Some parents believe that their autistic children benefit from a milk-free, gluten-free diet. Is there any evidence to support this?
There’s been a lot of interest in the role diet plays in therapy for children with autism. One common belief is that diets that contain casein (found in milk) and gluten make (found in whole grains and bread) make the symptoms worse. This has motivated some parents of autistic kids to restrict the amount of milk their children drink and to feed them a gluten-free diet. Is there any basis for this? Does a milk and gluten-free diet help autistic kids?
Why Would Foods Containing Milk and Gluten Be a Problem for Autistic Kids?
This idea centers around the theory that children with autism have damaged intestinal linings that cause them to be more permeable – a condition known as the leaky gut syndrome. In addition, it’s hypothesized that they lack the enzymes needed to break down certain foods such as those containing gluten and casein. The theory is that these incompletely broken down remnants of food squeeze through the damaged areas of the intestinal lining and enter the blood stream where they eventually end up in the brain – and make the symptoms of autism worse.
Gluten-Free Diet Therapy for Children with Autism: Does It Work?
A study carried out on 21 children with autism showed that over forty percent of them had increased intestinal permeability – lending support to the leaky gut theory. On the other hand, a survey of all the studies looking at this intestinal permeability theory found little credible evidence to support it – stating that the association, if any, between autism and intestinal permeability problems is “weak”.
Therapy for Children with Autism: A Diet to Help Autistic Kids?
Although there isn’t strong evidence that a gluten-free or milk free diet helps autistic kids, the researchers in this study pointed out that some children may be allergic to particular types of food that could aggravate the symptoms of autism. They emphasize the importance of allergy testing children with autism to eliminate any foods or environmental factors that might contribute to their symptoms.
The Downsides to a Gluten Free and Milk Free Diet
The downside to using a gluten or milk free diet as therapy for children with autism is the risk of nutritional deficiency. Milk is one of the primary sources of calcium for growing children and not getting enough of it can lead to fragile bones – and set the stage for osteoporosis later in life.
The Bottom Line?
There’s little evidence that withholding milk and gluten from kids with autism helps their symptoms – although more studies are needed to address this issue in greater depth. In the meantime, it’s a good idea to do allergy testing to rule out food allergies in any child who has autism – and continue to feed them a healthy, well balanced diet.
Bakery and Snacks.com. “Gluten-free Diets Show No Benefits for Autism: Review”.
Acta Paediatr. 1996 Sep;85(9):1076-9.