The Essential Diet for Children with Autism

After the publication of my article in The Autism File (issue 5, Autumn 2000) on nutritional management of our son Nicholas, I received a lot of phone calls from parents asking, what diet would be most appropriate for their autistic child. There is a lot of confusing information on this subject and it can be difficult to make sense out of it. After years of research and experimenting, we developed a diet, that I firmly believe, is most appropriate for our children. This is the diet that made an enormous difference to our son Nicholas. A gluten and casein free diet is well known and has a solid scientific basis behind it. However, there is much more to your child’s nutritional management, than just cutting out gluten and casein.

I believe in Nature. Nature made us and at the same time it provided us with every food we need to stay healthy, active and full of energy. However, we have to eat these foods in the form Nature made them. It is when we start tampering with the natural foods, we start getting into trouble.  Any processing, that we subject the food to, changes its chemical and biological structure. Our bodies were not designed to have these changed foods! The more food is processed, the more nutrient depleted and chemically altered it becomes. Apart from losing its nutritional value, processed food loses most of its other properties: taste, flavour, colour. So, to compensate for that, various chemicals are added: flavour enhancers, colours, all those E-additives and preservatives – all those chemicals, that have conclusively been shown to contribute to learning disabilities, psychiatric disorders and other health problems. If we look at the supermarket shelves, we will see that the bulk of processed foods are carbohydrates. All those morning cereals, crisps, biscuits, breads, pastas, chocolates, sweets, jams, sugar, preserved fruit and vegetables, frozen pre-cooked meals with starches and batter are highly processed carbohydrates.

We will examine them one at a time. But first, let’s look at them as a group. All carbohydrates in foods get digested and absorbed as glucose. Nature provided us with plenty of carbohydrates in the form of fruit, vegetables and cereals. When we eat them in the natural untampered form, the carbohydrate part of them is absorbed slowly, producing a gradual increase in blood glucose, which our bodies were designed to handle. Processed carbohydrates are absorbed very quickly, producing a very rapid increase in blood glucose. Now, blood glucose is one of those factors which our bodies go to great lengths to keep within certain limits, because both high and low values are harmful. A rapid increase in blood glucose, called hyperglycaemia, puts the pancreas into a shock state to pump out lots of insulin very quickly to deal with the excessive glucose. As a result, about an hour later the person has got a very low level of blood glucose, called hypoglycaemia. Did any of you notice that after eating a morning cereal for breakfast you feel hungry again in an hour. That is hypoglycaemia. What do people usually have at that time in the morning to satisfy their hunger? A biscuit, a chocolate bar, a coffee or something like that, and the whole cycle of hyper – hypoglycaemia begins again. This up and down blood glucose roller-coaster is extremely harmful for anybody, let alone our autistic children. It has been proven that a lot of hyperactivity, aggression and other behavioural abnormalities in schoolchildren are a direct result of this glucose roller-coaster. The hyperglycaemic phase produces a feeling of a ‘high’ with hyperactive tendencies and self-stimulation in our children, whilst the hypoglycaemic phase makes them feel unwell, often with a headache, bad mood, tantrums and general fatigue, with excessive sweating.

Most foods have been assigned what is called a ‘glycemic index’ – an indicator of how quickly they increase the blood glucose after being ingested. Processed carbohydrates, including sugar, have some of the highest glycemic indexes, as well as white rice, cooked potatoes and cooked carrots and peas. It is best to give an autistic child carbohydrates with low glycemic indexes – raw fruit and vegetables, and some whole cereals that you cook yourself. Fructose has a low glycemic index. A natural form of fructose is unprocessed honey (a lot of honeys sold in the shops have been heat treated, which destroys valuable enzymes and other nutrients, and gives honey a higher glycemic index). We use it as the only sweetener allowed in our house. But, even honey is given to our son rarely and in moderation.

Another important point about processed carbohydrates is their detrimental effect on the gut flora. I tried to describe the crucial role of the normal gut flora in the health of an autistic child in last issue of The Autism File

Processed carbohydrates feed pathogenic bacteria and fungi in the gut, promoting their growth and proliferation. Apart from that they make a wonderful glue-like environment in the gut for various worms and parasites to take hold and develop. All these micro-creatures produce toxic substances going into the bloodstream and literally ‘poison’ the child. The more processed carbohydrates you give your autistic child, the more ‘toxic’ he will become and the more autistic symptoms you will see.

Recent scientific evidence suggests, that autism may be an autoimmune disorder. An imbalance between two major arms of the immune system: the Th1 and Th2 immunity has been found in autistic children to have overactive Th2 and suppressed Th1. The same picture is seen in many chronic diseases – viral, bacterial, parasitic, cancer, allergies, asthma and other autoimmune conditions. Processed foods, particularly processed carbohydrates and sugar, directly weaken the functioning of macrophages – natural killer cells and other white blood cells – and undermine systemic resistance to all infections. For example, an immune compromised person (like an autistic child) who has soft drinks and french fries or crisps daily, will worsen their condition by these food choices. An appropriate nutritional management is an essential part of dealing with an immune imbalance. As I tried to describe in last issue of The Autism File, the gut flora plays a major part in the normal functioning of the immune system. A powerful probiotic, like Primal Defense, will not only restore the normal gut flora but rebalance the Th1 and Th2 parts of immunity.

