Disability Diets?: A New Twist on “You are What you Eat”

Hello, readers,

Having spent a bunch of time trying to juggle several responsibilities, including getting a fiction project ready for a contest, I haven’t been here in awhile. Rest assured, however, that I’ve been brainstorming post topics for the time that I would return. And so, here we go with our newest post. This one concerns a phenomenon that I would like to call the “disability diet.” It is a form of “special,” which as we know is in turn a form of segregation. And in many cases, it may not be necessary. In fact, I believe that if the medical community started treating food in a different way, especially when it comes to people with disabilities, their lives–and by extension, everyone’s lives–could be improved.

Now, before we go any further, you need to understand what I am NOT saying. I am not saying there is never any reason for a person with a disability or disorder to be on a particular diet. There are a myriad of disorders such as Prader-Willi Syndrome, immune and autoimmune issues, and the effects of some physical disabilities, that make a particular diet completely necessary to sustain life. For example, if a child or adult has a physical disability that does not allow him or her to chew and swallow, then yes, a particular diet based around liquids is completely normal for that person and not at all a mark of segregation. So too goes the reduced-calorie diet of the individual with Prader-Willi, or the increased-calorie diet of someone whose system doesn’t digest food well. These diets are not “special” in the negative sense because without them, these people could not live to their full potential, or even live at all.

What I am talking about here is a situation in which people without disabilities make generalized statements, and therefore sweeping recommendations, that say all people with X disability need, or can benefit from, specific diet types. For example, let’s look at the recent three-part series of news articles appearing on foxnews.com and other news websites on diets for “special needs.” The special needs targeted are autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Down’s syndrome, and cerebral palsy (hereafter abbreviated as DS and CP).

The articles’ author, Jacqueline Banks, is, as she describes, a “certified health counselor and a mother.” Therefore, she is qualified to talk about kids’ health. And she does raise some true points about all of these disabilities, such as the fact that children with autism are more likely to have food sensitivities related to gluten or soy, that kids with DS are more likely to be overweight because their bodies don’t burn calories as quickly, and that kids with CP may have problems chewing and swallowing, and therefore not get the nutrients they need. I am not disputing this woman’s qualifications or that she has presented us with true facts. However, some of the statements in her articles seem to have a bent toward a “once = always” mentality. For example, she writes that children with cerebral palsy MAY have difficulty chewing and swallowing, which does not infer that all children will. However, later on in the article, she writes, “Consider adding calorie-rich smootheis to the daily diet,” right after explaining chewing and swallowing problems. Banks doesn’t specify that the smoothies will help children who can’t swallow; she seems to make an across-the-board recommendation. She also writes, “Because constipation and acid reflux are due to poor muscle tone…avoiding foods that can add to constipation and acid reflux is the best option because these symptoms will likely not be completely eliminated.”

Wait. Excuse me? It sounds, Ms. Banks, as if you’re inferring quite a few things with that statement. (1) All children with CP are prone to constipation and acid reflux (2) They should be put on a “special diet” because their low muscle tone is to blame (whereas, in a person without a disability, no “special diet” is recommended; they are often just told to put more fiber and healthier foods into what they already eat) and (3) Once constipated, always constipated, if you have CP. That’s assuming a lot, and I think the assumptions are faulty.

Let’s move on to the articles on DS and ASD. Again, in both articles, statements with the feel of generalization are made (such as, “Periodontal disease becomes prevalent in adulthood” for people with DS. Sounds like you’re implying all people with DS have, or will have, bad teeth). Or, “there is a clear connection between the brain and the gut” in the article concerning ASD. Yes, this is true, but Banks’ article seems to promote the idea that making sure a child on the ASD spectrum’s physical diet is okay will always reduce other, non-physical symptoms. Again, the once = always mentality, combined with the idea that diet is the most important thing to consider when dealing with disabilities.

