Autism & Diet: Hopeful Possibilities For Improving Autism With Diet

Friday, December 15, 2006 - 9:35am

By Marissa Lippert, RD

A pervasive neurological disorder, autism currently affects more than a million Americans—nearly 1 in every 1,000 births. Autism is generally diagnosed during infancy or early childhood and affects speech development and social interaction. A number of treatment methods are used to alleviate symptoms including medication and speech and behavior therapy. Lately, an increased awareness of the benefits of diet therapy has encouraged many physicians and families to consider nutrition and food in the course of effective autism treatment.

The allergy-autism connection

A number of medical research studies reveal the possible association of certain food allergens such as wheat and casein with increased levels of immunological antibodies in autistic children. Some research suggests that components of foods called “opioids” act as toxins in many autistics and disrupt their central nervous system functioning. High levels of wheat and casein antigens (i.e. substances that stimulate an immune response) markedly affect neurological functioning and behavior. Such allergenic foods may also promote digestive problems in children including diarrhea, constipation and vomiting. Diet therapy to ameliorate autistic symptoms generally involves eliminating gluten (a protein in wheat products) and casein.

Dietary choices: eliminating gluten and casein

Often called the GFCF diet, a gluten-free/casein-free diet can be achieved slowly and steadily through basic changes in one’s diet and pantry. Before expecting results, most experts advise maintaining the diet for at least 6 months. This is how long it will take for the body to completely remove traces of gluten. Casein, on the other hand, leaves the body more quickly.

Wondering where to start and what specific foods contain gluten and casein? Here are some tips for eliminating them from your child’s diet:

Casein-free products

Casein and milk-based products are frequently the first to go. Foods in this category include milk, butter, whey, cheese, yogurt, ice cream and other dairy products. Also be aware that casein may be found in non-dairy foods such as soy cheese and hot dogs. Read nutrition and ingredient labels and keep an eye out for "casein" or "caseinate." As a healthful alternative, try rice-based milks and cheeses or almond milk—most of these products are enriched with calcium and vitamin D. Providing your child with an additional calcium supplement is also beneficial for growth and development. For some children, soy products may not prove to be a good option as soy can also have allergenic properties and bears a similar structure to casein.

Gluten-free foods and liquids

Moving on to gluten, you’ll want to exclude products containing wheat, rye, barley, spelt and some oats (some oat brands are gluten-free). Gluten is also found in a variety of hidden sources including processed foods, soy sauce, artificial colors, malt and malt vinegars, couscous, canned soups, and hydrolyzed vegetable protein to name a few. As with casein, take precautions and look for the word ‘gluten’ in ingredient lists to identify red flag wording.

How many gluten-free or casein-free products are there?

If you’re concerned that your pantry and fridge will be completely bare after removing gluten and casein, have no fear; there are an increasing number of gluten-free and casein-free products to choose from. Moreover, there are numerous websites and online support groups loaded with useful information. Becoming accustomed to the diet and lifestyle changes (e.g. grocery shopping, cooking, baking) may prove to be the most difficult challenges. Follow your instincts and stick to fresh, whole foods—fruits and vegetables; lean proteins such as eggs, poultry, fish and red meat; starches like potatoes and corn; and whole grains such as quinoa, millet, amaranth and rice. For breads and baking, you’ll find many gluten-free flours including potato, chickpea, arrowroot, rice, almond, tapioca and corn. A number of food companies have introduced gluten-free pancake and cake mixes, pre-made gluten-free breads, cereals, snacks and much more.

Autism resources

These organizations and websites provide additional information and resources on autism and dietary treatment: