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The Verdict : Gluten-Free-Casein-Free Diet in Autism

What is this Diet All About?

With the rise in diagnosed cases of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), more and more parents are looking at various therapies that may help their child. Among the many new therapies gaining popularity is the Gluten-Free-Casein-Free (GFCF) Diet (Also known as the Wheat- Free, Milk- Free diet). Gluten and casein are naturally occurring protein fractions. Glutens are found mainly in cereals like wheat, barley, rye and commercially available oats, whereas casein is generally found in milk and all its products (like cheese, whey, butter, cream). A GFCF diet tries to eliminate the dietary intake of these proteins in order to see favorable results in autistic symptoms.

Is there any Theory behind it?

In 1991, Dr. Kalle Reichelt first pointed out a relationship between high levels of undigested peptides in body fluids, brain maturation and behavioral and social symptoms. About 50% of children with Autism show some form of gastrointestinal tract (GIT) problems and theory goes that they process proteins in food differently than other people. Due to this, indigested proteins get absorbed back into the body and these proteins may be toxic. These proteins are said to be the cause for some of the symptoms in autism.

How will the GFCF diet help my child?

The attempt to decrease levels of abnormal undigested protiens in body fluids aims at decreasing symptoms of ASD and improving social and cognitive behavior and speech. Although there have been mixed reports about the efficacy of the GFCF diet, many parents have reported quite dramatic changes in their child, like improvements in eye contact, attention span and general mood, and a decrease in tantrums, self stimulative behavior and aggression. Some children have even started attending mainstream education programs post diet.

Are there any Harmful Effects?

The GFCF diet involves the elimination of various foods which are required for growth and development in children. Some parents have been alarmed at the weight loss they saw in their children, and it must be remembered that if not properly monitored your child could end up malnourished and with deficiency diseases. Furthermore, a study done in 2008 showed that boys with Autism tend to have thinner bones than other children and a casein-free diet tend to cause deficiencies in calcium, vitamin D and high quality proteins, according to studies. So the risk for decreased bone development and greater chances of broken bones is high.

What does Research say about this Diet?

The GFCF diet is not supported by current large scale studies. Smaller studies that have been done have are not very reliable, mainly because eliminating all the sources of gluten and casein is so difficult. However, most studies have shown that this ‘eliminative diet’ does not have much of an impact on autistic symptoms. Testimonials by parents and teachers have varied from “no effects” to complete recovery. Autism advocate, Donna Williams, who has Autism, says that she “has been helped by nutritional supplements together with a gluten-free and low-salicylate diet”. Research is still going on in an attempt to link GIT function and the way the brain works, and in the effort to understand autism better.

How Long should it be Maintained?

Once a strict GFCF diet is started, the body takes 1 month to rid itself of casein and 3-6 months for gluten. Hence experts advice a trial diet of at least 3 to 6 months in order to see results.

How do I get Started?

Starting on the GFCF diet is probably the toughest part. To begin with, most children with Autism are fussy eaters because of ‘oral defensiveness’ and their favorite foods, more often than not, will be loaded with glutens and casein. But many parents have found that once the diet is underway their child becomes a better eater. Total elimination of all gluten and casein is also difficult as tiny amounts are found in numerous foods, even starches, artificial colors and flavorings, fried foods, some soy products and imitation dairy products.

Before starting the diet it is advisable to get your child tested for sensitivity to gluten, casein and soy, as this is commonly found. In fact, some people use the GFCF diet just to ease GIT problems, food allergies and sensitivities. Also, please consult a physician and nutritionist to ensure your child has a healthy diet and proper nutritional supplements (vitamins and calcium).

Remove one food at a time so that you know which food is causing a problem. Start with milk and milk products as casein clears out of the system faster. Gluten takes 3 to 6 months, so that can be eliminated later. Ask people who don’t know about this changed diet if they see any differences in your child.

What your child can eat is rice, quinoa, potato, buckwheat flour, corn, fruit, oil, vegetables, beans, meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, nuts, eggs, sorghum, soy milk, soy cheese among many others. With the rise in popularity of the GFCF diet it shouldn’t be difficult to find appropriate food in supermarkets, many of which have GFCF sections. GFCF cookbooks are readily available online and in stores.

THE VERDICT:

To all those parents desperately looking for ways to help their child I say, the GFCF diet is worth a try, but please go into it with your eyes open. Even strong believers in the diet maintain that not every child may be helped and dramatic effects don’t necessarily happen. GIT problems do impact many children with Autism, so do monitor your child’s GI health and visit a pediatric gastroenterologist if need be. The GFCF diet is questioned by the medical community, but many doctors and university research centers do suggest it to see if results emerge, but only alongside more proven behavioral and developmental interventions, and of course, proper nutrition supplements. Bear in mind what your child’s dietary preferences are and what is available to you. If you have difficulty maintaining the diet don’t lose heart but explore other options instead. Above all, remember that every child is different, so do what is right for your child.

 

Resources

http://www2.cochrane.org/reviews/en/ab003498.html

http://www.autismweb.com/diet.htm

http://www.urmc.rochester.edu/news/story/index.cfm?id=2860

Easy Recipes: http://gfcfrecipes.blogspot.com/

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