Why a Gluten-Free Casein-Free Diet May Help Improve Symptoms Associated with Autism

health and body, food, diet and autism link, kids health
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The Background

So what’s all the excitement on this diet? Obviously,”gluten-free” has become quite the hyphenated buzzword lately, and living without this protein found in wheat has become extremely popular in diets promising everything from basic weight loss to helping with chronic disease maintenance. Casein is a term slightly less well-known among most people: it’s a milk protein most commonly found in cow’s milk as well as other dairy products such as cheese. The GFCF diet is based on the idea that since children with autism are highly sensitive (if not allergic) to foods containing gluten and casein, this diet eliminates the “problem” foods. The theory behind eliminating these foods is that children with autism spectrum disorder process the proteins in the gluten and casein differently than other people and so produce peptides, which have an opioid effect; what happens next in their growing bodies eventually results in certain behavioral, cognitive, and speech manifestations. According to this theory, children with autism are believed to have “leaky gut syndrome” — due to a highly permeable intestinal tract or bowel, the produced peptides are able to escape from the digestive tract, cross the intestinal membranes, enter the bloodstream, and go up to the brain. For many of these children, it is believed that their difficulty communicating, combined with their reactions to these foods (including discomfort or pain) causes them to exhibit certain autistic behaviors such as screaming or temper tantrums.

The GFCF diet has become popular among families with children with autism mostly through word of mouth. Again, McCarthy has helped spur this on. As a result of her son’s diet and certain nutritional supplements, McCarthy has publicly stated that she feels her son has “recovered” from autism, (although she also acknowledges that he is continuing with varied therapies). She believes diet and supplements helped her son physically recover to a point at which his body and mind were then responsive to therapies including speech and applied behavioral analysis.

diet and autism link, kids health, parenting
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What Science Has Said So Far

So, you may be asking, where are the medical studies supporting this diet? Unfortunately, there has not been much well-designed research on this diet, and most studies have not shown statistically significant support for this diet as an effective treatment for autism. Furthermore, some studies even emphasize the dangers of following this diet, citing social stigma, the prohibitive cost of buying gluten-free and casein-free products, and potential nutritional deficiencies (particularly calcium and protein) as concerns.

If there is no “good” evidence supporting this diet, why then is it so popular, with between 10% and 30% of parents of children with autism using this diet as a treatment method? Examining how the current research and study methods can be improved gives a peek at why they might not be effective in studying the diet.

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