The road to autism recovery begins with diet. That is, making calculated omissions and additions to food choices is the first step to improving children’s health and well being. Certain food substances (most notably gluten and casein) are known to be problematic, and should be avoided – and other foods rich in healing nutrients are beneficial when added to children’s diets. Attention to these factors is intended to balance biochemistry, affect systemic healing, and provide relief of autism symptoms. In simple terms, these are the underlying tenets of diets for autism.
There are many “autism diets” to choose from and deciding how to begin nutritional intervention can seem overwhelming. Ten years ago, it was a simpler choice-do diet! And, “do diet” meant do the Gluten-free Casein-free Diet (GFCF). Eliminating gluten (the protein in wheat) and casein (the protein in dairy) was the primary focus of diet for autism for many years, and provides many positive benefits. Since then, significant advances in biomedical nutrition research and mom-centric anecdotal data have resulted in broader dietary strategies for autism.
Now, one has to decide which diet to do. This can inhibit even the most recovery focused parent from getting started. Parents hear “You need to do this diet,” or “my son improved on that diet.” Because each diet has its group of supporters, parents whose children did well with a particular diet aptly tout it. How can there be so many varied opinions? It’s because every person is different-each has unique biochemistry, genes, environment assaults, and eating preferences. A diet that helps one child, may not be the best for the other.
My clients are relieved to learn that I do not spout the dogma of any one diet. As a Nutrition Consultant, I practice nutrition intervention focused on improved systemic health and relief of physiological and neurological symptoms. Autism diets are food-based strategies employed toward this objective. I help parents choose the best initial diet for their child and then work to customize that diet to further to meet their specific needs.
In my book, Nourishing Hope for Autism, I discuss thirteen different diets that are recommended for autism. While each diet has merit, some include advanced components that are best supported by an experienced practitioner and not necessarily required to get started. In this article, I will explain the top three diets for autism – they include the most immediately helpful dietary principles and practices and there is much literature and community support to help aid successful implementation. In addition to these diets, I’ll discuss the most common food allergies and substances, as addressing these comes hand in hand with diet.
The most popular autism diets are:
o Gluten-free and casein-free diet (GFCF)
o Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD
o Body Ecology Diet (BED)
Gluten-Free Casein-free Diet (GFCF)
Does your child crave milk?
Does your child only eat wheat and dairy foods?
Does your child seem spacey after consuming gluten or casein, and agitated before?
Are you just beginning to look at diet for the first time?
When parents decide to “do diet,” they typically begin with GFCF. There are many good books about it, and the food marketplace is increasingly GFCF friendly. This diet entails the removal of all gluten and/or casein containing foods. Gluten is the protein found in wheat, rye, barley, spelt, kamut, and commercial oats, and casein, the protein found in dairy.
When ingested by children with a compromised digestive tract and weakened immune system, these proteins can cause gut inflammation, pain, and digestive problems. If the protein is not properly broken down during digestion, it can form opioids (opiate or morphine-like compounds). The properties of gluten and casein can lead to digestive problems such as diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, as well as foggy thinking and inattentiveness for many children with autism.
According to parents (Autism Research Institute survey), a gluten- and casein-free diet is helpful for 65% of children with ASD, even though a food sensitivity panel may or may not have shown a reaction to these foods. Therefore, I typically recommend a gluten- and casein-free trial period-often beginning the diet by removing first one, then the other.
Most of the foods containing these offending proteins are easy to identify. While following the GFCF Diet, you’ll need to avoid any breads, crackers, pasta, or bakery items made with wheat and other gluten grains, and all dairy foods such as milk, cheese, butter, yogurt, and cream. Some sources are not that apparent:
o Soy sauce (except gluten-free soy sauce)
o Potato chips and fries (often dusted with gluten during processing and not listed on label, ensure they are gluten-free by checking with the company in the ingredient list)
o Malt (derived from barley)
When beginning the GFCF diet, be careful not to introduce a bunch of GFCF junk foods such as cookies, candy, and chips. Even though they don’t include gluten or casein, the sugar can feed yeast, imbalance blood sugar, and disregulate energy. Remember, diet is more than just the removal of offending foods – attention must be placed on ensuring healthy and nutritious food intake.
GFCF is a great diet to follow when beginning nutritional intervention for autism.
The Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD)
Does your child have chronic diarrhea?
Does your child have an inflamed gut, maybe even been on steroids?
Have you tried GFCF to no avail?
Does your child have trouble digesting grains?
Does your child have dysbiosis (pathogenic yeast or bacteria)?
The SCD diet involves the removal of all complex sugars: everything except honey and fruit sugar, including the removal of maple syrup, cane sugar, agave nectar, brown rice syrup and more. SCD also removes all starches and all grains, including potatoes and sweet potatoes. This diet allows: meat, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds, certain beans, all non-starchy vegetables, and fruit. This is not a low carbohydrate diet but a specific carbohydrate diet that focuses on non-starchy vegetables, fruit, honey, and certain beans for carbohydrates and avoids other sugars and starches.
