Within autism parenting groups, I feel like I’m a member of a tiny minority. All the other special-needs parents I know are constantly exchanging diet tips for the increasingly popular GFCF (gluten-free, casein-free) diet, which is widely touted for its purported ability to reduce autism symptoms– or, some say, “cure” the condition altogether. But despite its popularity, I won’t be switching my child to the GFCF diet at any point in the foreseeable future. Here are five reasons not to follow a GFCF diet for autism.
1. There’s no proof that it works. The Cochrane Collaboration, an unbiased nonprofit that investigates the evidence behind health-related treatments, looked at all the available evidence for the GFCF diet for autism. They found that it’s one of many very commonly used treatments for autism, but that, so far, there’s not much reason to think that it works. Drawing from the pool of all available research, the organization concluded, “Current evidence for efficacy of these diets is poor. Large scale, good quality randomised controlled trials are needed.” Similarly, Elsevier published a review and concluded that GFCF diets shouldn’t be used for autism: “Critical analysis of each study’s methodological rigor and results reveal that the current corpus of research does not support the use of GFCF diets in the treatment of ASD.”
2. I don’t want to encourage an eating disorder. Autistic children are notoriously picky eaters and, in some cases, picky eating can turn into a serious eating disorder. There’s evidence that people with eating disorders have very high rates of autism-like symptoms, and even that autism and anorexia might be the exact same condition. My daughter already has her share of unhealthy behaviors when it comes to food, and I don’t want to encourage food aversions or compulsions by unnecessarily restricting her list of “safe” foods.
3. There are serious health consequences of the GFCF diet for autism. GFCF diets for autism aren’t risk-free. The systematic review in Elsevier found that autistic children on GFCF diets may be at a higher risk for bone problems. A GFCF diet can also lead to many deficiencies in vitamins and minerals and can lead to either severe weight gain or weight loss, both of which can be serious in children. And many people adhering to the GFCF diet develop diarrhea or constipation, which can be especially problematic for autistic kids, who are already prone to these discomforts. My daughter’s picky eating has already led to some run-ins with anemia in the past, and I’m not going to chance putting her at a high risk for future deficiencies.
4. Several healthy alternatives to the GFCF diet exist. There isn’t much evidence to support the GFCF diet, but there are many other dietary changes that might benefit kids with autism. The Feingold Diet in particular, which eliminates food coloring, artificial flavor, and petroleum-based additives, is very low-risk and much healthier than the GFCF diet. Although it was created for children with ADHD, it could theoretically help autistic children, as well, and doesn’t carry the same kinds of nutritional risks as GFCF diets. It’s possible to switch your kids to a healthier diet without leaving the nutritional gaps associated with gluten-free and casein-free lifestyles.
5. I don’t want a cure. When I hear other parents talking about “curing” their kids’ autism, or the miraculous treatments that supposedly make it vanish overnight, I cringe. I don’t want to change who my daughter is or separate her from her neurology. I do not want to find a cure for autism because I don’t think it is a flaw or a defect. So, even if I knew that a GFCF diet for autism would “cure” my daughter overnight, I wouldn’t pursue it unless it was a choice she made independently of me. And, considering that it doesn’t seem particularly safe or effective anyway, I don’t think I’m missing out on much.
I’m happy for now having my family follow a balanced, minimally processed diet, and to help my daughter through any struggles she has using more effective means. If you’re considering using a GFCF diet for autism, get in touch with your child’s pediatrician so she can help you evaluate the benefits and risks. You can make the best possible decision for your family only when you have enough information to do so.