Popular Gluten-Free, Casein-Free Diet No Benefit for Autism, Study Says

A small study presented at the 9th Annual International Meeting for Autism Research last week found that the popular gluten-free, casein-free diet (GFCF diet) purported as a remedy to modify behaviors of autistic children was of no benefit.  These findings are contrary to the beliefs of many parents who claim this type of diet has helped their autistic child(ren).  The GFCF diet is based on the premise that autistic children have a sensitivity or allergy to gluten (protein in wheat ) and/or casein (protein in dairy products) which results in their bodies metabolizing these substances differently than in non-autistic children, which leads to an exacerbation of symptoms.  Advocates of the GFCF diet believe that by providing autistic children with diets free of gluten and casein will alleviate symptoms characteristic of autism.

The current study recruited 21 autistic children, of whom only 14 successfully completed the trial.  After following a strict GFCF diet for 4 weeks, the subjects were randomly assigned to experience 1 of 4 weekly food challenges: 20 grams of wheat flour, 20 grams of evaporated milk, both, or placebo.  The participants’ behavioral data were recorded at baseline, 6, 18, and 30 weeks, as well as, during the day before the challenge and 2 and 24 hours after the food exposure.  No significant differences were found between groups for length of sleep, stool patterns, attention capacity, and behaviors characteristic of autism.  The investigators caution, however, that these findings should not be extrapolated to children with known food allergies and intolerances, as with any child with special dietary needs regardless of the presence or absence of autism.  The researchers also acknowledge that the small sample size is a limitation of the study and that further investigations are needed.

Do the results of this study mean that the GFCF diet should be abandoned by parents of autistic children?  In my opinion,  if a family finds that it works for them, and it is not resulting in any nutritional deficiencies for their child(ren) and/or exacerbating other health conditions, then they should have no qualms with its continuation.  In my experiences with my own children, one of whom has Sensory Integration Dysfunction, certain foods do bring about undesirable behaviors.  If following a specific diet provides a bit of balance and peace for a family then I think it has its place in a healthy lifestyle for that family.  To learn more about this study, you can download the abstract (140.007 “The Gluten Free and Casein Free (GFCF) Diet: A Double Blind, Placebo Controlled Challenge Study,” Hyman, S., et al,.) from the website of the International Society for Autism Research.

What do you think?  Should parents with autistic children put them on a GFCF diet?  Share with us, we want to know!

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1 Comment

Filed under autism, casein-free, gluten-free, Sensory Integration Dysfunction

One response to “Popular Gluten-Free, Casein-Free Diet No Benefit for Autism, Study Says

  1. I think you have it right – there is no reason to stay with any treatment if it doesn’t help. If, however, parents try the diet and they see concrete results they should consult a gasterenterologist to assure there there are not underlying GI issues that need to be addressed. I think it is part of a larger health trend: many people without an ASD diagnosis, adults and children alike, are now being diagnosed with Celiac, Chron’s and colitis, and kids with autism are probably less likely to be able to tell their parents that they feel terrible and so they see behaviors rather than illness. This was true for us – we knew that our child was sick in addition to his autism, not necessarily because of it. We’ve been on the diet for 10 years, our son has become progressively healthier and this has allowed us to pursue the behavioral therapies that help him manage autism.

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