What are common nutritional challenges for kids with Autism?


Food intolerance and lack of nutrition do not cause Autism. Therefore, changing the food your child eats will not cure it either. What it does is eliminate the physical responses your child experiences when eating certain foods. Inflammation is a major cause of chronic diarrhea, cramps, and other stomach-related issues. 

According to the Autism Network, nearly one in five children with autism are on a special diet. There is no specific ASD diet, but removing certain proteins may relieve symptoms. The gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF) diet has the most research and is one of the most common dietary interventions. 

Why Changing Diet Helps Kids with GI issues 

You may have heard of the Gluten-Free, Casein-Free or GFCF Diet. It is prescribed to help people suffering from celiac disease, a disease caused by the small intestines’ sensitivity to gluten which results in gas, bloating, and diarrhea. Over time this inflammation can damage the small intestines, making it difficult to absorb the nutrients from food. 

Gluten comes from wheat products such as bread, pasta, crackers, and flour made from wheat, barley, rye, and oats. Oats are typically gluten-free but may have been processed in the same factory as wheat products. Besides causing inflammation in the body, it also causes inflammation in the brain leading to decreased brain function. 

Casein is a protein found in dairy products which also affects individuals that are sensitive to it. Whole milk and low-fat milk products contain casein such as yogurt, cheese, kefir, and ice cream. Sensitivity to casein may result in brain fog, inability to focus, and loose bowels. 

How Food Affects Children with Autism 

Children with Autism may not know or be able to express how they feel and this can result in irritability, meltdowns, increased anxiety, and food refusal. A child who is experiencing intestinal distress may not understand why his stomach is hurting or have the words to tell you, but the physical result of this is an increase in behavioral issues. 

What Foods to Eat 

If you choose to try the GFCF diet you can eliminate certain foods little by little and see how your child reacts to it. If you remove the source of inflammation and increase the nutrition value in what they eat you may see a reduction in negative behaviors. Also, a healthy eating plan limits their consumption of sugar, corn, and artificial colors. Sugar and products made with corn have little nutritional value and artificial colors are unnecessary. 

Here is a list of healthy foods your children can eat that will not cause inflammation: 

  • Lean protein - chicken, fish, eggs (check for sensitivity)
  • Vegetables, fruits, nuts & seeds (check for sensitivity, allergies)
  • Rice, rice flour noodles, potatoes
  • Non-Dairy sources of milk, yogurt, and ice cream

Why Kids Refuse Food (Picky Eaters) 

If you have a picky eater who frequently refuses food it may be due to issues with the textures of certain foods. Foods that are mushy, gooey, or runny kids tend to avoid. Foods that have skin like apples or potatoes, crunchy foods like carrots, and runny foods like mashed potatoes or egg yolks that run into other foods may also be a deterrent. 

Changing the way you prepare and serve meals may help to eliminate some of the battles at mealtime.

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