Now, yes–we should not allow children with disabilities to live on junk foods, sodas, fatty meats, and processed food. But–and here’s the key, folks. Here’s why I chose to write this post. Neither should we allow ANY child to have such a diet. Get the picture? High-fat, high-cholesterol, junky foods are not good for anybody. And yes, they may well help reduce the severity of symptoms in people with these disabilities. But the problem comes from the fact that Banks, and other nutritionists, doctors, and other “experts” say that these foods should be “eliminated,” not reduced. The problem comes from the fact that these experts are singling out children and adults with disabilities for restricted, “special” diets, whereas people without disabilities are not often placed on “special” diets. At most, they may get a strong recommendation to eat healthier. It’s as if we’re saying, “Okay, if you don’t have a disability, you can be in control of your own food. But if you do? Then you’re not smart or responsible enough to know what you need, so you eat what others tell you to.”

I also noticed something funny about these articles. Every one of them (three total) had a lot of the same recommendations: eating leafy greens, eliminating junk food, using high-calorie fruits like bananas or mangoes, hiding nutrients in other foods, or using organic foods when possible. Wait a second–I thought these things were good for EVERYBODY. Isn’t that what we’ve been telling people to do in order to combat the obesity epidemic for the past, what, twenty years? Yet again, people with disabilities are singled out as needing these things “more,” and needing to be restricted and watched more closely.

“But Chick,” you might say, “that’s because their bodies do have special needs–their systems don’t work like ours do.” And yes, perhaps that means they cannot or should not eat the same amounts of certain foods, mixtures of certain foods, or types of ingredients (such as yeast) that a person without a disability would. But that does not mean we should approach these people with an attitude that says, your disability defines everything about you, even something as basic as what, when, and how much you eat. I mean, think back to when you were a little kid. Your mom, dad, or guardian might have said, “Trinity especially likes spaghetti,” or said to your preschool teacher, “Fiona needs to try broccoli today; we’re working with her on vegetables.” But it wasn’t because your body had “special needs” for those foods. It was because your body had the natural need for those nutrients, and because your taste buds were learning what to accept or reject. When did that become atypical for people with disabilities? Why is everything, even down to what goes in their mouths, about “special needs?” What’s so special about needing nutrients, and getting them in a way your body–and yes, your taste buds–will accept?

And yet, what happens when food really is the key to helping someone with a disability live his or her best life? For example, I recently read an article about a young boy who was diagnosed with autism. But through experimentation and observation, his parents discovered “autism” was really something called “cerebral allergy to milk” (more on this in a future post). The parents reported this to their doctors, and were repeatedly basically told they were in denial and needed to accept the autism diagnosis. Do you see what happened here? The medical community would not listen to the parents, who knew their child best, because many of them probably never heard of cerebral allergies to milk. If it’s autism, it’s autism, they said. There is no other answer, and the answer certainly can’t be found in what your kid eats. But when it comes to promoting restricted “disability diets” that are actually good for everyone, not just a select few that the medical community chooses to try to “fix?” Well, they’re in there with both feet!

I don’t know about you, but that smells–and tastes–a little fishy. And normally, I enjoy fish, but that’s not a compliment.

We used to say, “You are what you eat.” And in some ways, that may be true. But rarely, if ever, does food wholly define a person. So let’s stop putting people with disabilities under a construct that says because of a natural, acceptable disability, one more thing about their lives must be tightly controlled.



  1. dating disabled men · December 24, 2012

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    • independencechick · December 24, 2012

      A massive amount of work? No. You simply write entries and click “publish.” But in order to be well-established, you do have to make the effort to write often. I would recommend at least twice per month (although you may do more since your schedule may be different from mine).
      An over-arching theme (like disability for this blog) may also help. You can also do what I did and come up with themes or puns for post titles, but that’s not necessary. The title of the blog could also be a theme, like “A Day in the Life of Aurora,” so you wouldn’t feel like you always had to stick to the same topic.
      Good luck! 🙂

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