I would like to start the GF/CF diet with my child who has autism. Where do I begin?
As parents of children with autism we often try everything we can to help. In my family, moving my oldest child Marc into a gluten free / dairy free diet helped enormously with his sleep, getting rid of gastrointestinal comfort and elimination issues, and improved his mood.
Although moving to a gluten free/casein (or dairy) free diet ( GF/CF) may not be the answer to all of your child’s challenges, it can help in a variety of ways in about 20% of children with ASD. The good news is you’ll know in about 6 weeks of starting the diet if it is having a positive affect on your child.
What is a Gluten-Free/Casein Free (GF/CF) diet?
The diet involves removing all food items that contain gluten or dairy. Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat, barley and rye, as well as spelt, so any products made from these items will have gluten in them. As an aside, most grains including oats can be cross contaminated with gluten items processed at the same factories. If your child is genuinely gluten intolerant (celiac), you will need to be very careful to get “gluten free” oats or other products such as baking powder that are specifically marked gluten free.
Casein is a protein found in milk. Dairy products such as yogurt, cheese, butter, and sour cream will have casein in them.
How can a gluten free/ dairy free diet help autism?
Well documented studies have shown that children with autism experience gastrointestinal (GI) upsets such as constipation, diarrhea and sensitivity to foods six-to-eight times more often than do children who are developing typically.
Aside from making someone painfully/physically uncomfortable, gut issues have been shown to deeply affect those with ASD. GI symptoms were found to be related to behavioral problems, including social withdrawal, irritability and repetitive behaviors. There are cases of children with ASD making significant progress once their GI issues were treated.
How do I transition my child with ASD onto a gluten free/dairy free diet?
Taking out easy go-to snacks and favourite foods can be a tough challenge for both parent and child. Some children have no problem switching up their diets, but others have food aversions, sensory issues, and behavioural challenges that can make it difficult.
- Make sure you have the support you need for the transition
- Introduce new foods during calm, stress free moments
- Give your child time to explore any new textures and tastes
- I have written a blog post with helpful tips on food aversions and eating challenges here.
Reading about the diet is a good place to start to understand what needs to be eliminated from the diet, the commitment involved, and how to implement and monitor the diet and its effects. Keeping a food diary during the transition can be very helpful as well to track changes and/or reactions.
What foods should I use for a GF/CF diet
There is much more awareness around this diet these days, and many GF/CF products can be found at large grocery stores or online for reasonable prices. There are lots of alternatives for gluten.
- Try using bean-based recipes and baking with alternative flours such as quinoa, rice, or potato flour.
- The rice pasta that is available now is just as good as the flour based type and it is excellent in casseroles or salads.
- Avoid processed foods because many of these items contain both hidden gluten and dairy products and the ingredient list may not readily identify them as GF/CF. If it isn’t labeled as such, it more than likely isn’t.
- Almond milk, rice milk or coconut milk is widely available and nutritious – just be aware of added sugars in some brands.
- There are reasonable dairy-free cheese substitutes that melt. You can buy pre-made frozen gluten free/dairy free pizzas, or just buy blocks of their “cheese” and make your own.
- I find coconut yogurt and ice cream as delicious as the “real thing”, or you can make fruit ice cream with no dairy in it at all. Just blend frozen banana with berries and a little non dairy milk in your food processor or blender. You can add chia seeds or almond milk for a little added protein depending on your child’s tastes.
Gluten Free / Dairy Free Resources
Two books to start with are:
Autism: Exploring the Benefits of a Gluten-and Casein-Free Diet – A practical guide for families and professionals
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