People with autism struggle with gastrointestinal problems at higher rates than the general population. They also often have food aversions or refusal due to greater sensitivity to unusual textures or smells.
Getting children with autism to eat a healthy diet may be a struggle, which your behavior therapist can help you with. If you want to support your child’s gut health, you may consider different types of diets like the gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF) diet.
Plant-based or even vegan diets mean you will introduce more fruits and vegetables into your child’s meals, but it’s important to understand how to get enough protein and other vital nutrients for development. While meat is a good way to incorporate protein into the diet, there are many other sources of protein as well, including plant-based meat alternatives like tofu and tempeh.
Consider working with a nutritionist to learn how to get enough protein, choline, minerals, amino acids, and other nutrients into your child’s diet. Without considering these needs, an allegedly healthy plant-based diet may be less healthy than eating meat.
A Healthy Diet vs. Gastrointestinal Problems in People With Autism
More research points to gastrointestinal problems being common in people on the autism spectrum. These issues include indigestion, constipation, and diarrhea. Although medical studies on the effectiveness of dietary adjustments have been inclusive, anecdotal evidence from people on the autism spectrum and parents of children with autism suggests that certain dietary adjustments help to alleviate some of these gut problems.
One of the more popular diets to support gut health in people with autism is the gluten-free, casein-free diet (GFCF). This program removes foods with wheat and dairy, as these proteins can upset digestion. While this diet plan still allows for meat like beef or chicken, some people want to go further to improve their health and ensure they eat enough fiber, vitamins, and minerals. To do so, they eat more plant-based foods, including meat alternatives with plant-based proteins and plant-heavy meals.
These major dietary changes have health benefits, but there are some downsides too.
People with autism may be sensitive to too much fiber, which can lead to further digestive issues. Plant-based diets may still be imbalanced, as sometimes, they don’t have enough protein or amino acids. For some, a plant-based or even fully vegan diet may not benefit their brain health.
It’s not enough to simply switch to a plant-based diet. Instead, you have to consider the potential weak spots of this diet and then design the diet to offset these problems. When done properly, a plant-based diet can be extremely healthy for a person with autism.
The Best Plant-Based Proteins for a Healthy Diet
When developing a plant-based diet, one of the nutrients you must focus on the most is protein. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends the average adult get at least 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. For example, someone weighing 165 pounds should get about 60 grams of protein. People who are more physically active or pregnant should eat more protein.
Most people get their protein from animal products, like cheese, milk, chicken, steaks, burgers, and more. Today, more people are trying to find the healthiest lifestyle possible, which means they turn to a plant-based diet to avoid high-fat, low-fiber foods.
Some of the best sources of protein from plants include the following:
- Edamame, or soybeans, have 8.5 grams of protein per half-cup.
- Quinoa, a grain that can replace rice or couscous, has around 8 grams of protein per cup.
- Tofu, a product made from fermented soybeans, has 15 grams of protein per half-cup.
- Lentils have about 8.5 grams of protein per cooked half-cup. They also have a lot of fiber, iron, and potassium.
- Chickpeas or garbanzo beans contain about 7.25 grams of protein per half-cup.
- Peanuts have an impressive 20.5 grams of protein per half-cup. Peanut butter has about 8 grams of protein per 2 tablespoons.
- Almonds have 16.5 grams of protein per half-cup, and they are also a good source of vitamin E.
- Chia seeds have about 2 grams of protein per tablespoon. They also have a lot of fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, a nutrient that is rare in plant-based proteins.
- Spirulina, a type of blue or green algae, has about 8 grams of protein per 2 tablespoons. It is often sold as a powder, making it easy to add to anything.
- Dark leafy green vegetables and broccoli have more protein than other types of green vegetables.
It is important to eat a wide range of plant-based foods. While plant-based meats have a place in a vegan diet, aim to eat “whole foods” as often as possible rather than processed fake meat or vegetarian alternatives.
Food Aversions in Children on the Autism Spectrum
People on the autism spectrum struggle with greater sensitivity to textures or smells, especially related to food. This means that many children with autism develop food aversions and begin refusing new foods as their parents try to introduce them to their diet.
Many children on the autism spectrum have digestive issues related to raw fruits and vegetables, so eating a balanced diet can be a struggle. Autistic children may begin to trust only a handful of foods, which means they are limited in what they’ll eat and could struggle with malnutrition.
Working with your child’s behavior therapist can help to overcome food aversions in general, so you can introduce healthy fruits and vegetables into your child’s diet. Nutritionists or ABA therapists may recommend introducing foods slowly by increasing the child’s tolerance to them.
For example, you may start by putting a new food on the table but not serving it to the child. Next, you may put a small bite of the food on their plate but not require them to eat it. Eventually, encourage them to try a small bite of the new food. This slow process can lower the child’s resistance to trying the new food.
If you decide to try the GFCF diet, it’s a good idea to work with a nutritionist to create meal plans that incorporate enough plant-based protein. This professional can also help you to steer clear of too much processed foods and create a strong foundation for long-term healthy food choices. Remember that the habits you are creating now will carry your child into adulthood.
Be Aware of Nutrient Deficiencies When Planning a Plant-Based Diet
There is some evidence that a fully vegan diet does not support brain development, which can be problematic for children on the autism spectrum.
A study conducted in the United Kingdom and published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) found that choline, an essential nutrient, was lacking in most plant-based diets, especially vegan diets. This nutrient gets little press attention compared to B12 or amino acids, but it is vital to brain development, especially fetal brain development. It also benefits liver function. The body produces some choline but not enough to fully support itself.
Choline is found in beef, eggs, fish, chicken, and dairy products like yogurt and cheese. It can be found in some plant-based foods, like dark green vegetables, beans, and nuts, but in much lower amounts. In 1998, the United States Institute of Medicine published guidance on choline, recommending that women get at least 425 milligrams per day and men get 550 milligrams per day.
If you want your child to eat a plant-based diet inspired by the GFCF diet, you must consider how much protein your child receives to support their growth. A plan that incorporates a wide variety of foods, with the least amount of processed food, will supply the most nutrition possible.
Ultimately, both plant-based foods and meat are safe for autistic people, but the overall diet structure is most important. If you are concerned about your child’s health on this diet, talk to your pediatrician. If you have a nutritionist, work with them to create balance in your child’s diet.
Treatment and Intervention Services for Autism Spectrum Disorder. (September 2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Mealtime and Children on the Autism Spectrum: Beyond Picky, Fussy, and Fads. Indiana Resource Center for Autism.
Top 15 Sources of Plant-Based Protein. (April 2018). Medical News Today.
Dietary Considerations in Autism Spectrum Disorders: The Potential Role of Protein Digestion and Microbial Putrefaction in the Gut-Brain Axis. (May 2018). Frontiers in Nutrition.
Vegan and Plant-Based Diets Worsen Brain Health. (September 2019). Neuroscience News.
What Parents Need to Know About a Vegan Diet. (January 2020). Harvard Medical School.
Can Diet Treat Autism? U.S. News & World Report.
The Effects of Vegetarian and Vegan Diets on Gut Microbiota. (April 2019). Frontiers in Nutrition.
The Brain Needs Animal Fat. (March 2019). Psychology Today.