Written by Maggie Ward, MS, RD, LDN
Improving Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD): Does a Gluten and Dairy Free Diet Really Make a Difference?

Improving Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD): Does a Gluten and Dairy Free Diet Really Make a Difference?

I get this question so often from the patients and families I work with.  A gluten and dairy free diet may not be the answer for everyone. Yet over the past 15 years of being a clinical nutritionist, I have seen a variety of symptoms and health conditions improve dramatically after removing gluten and/or dairy from one’s diet. Everything from digestive distress to sinus issues, acne, joint pain, and even “brain fog” which many people use to describe their experience with cognitive decline.

For families who have a child on the Autism Spectrum, removing gluten and dairy, along with making other healthy dietary changes, is often the first step in their treatment plan here at The UltraWellness Center. There are many reasons why an individual may react negatively to either gluten and/or dairy. For those with an ASD, these individuals often produce opioid-like molecules known as gluteomorphins (from the protein gluten) and casomorphins (from casein in dairy) due to the improper digestion of these proteins. In addition to decades of anecdotal evidence, there is now research that supports this theory and the impact it can have on the brain.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23990835 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24657283

Following a Gluten and Dairy Free Diet can be overwhelming at first, especially for families. It becomes especially challenging when you start looking closely for these ingredients and realize that they are hiding in many unexpected places, including body care products. For the individuals and families I work with, I recommend the following tips to help get them started:

  1. Focus on what you can eat and experiment with new foods and food products. Although I always recommend WHOLE food first, thanks to the food industry it is easier to be gluten and dairy free than ever before. Unfortunately, like most processed foods, you want to use caution to avoid the “junk”.  With that said, there are more and more good quality, whole-food based products on the market. If a gluten-free cracker or pasta substitute helps your family make the transition easier, I’m all for it. Once you find some substitutes that work, then you can start pulling out the gluten and dairy.
  1. Start by removing gluten OR dairy rather than both at once. Some prefer this technique to ease the transition and this can also help you better identify if one ingredient is more of an offender than another. But remember, eventually you want to remain off of both at the same time, to see what results you may have.
  1. Get support. Talk with your child’s school, caregivers, coaches, etc. and make them aware of your child’s new dietary needs.  If you find you aren’t receiving the support you need, speak with your child’s pediatrician or dietitian/nutritionist and request a letter outlining the medical recommendation for the dietary restrictions.
  1. Plan ahead for social occasions and trips.  I think this is key when making any dietary changes,  and especially helpful for young ones who may need to bring an alternative “treat” to a birthday party, for example. Again, there are many gluten and dairy-free options available.  Attached is part of the gluten and dairy-free handout we give to patients which lists some of our favorite high-quality products.  
  1. Do it as a family! Although not essential, making dietary changes together tends to ease stress on the person with the dietary restrictions. It can also help minimize cross-contamination from offending ingredients, which  can often happen at home. If that is not possible, then I recommend at least eating together as a family. Many children, especially those with ASD, develop  challenging behaviors around food. Modeling good eating habits as a family is the first step in addressing some of these barriers. However, if your child still struggles with eating and the dietary transition, I recommend you seek out additional professional support. Occupational, Speech, and Feeding therapists can be an extremely helpful resource to help your child meet their dietary needs.

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