Fad Diets For Psychiatrized Children: The Drug Paradigm In Disguise

  "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."
–English proverb of unknown origin, meaning people often do bad things for seemingly good reasons

As fighters of what seems like a losing battle, and in some cases really is, we are often tempted by what look like concessions to our cause, but are really not. For psychiatric survivors, Mad/Neurodivergent people, and anyone else critical of the mental health system, drugs often take the focus, thanks to their dangerous or even deadly "side effects" and multi-billion-dollar marketing campaigns. It can be a relief to hear the story of a parent going against doctor's orders and sparing their kid the harmful drugs. However, that doesn't necessarily mean no harm is taking place. There are lots of ways to hurt children besides drugging them, which many parent organizations are advocating for.

Look no further than anti-vaccine cult groups, and you will see people who are not only fond of resurrecting deadly diseases, but also of any other so-called alternative said to fix their children who aren't broken. They eagerly spend thousands at a time on vitamins, consultations with nutritionists, oxygen chambers, and anal bleaching (and not the fun porn variety). These are people who hate drugs not because they have demonstrable negative effects on people's livelihood, but because Big Pharma is a scary name. At best, we could conclude this pattern is evidence of our movement gaining traction− that someone would go out of their way to deceive us. More likely, these parents are only specifically against psychiatric drugging, and for bad reasons, while still operating within a pathology paradigm, potentially doing greater damage than drugs would.

Look further than anti-vaccination, and the bleach goes away but the diets remain. Healthism has gotten so out-of-control that it reaches beyond fatphobia and convinces people that ALL of their problems, real or perceived, can be solved by giving money to a nutritionist. The most popular diets bubble up and blow over in a series of fads, much like the fad drugs that proliferate advertising space until our culture gets tired of the name.

The Feingold diet became one of the most famous in the 1970's, still referenced with admiration today, despite a lack of credible research supporting its effectiveness. Growing up in the 90's and early 2000s, I remember when the headless torsos started appearing on television, scaring people into counting carbs and calories lest they become another anonymous fat body. At time of writing, the big fads are now eliminating gluten, fear of GMOs, "organic" versions of food typically farmed with pesticides, and flirting with overdose on vitamin supplements. The gluten-free fad is the one silver lining on this list: people with celiac disease or other gluten sensitivities can now more easily find food that is actually edible. Forcing gluten-free on a non-gluten-sensitive child, however, is imposing a restriction for no reason.

Fad diets are not harmless nor above criticism. They are not inherently challenging to the drug-based, pathological worldview. In fact, media messaging to promote diets, when not accompanied by a clear anti-psychiatry stance, often does more to support pathologizing madness/neurodivergence than to challenge it. These are more than pitfalls– they are fundamental patterns of ableism and abuse culture.

1. You are still trying to "treat" a perceived "mental disorder".

The definition of psychiatry is the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders.

Not all practitioners of fad diets do so under the pretense of treating a disorder, but those who do are amateur psychiatrists operating under a drug-based paradigm. They are treating food the way a psychiatrist treats a drug: A substance you put in someone's body to cure them of their alleged illness. It's tempting to see a parallel between avoiding certain foods and avoiding psychiatric drugs, but since we actually need food to live, a message that your current diet is causing problems necessarily holds the subtext that putting something else into your body would solve those problems. Fad diets for psychiatrized children are psychiatry. They are also abuse.

No matter the method, regarding someone's natural state of mind as a health condition and attempting to eliminate it under the guise of "treatment", without asking whether they agree that it's unhealthy and consent to treatment, is psychiatric abuse. When it comes to children, we are usually talking about those labeled as "ADHD" or Autistic. Accurate or not, the label is the first psychiatric act against the child– I say "against" because what immediately follows is almost always a discussion of "treatment" options, skipping over the question of whether any intervention is actually necessary or beneficial.

New opinion articles appear on the daily, expressing concern about "over-diagnosis" of ADHD, and more recently autism as well– the latter held back by alarmist rhetoric claiming there are actually more Autistic people than before (Oppositional Defiant Disorder on the other hand can't be over-diagnosed, lest we imply that in some cases, disobeying your parents is not a mental illness). Children who are prescribed amphetamines based on a label that wasn't even the correct one to begin with are harmed immensely by forced drugging. In the same way, if you change a child's diet because someone decided they have a disorder now, when their diet was already healthy before, that's harmful too.

For someone who really is Autistic or kinetic or has some other real madness/neurodivergence that's just been pathologized with "disorder" affixed to its name, the harm remains. Responding to the correct label with a fad diet marketed as "treatment" is still trying to fix someone who isn't broken. They aren't broken because being Mad or Neurodivergent isn't an illness. If your coincidentally gluten-intolerant Autistic child has fewer Autistic meltdowns in the absence of constant allergic stomach aches, good for them. That doesn't mean autism is "caused" by gluten or "cured" by going gluten-free.

