatic increase in these diagnoses in recent years.

This is partly because of her second assumption: Richardson takes this epidemic of disorders at face value because she believes that she knows what has caused it – ‘children’s diets have changed out of all recognition during the past few decades’. They Are What You Feed Them is full of strident denunciations of ‘the appalling nutritional quality of much food’, claims about ‘shocking’ dietary imbalances and their ‘devastating effects’ on children’s behaviour, mood and learning, and polemics against ‘junk food’. Yet Richardson offers little information about how children’s diet has changed and less evidence of how these changes might have produced such an extraordinary profusion of disturbed behaviours.

Richardson’s rhetorical barrage leads to a third assumption: the supposed epidemic supposedly resulting from dietary changes can only be tackled by drastic changes in children’s eating habits – which are specified in great detail in subsequent chapters. Here, the tension between the author’s missionary zeal and her proclaimed commitment to science is readily apparent, though she readily resolves it – by abandoning science. Let’s look at a few examples.

Food campaigners have long claimed that ‘additives’ – artificial colourings, sweeteners, flavourings, preservatives – cause bad behaviour among children. Wearing her scientific hat, Richardson details a number of observational studies that have shown either marginal or non-existent effects and intervention studies (on the effects of removing additives) which have yielded ‘inconclusive’ results. While she reports that further studies are expected to report in a few years’ time, her advice to parents is ‘you can wait until then if you like – or do something now to reduce your child’s exposure to these additives’. For Richardson, science should not be allowed to stand in the way of dogma.

It is a similar story in relation to sugars. ‘As yet’, Richardson concedes in a tone of academic rigour, ‘there’s little firm scientific evidence that consuming sugar directly causes behaviour problems in children’. Yet, within a few pages, she is back on the megaphone proclaiming that ‘diets high in refined sugars and starches can cause serious physical and mental health problems’. Though she cannot justify this claim scientifically, she insists that ‘it really does matter a great deal which kinds [of carbohydrate] you and your child eat’.

When it comes to fats, Richardson insists that ‘it really is critical, both for your physical and mental health’ for parents to know which fats to eat and which to avoid. Richardson the scientist informs readers that the ‘dry mass of your brain is actually 60 per cent fat’, continuing in dietary guru mode that ‘this simple fact alone should tell you that the type of fat in your diet can affect the way your brain works’. In fact, the proportion of your brain made up of fat tells you nothing about the relative importance of different sorts of dietary fat.

But Richardson repeats the question thrown up by one of the dietary crazes of recent years (and her special research interest): ‘can omega 3 fatty acids help my child?’ Again, she reports a number of studies showing modest or non-existent benefits and admits that ‘you will have gathered by now that there is no simple answer’ to this question. But if Richardson the scientist has no simple answer, Richardson the dietary crusader has a ready reply: ‘Yes they can and already do!’ Despite acknowledging that the evidence is weak and contentious, she claims that these products can ‘help in the treatment of a wide range of mental and health disorders’.

Richardson approaches the question of children’s diets with the zeal of an evangelical preacher. Carbs and fats can be divided into the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ – with ‘trans’ fats as the devil incarnate, the ‘twisted sisters’ of the world of lipids. Like the preacher in the ‘Repent the End is Nigh’ sandwich boards, she raises the spectre of Armageddon, children dying before their parents from the demons of obesity and diabetes. Yet she too offers salvation – or at least survival: ‘if you follow the advice given in this book, however, I can almost guarantee you that your child will not fall victim to this “silent killer”.’

Richardson combines a doctrinaire approach towards parents with hectoring asides directed at doctors and others who refuse to join her crusade, insisting that it is ‘verging on negligence for any professional to deny to parents that food and diet can affect their child’s behaviour’. As a health professional who would not hesitate to deny that food and diet play the sort of dominant role in either the aetiology or treatment of developmental disorders claimed by Richardson, I would also question the legitimacy of claiming scientific authority for what amounts to a moral crusade.

In They Are What You Feed Them, Richardson walks a fine line between serious science and pseudo-science. She has dedicated the royalties from the book to her research charity, and to her credit, she refuses to endorse any food products or dietary supplements. Yet she also endorses a number of authors and practitioners promoting or providing unorthodox treatments, notably in the field of autism, that are of unproven benefit and uncertain risk and may impose a heavy burden on vulnerable families.

In her concluding pages, Richardson writes ‘please don’t believe everything you hear or read without questioning it’. This follows up her earlier injunction: ‘Rule number one: don’t be too gullible.’ Parents would be well advised to adopt this skeptical approach in reading They Are What You Feed Them.

They Are What You Feed Them is published by Harper Thorsons (buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick is speaking at a number of debates, including ‘What next for fatties?’, at the Battle of Ideas festival on 28 and 29 October.

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