Let us have a look at various forms of those processed carbohydrates. We will start with morning cereals. They are supposed to be healthy, aren’t they? Unfortunately, the truth is just the opposite. Morning cereals are highly processed carbohydrates, full of sugar, salt and other substances. They have a high glycemic index and are detrimental to the gut flora balance. The fibre in them is full of phytates – substances which bind essential minerals and take them out of the system, contributing to the mineral deficiencies. There is nothing healthy in them for an autistic child.

Crisps and chips (and pop-corn), a backbone of children’s diet nowadays, are highly processed carbohydrates with high glycemic indexes. But that is not all about them. They are saturated with vegetable oil, which has been heated to a very high temperature. Any oil, that has been heated, has  substances called trans-fatty acids. These are unsaturated fatty acids with altered chemical structure. What they do in the body is to replace the vital omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in cellular structure, making cells in a way disabled. Consuming trans-fatty acids will increase the activity of Th2 and weaken Th1 immunity. As you remember, the Th1 immunity is already suppressed in autistic children and Th2 is overactive. Cancer, heart disease, eczema, asthma, neurological conditions and even the famous cellulite have been linked to trans-fatty acids in the diet.

The gluten-free diet is widely recommended and a lot of families with autistic children found it very helpful. But, let us have a look at wheat as a whole with gluten or without it. Virtually nobody buys wheat as a grain and cooks it at home. We buy foods made of wheat flour. The flour arrives to bakeries in pre-packaged mixes for different kinds of breads, biscuits and pastries. These mixtures are already processed with the best nutrients lost. Then they are ‘enriched’ with preservatives, pesticides to keep the insects away, chemical substances to prevent it absorbing moisture, colour and flavour improvers, softeners, just to mention a few. Then the bakery makes breads, pastries, cakes, biscuits, etc. out of these chemical cocktails for us to eat. The producer is quite happy to take the gluten out of these mixtures and make gluten-free products. So, you will get all the processed carbohydrate with all the chemical additives in it, but this time without gluten. Once swallowed, a piece of white bread turns into a glue-like mass, which feeds parasites and pathogenic bacteria and fungi in the gut, contributing to the general toxic overload, your child already has. I strongly believe, that autistic children should not have wheat in any shape or form. Being a staple in the western world, wheat is also a number one cause of food allergies and intolerances.

Sugar and anything made with it. Sugar was once called a ‘white death’. It deserves this title. The consumption of sugar in the world has grown to enormous proportions in the last century. It is estimated that an average western person consumes about 160 – 200 pounds of this unnatural substance per year. Sugar is everywhere and it is hard to find any processed food without it. Apart from causing the blood glucose roller-coaster and having a detrimental effect on the gut flora, it has been shown to have a direct damaging effect on the immune system (which is already compromised in our children). On top of that, to deal with the sugar onslaught, the body has to use available minerals, vitamins and enzymes at an alarming rate, finishing up being depleted of these vital substances. An autistic child should not have sugar in any form. Cakes, sweets, and other confectioneries are made with sugar and wheat, as the main ingredients, plus lots of chemicals like colours, preservatives, flavourings, etc. It goes without saying that they should be out of your child’s diet (with or without gluten). For birthdays and other rare occasions home made cakes with honey instead of sugar and ground almonds (or other ground nuts) can be made. I would highly recommend a book by Elaine Gottschall Breaking The Vicious Cycle (ISBN 0-9692019-1-8). It has some wonderful recipes as well as a good insight into nutrition.  Available through ‘Amazon.co.uk’ at £12.87.

Soft drinks are a major source of sugar in children’s diets, not to mention all the chemical additives. Fruit juices are full of processed fruit sugars and moulds. Unless freshly pressed, they should not be in your child’s diet either. Aspartame, a sugar replacement in many drinks, was found to be carcinogenic and should be avoided. It turns into methanol and its derivatives in the body. Methanol is a well known poison. Bottled mineral or filtered water with a slice of fresh lemon is the best drink for our children. Drinking chlorinated tap water will further damage your child’s gut flora, since the chlorine is there to kill bacteria in the first place.

To summarise, an autistic child should have no processed foods at all in his/her diet. All foods should be as close to the way Nature made them as possible. Fresh fish, crayfish, fresh meats (not preserved), eggs, fresh vegetables and fruit, nuts and seeds, garlic and cold pressed virgin olive oil, buckwheat, millet, quinoa – all should be prepared at home from fresh supplies. I have deliberately repeated the word fresh four times.

Fruit and vegetables should be eaten raw as much as possible in the form of salads, ‘sticks’, slices, etc. Fresh fruit and vegetables are not just a good source of various vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other nutrients, but they are an excellent source of vital enzymes, which autistic children are lacking. Those enzymes are essential in the detoxification of the body. Eating raw vegetables with meals will assist in the digestion of meats and cereals. Cooked vegetables and fruit lose a lot of their nutritional value: enzymes and vitamins are destroyed, carbohydrates change their structure. Carrots, cucumber, peppers, cauliflower, broccoli, celery are delicious in the form of sticks or rosettes with a dip (mayonnaise; avocado, mashed with plenty of cold pressed virgin olive oil and a dash of lemon juice, with a choice of fish and onions or garlic and tomato). Avocado is a wonderfully nutritious fruit and should be a regular part of your child’s diet. Half an avocado with prawns and mayonnaise or any meat or fish makes a quick and delicious meal.

Filed in: Diet & Nutrition, Living with Autism

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