Autism rates are skyrocketing, with an increase of 42% between 2012 and 2015. Children with autism can have difficulty with social interaction, concentration and learning. It’s also common for them to have other issues, including intolerances and gut symptoms. But an appropriate diet for autism can help reduce many of these.
Like many conditions, autism has many factors involved – putting a child on a tailored diet for autism will not cure it. But there are a few key areas that can benefit from a holistic approach to diet and nutrition.
Watch the video below or keep reading to learn more about nutrition and diet approaches for managing autism symptoms.
Nutrition & Diet For Autism – The Holistic Approach
There is no one specific diet for autism that will fit every child. It’s common for kids to have autism alongside other health issues such as allergies and intolerances. But there are two main steps that I take when working with a child with autism.
Stage 1: Increasing Nutrient Status
The first step is always focusing on increasing their nutrition. This is not always easy, as a common symptom is picky and fussy eating. May kids with autism will prefer bland, starchy foods that are highly processed and lacking in nutrients.
When increasing nutrition in the diet, you need to consider the macronutrients and micronutrients.
Macronutrients are your proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Many kids with autism will prefer a carb-heavy refined diet. Rather than eliminating everything, I prefer looking at what we can add in to build their health up.
By increasing quality protein and healthy fats, kids will stay fuller for longer. They will have steadier blood sugar levels, which can improve mood and behaviour. It will also help to crowd out the more processed foods.
Good protein sources include eggs, fish, nuts, legumes, chicken and high-quality meat. A good rule of thumb is to give them a serve the size of their palm at every meal.
Good sources of fat include olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds, eggs and coconut oil. Fish and seafood can also contain good fats, but can be tricky to add in with fussier kids.
Finally, with carbohydrates, you want to switch to wholegrain and gluten-free grain options. Quinoa and rice have the bland, starchy flavour that kids with autism often prefer. Buckwheat can be a good alternative for sweet treats like pancakes.
There are many vitamins and minerals that play a role in autism. But there are a few that I consider a priority in the majority of cases:
A deficiency in omega-3s has been associated with autism. Research even shows that an enzyme deficiency occurs in autism, causing the removal of essential fatty acids from membranes. This means that kids with autism can churn through omega-3s quickly, needing more to make up for it.
Omega-3s can be increased through the diet. Fish and shellfish are two of the best sources. But many children with autism dislike these, so often a supplement is needed.
For both diet and supplements, fish-based sources are best, as they are in a form that the body can use straight away. Plant-based sources need to be converted into EPA and DHA before the body can use it. Unfortunately, conversion rates can be as low as 0.5-5%.
This mineral is essential for brain development and supports detox pathways. In autism, the detox pathways are often limited, working less efficiently than typical people. Zinc also plays an important role in maintaining gut health. Research has shown that supplementing with zinc can reverse brain changes that occur in autism.
This sunshine vitamin can reduce inflammation in the central nervous system. It supports the activity of brain chemicals, and also supports diversity in the gut flora. This combination makes it a must for many of the kids I work with. To support their levels, start with encouraging them to spend more time outdoors. This can include family days out, camping and fun outdoor activities.
Supplementing vitamin D is often necessary, but you can go overboard. It’s important to get levels tested before starting on high dosages.
Activated Folate & B12
Activated folate and B12 – the methyl forms – are essential for methylation. This is a complex process that regulates things such as genes, nervous system development, detox pathways and immunity. Impaired methylation is common in autism, which makes an active form of these nutrients an important supplement to include.
If you’re interested in supplementing with any of these nutrients, your best bet is to work with a qualified practitioner. They can ensure that your child gets a high-quality supplement at the dose that is right for them.
Supporting gut health
Like any health concern, gut health is an important consideration in autism. The gut flora can be thrown out of balance by the typical low-fibre, high carbohydrate diet that many kids with autism prefer. To read more about how gut health affects conditions like autism and ADHD, click here.
Stage 2: A GFCF Diet
If there is one elimination diet for autism to consider, it’s GFCF – or gluten-free, casein-free diet. This diet involves eliminating all sources of gluten and dairy. Gluten is found in many grains and grain products including wheat, rye and barley. Casein is the protein found in all dairy products – including lactose-free, goat milk and A2 varieties.
Why these two proteins?
Some people, particularly those with autism, have problems breaking down these proteins. Instead of being fully digested, they are absorbed into the body and cross over into the brain. Here, they will bind to opioid receptors and affect a person’s behaviour, mood and even pain tolerance. They can have a drug-like effect and become quite addictive. This is why many kids with autism struggle to give up gluten and dairy products to begin with.
But removing both can have life-changing effects for many kids with autism. It is a real challenge, and it can take 6 months to see the full benefits. So it is not a short-term diet for autism – you need to be in for the long haul. That’s why I always recommend working with a practitioner to support you through the process, offer options to switch in and balance the diet.
Sometimes, you need to do it step by step. For example, you might remove milk, waiting a few months, then remove wheat. It can help to get the whole family involved with the process. Sometimes, kids will feel the benefits from removing one food, and then be on board with more changes. But you do want to take a strict approach, even for social occasions or visiting family members.
A balanced diet for autism is one step to take, but it’s not the only one. To figure out which area of your child’s health needs the most attention, take the Natural Super Kids Quiz here.