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Eating for Autism: First Step, Clean Up Your Diet

Autism spectrum disorders, World Autism Awareness Day, Autism Speaks

The way Americans eat today is linked more and more with chronic illness. In fact, diet is one of four lifestyle factors that could prevent as much as 50% of the top three most common health problems in the US – heart disease, cancer and stroke. So it shouldn’t be surprising that changing to a more healthful way of eating could possibly also help another public health concern – the rising incidence of autism spectrum disorders.

Most recently, nutritional factors have been implicated in altering gene expression which is associated with the development of autism. Processed foods in particular are linked to nutritional deficiencies that can be toxic to the brain. But it is not just what we feed our children that could pose a problem. Poor health due to an inadequate diet during pregnancy also increases the risk of a child born with a neurodevelopmental disorder.

There are special diets that are promoted as nutritional interventions for children with autism such as the Gluten Free/Casein Free (GFCF) diet and the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD). These diets may ultimately be useful in your quest to improve some of your child’s symptoms, but before you tackle a restrictive plan such as this, the first step should be to clean up your typical “Western-style” diet and eat more whole, natural foods.

In the book “Eating for Autism: The 10-Step Nutrition Plan to Help Treat Your Child’s Autism, Asperger’s, or ADHD,” Elizabeth Strickland MS RD LD offers a progressive plan to help families transition into a healthier way of eating. Step 1 is an important basic starting point that is beneficial for the entire family, not just the child with autism.

Ms. Strickland advises parents to browse through their pantries and look at the ingredient labels of the food that they have purchased. So many have synthetic food additives such as artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives, trans fat and refined sugar. Almost all of these ingredients, while technically “generally regarded as safe” and approved by the FDA are linked to various health concerns.

Artificial Colors
There are seven artificial colors currently permitted in our US foods – Blue No. 1, Blue No. 2, Green No. 3, Red No. 40, Red No. 3, Yellow No. 5, and Yellow No. 6. There is a growing body of research that indicates that some children are sensitive to these ingredients and aggravate behavioral symptoms, especially hyperactivity. Most food colorings are made from a mixture of chemicals called coal tar, the by-product of coal when it is carbonized to make fuel. In addition to behavioral issues, products with a certain percentage of this ingredient are considered a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Typically, foods marketed to children, such as cereals, candies and drinks, are those that contain artificial colorings. But be sure to look on all the foods you purchase, as they are also added to boxed macaroni and cheese and even jarred cherries.

Artificial Flavors
Artificial flavors are chemically synthesized compounds added to foods to either imitate or enhance a natural flavor. There are approximately 1700 approved by the FDA. In the autism community, the flavoring of particular concern is monosodium glutamate (MSG) found in canned soups, beef and chicken stocks, flavored potato chips, snack food, frozen dinners, and instant convenience meals.

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Glutamic acid, one of the compounds found in MSG is classified as an excitotoxin. Animal studies indicate that ingesting a high level could potentially cause brain damage, although it is unlikely that humans could actually eat enough for this to occur. However, it isn’t known what long-term consumption of MSG could potentially do to health.

Artificial Preservatives
Because many of our foods travel long distances to reach us (instead of coming from a local farm), preservatives are added to inhibit the growth of bacteria, inhibit oxidation, and to prevent changes in the food’s color, odor and taste. Artificial preservatives such as butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) are of concern because they can aggravate behavioral symptoms. BHT is not allowed in baby foods, but can be found in other kid foods such as potato chips and cereals. BHA is suspected to be a carcinogen as well, based on animal studies.

Remember when looking for these ingredients in your foods not to completely trust advertising slogans on the front of packages. For example, some foods labeled as "no preservatives" or "no preservatives added" actually contain BHT that was present in the ingredients used to make the product but which does not require disclosure on the label. Always read the entire food ingredient listing and look for vague key words such as “natural flavorings” or “added to preserve freshness.” As Michael Pollan says, “If a food label is making health claims, don’t eat that product. The healthiest foods, such as apples, don’t have the marketing budgets of processed-food manufacturers.”

Artificial Sweeteners
Yes, all of us should avoid refined sugar and sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup. But be aware that synthetically produced artificial sweeteners are no better for us. While ingredients such as saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame are tested and FDA-approved, there still are some links between these ingredients and altered brain function. Especially in children, whose small bodies and inadequate detoxification systems accumulate more of the chemicals than do adults.

Trans Fats
Trans fat is a product of hydrogenation, where hydrogen is added to a liquid vegetable oil in order to make it more solid. This ingredient is found in processed foods such as crackers, cookies, chips, cakes, snack foods, and foods fried in partially hydrogenated oils. Trans fats can increase our risk of coronary heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes and obesity. They may also interfere with enzymes that are critical for the conversion of essential fatty acids (fats that the body needs to build brain cells for example) into their active forms.

Refined Sugar
The average American consumes about 140 pounds of sugar each year. Between white sugar and high fructose corn syrup, it seems almost all foods have some sort of sweetener added to them for taste. But sugar – and other simple carbohydrates – are rapidly digested and absorbed into the blood stream. This causes several hormonal reactions that ultimately lead to a release of adrenaline which could be responsible for the behavioral changes seen in many children after eating a sugary food. So while sugar does not directly cause hyperactivity, it does create a negative situation within a child that leads to behavioral problems.

Avoid any food that contains 15 grams of sugar or more per 100 grams of food. Replace high sugar snacks with healthier ones such as raw vegetable sticks, fresh fruits, nuts, seeds, air-popped popcorn, fruit smoothies or other healthful treats. Remember that kids should eat more often – three meals and two to three small snacks spread out across the day can keep energy levels up while keeping overall calories to a respectable limit.

So, the bottom line is to evaluate what your family is currently eating and begin to replace those processed foods that contain artificial ingredients with healthful alternatives. You do not have to clear out your pantry immediately – just gradually, over the next few weeks, replace foods containing artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, and sweeteners with more whole, natural food products. Within a few short months, your entire family will notice a healthy difference.

Source: Eating for Autism - The 10-Step Nutrition Plan to Help Treat Your Child's Autism, Asperger's, or ADHD by Elizabeth Strickland MS RD LD. Lifelong Books, 2009



A resource I hope you will include in future articles is the Feingold Association, a parent formed non profit which has been helping families since 1976 and continues the work of Dr. Ben F. Feingold