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How Does Diet Affect Autism?

In a world where so many people are constantly looking for answers and solutions to medical conditions it is amazing how quickly the simplest contributing factors are dismissed like the very things we expose our bodies to internally and externally. So many people question how food or other chemicals we eat, drink or breathe have any impact on a condition as complex as autism? What would seem to be considered common sense continues to perplex and baffle professionals at least to the point that they will quickly dismiss any relationship to food items and the behavioral and physical manifestations that are associated with autism when parents request information related to this topic. Medical models have been established showing a direct relationship to nutritional intake and its effect on weight, behavior, ability to focus and concentration as well as impacting the immune system. When assessing the medical and nutritional needs of an individual with autism it is critical to look beyond the diagnosis and to the physical and behavioral manifestations they present with. I personally have seen how dietary modifications and the supplementation of various nutrients can positively impact the overall functioning and quality of life for individuals on the autism spectrum.

You Are What You Eat

Many individuals have precarious and selective eating habits. While toddlers are known to be picky eaters having favorite foods, it is not common for children to decrease the selection of foods they will eat to 5 items. Children and individuals with autism are known for having very limited food preferences. I would like to think that any parent or professional would be able to recognize what foods would be considered healthy and nutritious but when chicken nuggets, cheese pizza, milk, chips and bacon are the only foods eaten it leaves much to be desired. The first and foremost reason for dietary intervention for children with autism is to provide a balanced diet that will include the proper amounts and kinds of protein, fats and carbohydrates that the body needs in order to function. The inability to focus, extreme changes in mood and level of physical activity and inconsistent sleep patterns have been shown to be affected by foods eaten or lack of food in conditions like hypoglycemia and diabetes just to name a few. There are many reasons that dietary intervention and nutritional support should be considered for individuals with autism. Why would we apply any less emphasis on the foods this subset of children should eat than the suggestions we give for typical children.

Too Many Symptoms to Ignore

Constipation, diarrhea, malodorous stools, foul breath, weight gain or the inability to gain weight are just a few characteristics that can be associated with autism. Wouldn’t you be a little irritated if you went in to see your physician for symptoms of constipation and instead of reviewing what foods you were eating and your level of physical activity he said “that is typical for woman who are middle aged, and going through menopause”. This scenario is exactly what happens when many parents look to their medical professionals for guidance in dealing with their children who have autism. The list of symptoms above is real and viable reasons for parents and professionals to consider dietary intervention. The most commonly referred to diet relating to autism is a gluten and casein free diet. In the beginning years it was thought to be strictly anecdotal or merely wishful thinking on the part of the parent. There is no one size fits all but, many parents and professionals have found that when considering dietary intervention a gluten and casein free diet provides a reasonable place to start.? Medical professionals at prestigious universities and hospitals across the country have documented digestive abnormalities in the population of individuals with autism. These findings include an increase in inflammatory markers in the intestinal biopsies, a decrease or absences of digestive enzymes that are needed to break down foods eaten in order to provide nutrients for an array of biochemical processes in the body as well as providing the calories needs for energy production. The University of Maryland, Massachusetts General Children’s Hospital and Harvard are just a few entities who have produced supportive and relevant findings regarding digestive abnormalities and autism.

 Variability’s in Behaviors and Physical Manifestations

Any parent will tell you that autism is anything but static. Many children with autism continuously experience peaks and valleys in areas of behavior, sleep patterns, ability to acquire and retain information they learned through specialized teaching and therapies. These inconsistencies have prompted many researchers to look for factors that are variable in the children’s daily lives. These factors include foods eaten and chemicals the child has come in contact with. Dr. Martha Herbert is one of the leading neurologists who are now looking at autism from the whole-body perspective. For years the medical model of autism has been based on the brain being the primary point on research and was looked to as being up stream in causation for the characteristics and symptoms of autism. Innovative research by Dr. Herbert and other medical researchers are now looking at the role that the immune system and environmental genomics play in effecting the brain in a down stream model. Immune dysfunction and regulation as well as mitochondrial disorders have been found to be positively supported with a variety of nutritional supplements. This provides additional reasoning that dietary intake of specific foods and nutritional supplements can impact medical conditions that have physical and behavioral characteristics.

Additional research is needed to better understand the mechanism of action that diet and nutrition plays in individuals with autism spectrum disorders .What is known is that there does appear to be a subset of individuals who clearly respond to dietary and nutritional modifications. If something as noninvasive as changing the sources of proteins, fats and carbohydrates can positively impact the quality of life and functioning of an individual with autism and their family it is absolutely worth considering. There is a wealth of information relating to autism, diet, nutritional supplementation that can be found in research articles as well as by the universities who continue to research autism spectrum disorders. Below are just a few journal articles and power points that further explain findings related to autism and the gastrointestinal tract.


Herbert MR. Autism: A Brain disorder or a disorder that affects the brain? Clinical Neuropsychiatry 2005; 2(6):354-79

GI Issues in Autism 2007
Separating the Gluten from the Chaff

Timothy Buie MD   Harvard Medical School

Collaborative Conference on Autism Spectrum Disorders
Cincinnati OH   October19, 2007

University of Maryland Medical Center Doctors Find First Clear Link Between Autism and Gastrointestinal Disorder
Karoly Horvath, M.D., Ph.D


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