An optimal diet for an autistic person is balanced and full of nutrients. This can be challenging since many autistic individuals have digestive issues and feeding-related issues.
Since people with autism are often deficit in certain nutrients, a food list for autism will include foods with these nutrients. Fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, beans, eggs, and lean meats are good items to add to your food list.
Some foods may cause gastrointestinal issues in autistic children. In some cases, implementing a specialized diet, such as a gluten-free/casein-free or ketogenic diet, may work well.
Eating Optimal Foods: Autistic Children & Problems With Food
Children with autism often have inadequate nutrition, partly due to food avoidances and aversions.
Poor nutrition increases the risk of later chronic illnesses, like diabetes and heart disease. Children who grow up with poor diets are more likely to be obese, which is associated with several chronic illnesses.
Children with autism are more likely to have low calcium and protein, which can reduce brain development, bone growth, and muscle strength. These issues may be correlated with problems with cognition, balance, physical strength, and other aspects of physical development.
Feeding issues are a major problem for children with autism, and the consequences can be serious if the child ends up with nutritional deficiencies. Parents can help by employing various strategies to get their children to eat a more diverse diet. Doctors and therapists are often involved in this process.
Autism & Dietary Struggles
People on the autism spectrum have a developmental condition that manifests in a range of behavioral differences and struggles. From trouble with both verbal and nonverbal communication, to problems understanding social etiquette, to difficulty with attention span and memory, people who are diagnosed as autistic typically need behavior therapy.
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy is the most widely used and recommended approach to helping people with autism manage their behaviors by changing maladaptive practices into positive interactions.
These behavioral struggles can become evident in people with autism as feeding problems. An autistic person’s issues with food may manifest as:
- Rituals around eating.
- Pocketing food in their cheeks or sucking on food instead of chewing it.
- Strongly preferring certain foods.
- Avoiding certain foods.
People with autism are also at higher risk for gastrointestinal problems. Children with autism may avoid certain foods or develop strong texture or temperature aversions because of the physical discomfort they associate with those sensations.
In frustration, parents of autistic children may limit their child’s foods to only those they know will be accepted. However, this is not a sustainable model to develop healthy eating and nutrition.
It is important to work with your pediatrician and a behavior therapist to expand your child’s diet. Over time, you and your child’s treatment team can develop a list of optimal foods that your child enjoys as well as a list of foods to avoid that often result in digestive issues.
Diets to Support Positive Behaviors & Healthy Eating
Many parents with autistic children turn to specialized diets in an effort to support their child’s well-being.
Several studies have shown that children with autism tend to shy away from healthier foods, like vegetables and fresh fruits, in favor of more processed starches and snack foods. They may also struggle to get enough protein, as the texture of several foods containing protein may be unappealing.
To encourage change in these behaviors, parents often try certain approaches to feeding problems. These are the three most common diets for autism:
- Autism MEAL Plan: This is not just a nutritional plan. Parents can train in this behavioral approach so they can best help their children. Behavior therapies like ABA have been the most effective approach to addressing feeding problems in people with autism. The autism MEAL plan focuses on changing behaviors toward certain foods. This is still a relatively new approach to helping children with autism get their nutritional needs met. Some studies offered parents training in autism MEAL plans for eight weeks and found that the behavioral approach eased caregiver stress around mealtimes a great deal. However, it was noted that children with autism did not have behavioral improvements around meals or food selectivity. Future research is still needed to understand if applying this specific behavioral approach can help children long term or if there is little benefit to the approach.
- Gluten-free/casein-free diet (GFCF): Many parents put their children on the GFCF diet, especially parents who have children with autism. Since both gluten, a wheat protein, and casein, a dairy protein, can make digestive problems in people with autism worse, removing these from a child’s diet can seem to make sense. The gluten-free/casein-free diet may improve behaviors around food for a while, but it can be difficult to make sure your child gets enough protein, whole grains, and amino acids, which are often part of bread and dairy in Western diets. It’s important to find other food options to meet these needs.
- Modified ketogenic diet: This low-carbohydrate, moderate-protein, high-fat diet can help children with autism get needed protein for brain and muscle development while removing potential sources of digestive discomfort like wheat. A focus on certain types of protein can even help you remove dairy from your child’s diet, if cheese or milk causes them digestive distress. Since this diet is tied to higher nutrient intake while removing certain irritants, it might be more effective for children with autism than other diets. It is important to be careful of the amount of fat that is consumed, as this can contribute to heart disease and obesity, especially if your child struggles to eat other healthy foods like fruits and vegetables.
The Optimal Food List for Children With Autism
A study found that the most common nutrient insufficiencies in children with autism were fiber, folic acid, calcium, iron, zinc, and vitamins A, C, D, E, K, B6, and B12. Due to food preferences or obsessions, some children may have too much of one or two of these nutrients. Food avoidances mean that many autistic children don’t have enough of these vitamins and minerals. To help your child get the right balance of these important nutrients, try adding these foods to their diet with the help of a behavior therapist:
- Beans like navy beans, pinto beans, and black beans
- Peanuts and peanut butter
- Sunflower seeds
- Chia seeds
- Soy milk
- Almonds and almond milk
- Dried figs and apricots
- Cruciferous vegetables like kale and broccoli
- Fortified breakfast cereal
- Dark chocolate, as an occasional sweet treat
- Lean beef, turkey, and chicken
- Green peas
- Melons like cantaloupe
- Tomatoes and tomato juice
- Sweet red pepper
- Citrus like oranges and grapefruit
- Beet greens
- Butternut squash
- Onions and garlic
Many of these foods offer multiple nutrients, so combining them in different ways through meal planning can help your child get high-quality nutrients, avoid foods that cause discomfort, and slowly add new experiences to your child’s eating habits.
Begin planning meals that contain several fruits, vegetables, grains, and proteins, so there is a variety of options. Sprinkle in new foods with tried-and-true options you know your child will like.
Foods to Avoid
If you notice a particular food results in stomach issues or negative behaviors, avoid it. These are common foods that may cause issues in children with autism:
- Milk and other dairy products
- Wheat products
- High-sugar foods
- Processed meats
Work with your child’s pediatrician and potentially a nutritionist to determine the best foods for your child to eat. A behavior therapist can devise a plan to help you introduce new foods to their diet in the optimal way.
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