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Behavioral and educational therapies continue to serve on the front lines of autism treatment. But mounting evidence shows that nutritional changes, including the removal of common problem foods, can benefit many autistic children, as well as those with other conditions that affect behavior and learning, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Solving nutrient deficiencies
Fixing nutrient deficiencies can also have positive effects for kids with autism or ADHD. Because of their inability to properly digest food and absorb nutrients, many children with these disorders may be low in zinc, magnesium, B vitamins, iron, essential fatty acids, and other nutrients. These deficiencies, Laake says, can affect everything from behavior to what a carrot tastes like. She advises working with a nutritionist or other knowledgeable health care provider to run tests to pinpoint the exact nutrients lacking in a child's diet and devise a food and supplement program aimed at filling in the gaps.
Lack of magnesium, for instance, can cause hyperactive-like behavior, sound sensitivity, and irritability. Zinc deficiency — a result of a defect in zinc metabolism that's common in autistic children and can be exacerbated by diets high in white flour and other high-glycemic foods — can change a child's sense of taste and smell. This helps explain why autistic children are notoriously picky eaters, often willing to eat only macaroni and cheese, yogurt, and other bland food, Laake says. “For these children, many foods have either no taste or a foul taste.” Poor taste perception won't improve until zinc levels rise. Feeding zinc-rich foods such as seafood, whole grains, beans, and cashews can help, but diet may not be sufficient to meet all of the child's zinc needs. Supplementation is usually the quickest way to get zinc into picky eaters, Laake says (see “Supplements for Autism and ADHD,” page 30).
Because autistic and ADHD kids are often very finicky eaters, Weber says improving and diversifying their diets may help. For her patients, she focuses first on protein-rich breakfasts, replacing foods made with refined flour and sugar with whole grains and fruits and vegetables, and serving water in place of soda or juice. By making these diet changes, Weber says, kids get crucial nutrients and balance their blood sugar levels — which is especially important for those prone to hyperactivity, inattentiveness, and mood swings.
Although Brandon Greaves' father admits that the diet changes aimed at helping a child with autism or ADHD aren't always easy to implement, he says such changes can actually benefit the entire family. “None of us eats fast food anymore,” Greaves says. “It takes a little more time and effort, but we're all eating and feeling better.”
Carlotta Mast is a frequent contributor to Delicious Living.