There is one difference though: Your correctly labeled child is not going to shed the labels as they grow up. The lasting internalized message will not be "my parents tried to cure my nonexistent disorder" because while the attribute in question isn't a disorder, it is real. No matter how much influence food has on surface states like fatigue or migraines, it can't change a brain attribute that is fundamental and pervasive, but if it could, that would still be abuse. When you talk about your child's state of normal as something unwanted, what you are saying to your child is "you have this label and that's a disorder. You are ill. The way you naturally are is bad and wrong." It doesn't matter if your strategy is drugs, food, or positive reinforcement. For adults, dying and being replaced by a more lovable doppelganger is the plot of a horror movie. Telling your child that you wish it upon them in real life is abuse. Maybe the literal drug approach would be extra dangerous, but take away the drugs and you still have a pathology problem. Not only do the ends not justify the means, the ends condemn the means.

2. It's still about control, not support.

Whenever concerns about fad diets reach the ears of parents who use them, one rebuttal is ready in the chamber: This isn't about changing someone's personality, it's helping them grow by removing toxins. Perhaps, for children who haven't been psychiatrized, this is sometimes true. Neurotypical children with no added labels get to eat a reasonable variety and treats in moderation, with an eye toward what is actually healthy and keeps them feeling good. Fad-inclined parents still overstep on occasion, but it's not about rejecting the personhood of their own child. That is until a pathologized label or deviant behavior enters the picture. At that point, dietary adjustments become about correcting behavior.

When your greatest hope for your child's new diet is that it will cause them to speak orally, or sit still in a classroom, or stop hearing voices, or stabilize their mood, I call bullshit on this being about support. Surely some parents genuinely believe that those things are necessary for enabling a child to thrive, except that "thrive" means "according to cultural notions of success" and success means fitting in and "fit in" is code for "be neurotypical." Like when a fat adult sees a doctor and automatically gets told to lose weight, "hit the treadmill for a month and then we'll talk about that broken leg," a neurodivergent child needs to be cured of an alleged mental illness that isn't really hurting anyone else. Only after that "cure" can we even ask the question of whether there is a legitimate physical problem to address.

Ultimately the presence or absence of a medical or health issue is irrelevant though. Ableist parents and their rarely-licensed doctors may claim that madness is somehow located in other places besides the brain, but even then, body changes are merely a strategy to cause mental changes. Literally everyone has gut bacteria, but only the ones that allegedly "cause mental disorders" are considered a problem.

Children can't consent. Somehow, this phrase manages to take away rights and protections rather than increase either of them. Children can't consent, so we should make the least dangerous assumptions? Get them vaccinated and wait on madness until they're 18 and can decide if it's a disorder or not? No. Children can't consent, therefore it's the parent's right to decide everything. Just like mentally ill people can't consent, therefore it's the medical professional's right to decide everything. Paternalism is paternalism, including when it involves a literal parent.

For children, the definition of a mental disorder can include talking too much, having too much energy, being easily distracted, playing loudly, not wanting to do their schoolwork, not obeying commands from adults, fidgeting, running and climbing. That's not one blogger's political commentary– those examples are all explicit diagnostic criteria in the DSM, the aptly nicknamed "Bible of psychiatry". Take away all those characteristics, and what are you left with? The end-goal psychiatrists have sold, and parents bought, is an emotionless drone that completes assigned tasks as commanded. A drone that doesn't play, think, explore, speak unless spoken to, express individuality, or ever disobey an adult. What you are left with hardly seems human, much less childlike.

Yet this is exactly what you are asking for when you lament your child being too loud, too talkative, too fidgety, too… human. Too "out of control"– whose control? Certainly not their own, or we would have that supposed disaster scenario where children do what they want. Surprise: raising a human being is not as simple as a pet rock. Independent thought and action don't prevent anyone from thriving, they're just too much of a burden on the parent. That's why they need to be eliminated. You figured out that punching your child is a bad way to do this, but you still haven't figured out how to teach through conversation, so now you are trying to control your child by deciding what goes into their body.

3. The problem of "ADHD"

I put "ADHD" in quotes only to point out that it is one of the most ill-conceived titles in the DSM (second perhaps to Borderline Personality Disorder). Someone must have really hated these people to put both "deficit" and "disorder" baked into the name, and still be so unsatisfied to then add a ridiculous contradiction that spells out "Attention Not-enough Too-much Disorder."

I don't, however, make the mistake of going on to say that there's no such thing as having a kinetic cognitive style. Yes, "ADHD" is over-diagnosed to sell drugs, but implicit in the term "over-diagnosed" is an admission that some non-zero number of people being labeled would be the correct number. Psychiatrists are terrible at describing things accurately and unbiasedly, but just because some number of people are bad at their job, or corrupted by bribes, doesn't mean their focus of study is made-up wholesale. "Schizophrenia" isn't a mental illness, but some people really do hear voices that aren't from other people. "Bipolar Disorder" isn't a disorder, but bipolar people are real. In the same way, kinetic people really do respond to drugs differently from neurotypicals, whether or not a million non-kinetic children are also incorrectly labeled as having ADHD.