SCD is the second most commonly applied autism diet, and 66% of parents say it is beneficial for their child (ARI ratings). It is very helpful for those who have inflammatory bowel conditions and chronic diarrhea, although it can help constipation too.
The Specific Carbohydrate Diet aims to reduce gut inflammation and aid healing by “starving out” the bad gut bugs and avoiding foods that require carbohydrate digesting enzyme that are often in short supply. By eliminating problematic foods, the bugs can’t feed. Because it is more restrictive than GFCF, parents don’t usually begin dietary intervention with SCD. However, if there is a significant inflammatory gut condition, some will go straight to SCD.
SCD is often applied when doing GFCF is not enough and digestive problems still remain, or if someone needs to further evolve the diet to see any additional benefits. A variation of SCD is the GAPS (Gut And Psychology Syndrome) diet, created by Natasha Campbell-McBride, M.D. It includes the essentials of SCD, plus the addition of wonderful principles such as fermented foods and homemade broths.
While SCD diet is not inherently casein-free, I recommend that SCD be done casein-free until someone is certain that casein is not a problem.
The Body Ecology Diet (BED)
Does you child have persistent candida?
Does your child have harmful bacteria in the gut?
Does your child have bad smelling stool or gas?
Does your child sometimes act drunk, spacey or have maniacal laughter?
Does your child seem itchy or yeasty in any “moist” areas of the body like elbows, knees, or crotch?
The Body Ecology Diet is an anti-candida diet focused on clearing up yeast and dysbiosis (imbalance of bad bugs in the gut). BED is often called BEDROK (Body Ecology Diet Recovering Our Kids) in the autism community. BED incorporates the principles of proper food combining, acid/alkaline balance with low acid-forming foods, low/no sugars and limited starches, easily digestible foods, fermented foods, and other solid nutrition recommendations to clear up candida overgrowth and support health beginning in the gut.
BED allows only a few grains such as quinoa, millet buckwheat, and amaranth (when properly soaked)-restricting more starches and grains than GFCF. In addition to being gluten-free, BED is rice-free, corn-free, and soy-free. Foods such as rice bread, gluten-free pretzels, and rice pasta are not allowed on this diet. BED allows casein, but can be done casein-free. I always recommend going casein-free (on any healing diet) until you are certain that dairy is not an issue.
If you child has candida, BED may be for you. Though it requires that the child eat vegetables as the food combining aspect allows meat with vegetables and starches with vegetables but not meat and starch together. BED may be challenging if a child is picky and does not have a varied diet.
Like SCD, this diet is beneficial for helping reduce dysbiosis and restoring good flora balance in the gut. However, these two diets conflict with each other as they rely on very different underlying principles. SCD removes certain sugars and all starches, while BED removes all sugars and certain starches. Even if someone chooses a different diet, many of the Body Ecology principles can be also be applied, such as the inclusion of fermented foods, soaking grains, and consuming more non-starchy vegetables full of minerals and alkalizing to the body.
Now that we have discussed three effective autism diets and problematic food substances, where does someone start? Typically I recommend GFCF or SCD. Sometimes, based on the diet of the individual, I may suggest BED instead-for example if a child has significant yeast over growth and is currently on GFCF (which may filled with too many sugars and starches), but the child will eat vegetables, I may suggest BED. Additionally, I may suggest just adding fermented foods, soaked grains and nuts, and more vegetables-several BED principles, but not the full Body Ecology Diet.
The most important dietary principle is to start. It sounds simple, but start somewhere – even with the most simple thing – such as getting rid of all artificial ingredients – and then progress.
You Can Do Diet.
I know what you are thinking, “My child is picky and very inflexible with eating new foods. I’m never going to be able to get him to eat anything other than wheat and dairy, and never mind anything “healthy.”
I appreciate this concern. I have had some very picky eaters in my nutrition practice-many children ate only bread and dairy, others subsisted on just pancakes and fries. However, there are solid reasons why these children are so one-sided in their food choices, primarily craving. When the body creates opiates from foods, one can become addicted to them and thus crave nothing but those foods. Children eventually narrow their food choices to include only those that make them “feel better.” It’s worth trying diet because once the child gets passed the cravings (a few days to a few weeks), they often expands food choices dramatically and it becomes much easier to do.
I know that any child’s diet can change. It may take time and require great patience, but you can succeed. I’ve never seen a child’s diet that did not improve eventually-increasingly so as the body heals. It’s crucial that parents believe that it’s possible for their child to change and improve. By envisioning the changes, you project a positive image that is important for your child and the success of your overall efforts.