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As he examined a new patient with a terrible case of hives, Ben F. Feingold, md, had no idea that in a few years his work would shake up fundamental beliefs about food, behavior, and learning, and help shape new ones.
The year was 1965. Dr. Feingold, who was both a pediatrician and allergist, was considered by his peers to be a pioneer in the fields of allergy and immunology. He had accepted the challenge to establish allergy clinics for the Kaiser Permanente health care system in Northern California, and now served as chief of allergy in Kaiser’s San Francisco Medical Center.
Suspecting that the hives could be caused by a sensitivity to aspirin and aspirin-like compounds, he placed the patient on an elimination diet. In addition to removing aspirin, the regimen excluded other items that allergists were reporting to be problematic for aspirin-sensitive people: synthetic food dyes, artificial flavorings, and a group of foods containing “natural salicylates,” which include many common fruits, a few vegetables, plus several other substances.
Less than two weeks later, Dr. Feingold received a call from a psychiatrist at Kaiser, wanting to know what he had done for this patient. It turned out that she been in therapy for several years because of her belligerent behavior. On the elimination diet her behavior quickly became normal. This perplexed Dr. Feingold, who had never heard of food affecting behavior. He came to realize that the worst offenders were not the foods but rather certain synthetic food additives being used in ever-increasing amounts.
In 1973, after eight years of clinical research, he presented his findings at the annual conference of the American Medical Association. This marked the first time a traditional physician linked children’s learning and behavior problems with foods and food additives. The AMA embraced his findings with an enthusiasm that took Feingold by surprise. They set up press conferences and sent him around the country to share this new information.
However, within a matter of months there was an abrupt change: with no apparent reason, the AMA dropped the whole thing. We can only surmise the role that the food, chemical, and pharmaceutical industry lobbies may have played. They had been working hard at damage control ever since the public first got wind of the work going on at the San Francisco clinic. Dr. Feingold published articles in various medical journals. When Random House asked him to write a book directed to parents, he agreed. The book (Why Your Child is Hyperactive) received widespread publicity. As parents tried this new diet, many of those who were successful began to work together. The media dubbed his program the “Feingold Diet” and grateful parents formed a national support group they named the “Feingold Association of the US”. Dr. Feingold worked with the association and continued to help thousands of children until his death in 1982.