It makes sense to identify as anti-psychiatry, if you believe that the whole system ought to be burned down and built anew, but that doesn't mean the concept of medication is fundamentally wrongheaded. People who want to alter their own mental state by ingesting a substance should be able to buy that product with informed consent, which we can because it's called food. People who want to use drugs for that purpose and give informed consent should be able to buy drugs as well. That includes children. Minors can't consent in the legal sense, but in practice with a truly caring parent, a little information and some yes-or-no questions go a long way. If you really can't reason with your child, either you the parent have a problem, or your child is too young to be in school.

Kinetic adults who choose to take drugs for focus used to be kinetic children who wanted them. The problem with psychiatry is the corruption and incompetence among the people recommending which drugs to take, not the chemical content of the drugs themselves. Some chemicals actually are beneficial for some category of people. If you can't make your own neurotransmitters, store-bought is fine. The goal of forced dieting is still to alter the brain; why not be open to whichever method is most effective?

4. Unhealthy relationships and eating disability

So what if people like fad diets? The real problem is treating made-up mental disorders, so why single out one particular strategy? Why such a fervent reaction to food? It's not like parents can harm their children just by changing what they eat. Except that they can. In fact, if you claim food is so powerful that a good diet can cure Mad/Neurodivergent people of our already non-diseased brains, you've just admitted that a bad diet can cause a comparable amount of damage.

The phenomena we hastily truncate as "eating disorders" have an underlying truth, and that is an unhealthy relationship with food. This simple language correction helps us recognize the lack of evidence to justify calling these patterns disorders. Relationships aren't spontaneously manifested chemical imbalances. Relationships are born from experience.

Some sociologists put paradigm before language and talk about "eating disorder culture"– that is, the combination of trends in media messaging, peer attitudes, and parenting styles, which create and reinforce the emergent patterns we're still calling eating disorders. The media teaches us that we're supposed to want skinniness no matter the cost; our friends guilt us for eating the wrong things; and parents punish their children with shame (refusing to eat this means you're bad), Sophie's choices (you either eat this or I take away your privileges), sometimes physical abuse or even starvation, to correct for a natural, youthful disinterest in raw vegetables. The vegetable craze is so pervasive it can't even be considered a fad any more, but it perfectly illustrates the logical fallacy: Inflicting emotional and psychological trauma on a person, in an attempt to make that person healthy. It's the same logical fallacy used to justify confinement, electroshock, coercive behavior therapies, and forced drugging.

Growing up with excessive rules and restrictions around eating, enforced through manipulation and coercion, can lead to an unhealthy, restrictive relationship with food later in life (and with other things: teach a child they're not allowed to refuse broccoli and see what skill that future teen or adult has at refusing alcohol). It's not hard to trace causation from loss of autonomy to attempts at abstinence. From obsessive parental criticism of portions to binging and purging. From panics about "childhood obesity" to an anxiety around every meal as either a reward or shameful self-harm.

Considering that disabilities exist, you don't even need the manipulation or coercion. The food restriction itself can be a form of abuse. If your child has such intense taste sensitivities that they can only bear to eat five (5) different things, taking those away isn't going to expand their horizons. You can't increase variety using restrictions. That's another logical contradiction. All you're going to accomplish is to create an actual health condition, called starving. If your child has an allergy (or similar biological sensitivity) then of course you put safety first and restrict that particular allergen. That's the unfortunate fate of people with actual biological restrictions, not something you want to artificially imitate.

The dangers of food restriction don't stop with the individual either. In a world where not every host of a play date, party or co-op is enlightened about accommodating disabilities, there are social implications. Children below a certain age don't know to avoid their own allergens, so their parents have to watch over them and pull out of any event serving those allergens. Parents who play pretend as if their children have allergies are just as committed. Both groups wind up with a restricted social life, which can lead to other real problems like anxiety, depression, and self-perpetuating social isolation. Someone can't attend a social function because they are restricted from engaging in the planned activities– that sounds like an access barrier. If this kid wasn't disabled before, they are now!

Fad diets are not an alternative to psychiatric drugging. They are more of the same. Just like drugs, they don't "cure" any imaginary mental illnesses, and if they did, that would make them worse than drugs. They prevent people who would actually want drugs from getting them. They don't teach any life skills and may even take some away. They hinder social lives and disable the people they're imposed on. They create trauma, with lifelong ramifications.

My list of neurodivergences doesn't include kinetic cognitive style. As a child, I would have reacted to a prescribed amphetamine the way most people do. Yet I still would rather my parents have drugged me, than force me on a fad diet.

Image description: Open tin with pellets inside, unclear whether they are candy or drugs

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