Gluten-free diets might not really have an effect on autistic children. [Image credit: pixabay user Kurious]
For decades, doctors have recommended putting children with autism on special diets to reduce some of their digestive symptoms, but these diets might be unnecessary, according to a new study.
These diets are often gluten-free or casein-free (or both). But a new study published in The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders by scientists at the University of Rochester suggests that these particular dietary interventions might not make much of a difference.
First off, you might ask, what are gluten and casein? Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, and casein is a protein found in milk and dairy products. Some researchers have argued that children with autism have trouble breaking down these two proteins during digestion. As a result, they develop what is known as a leaky gut, which causes physical discomfort and behavioral symptoms. Therefore, removing these problematic proteins from the diet of a child with autism should reduce some of their discomfort.
The University of Rochester study tested whether or not the gluten-free/casein-free (GF/CF) diet is safe and actually effective for children with autism. The study followed a group of children ages 2-5 for 12 weeks who were on a strict GF/CF diet. Then, snack foods containing gluten, casein, both or a placebo that contained neither, were reintroduced into the children’s diet. Tristram Smith, one of the researchers, says “the diet was safe” thanks to strict nutritional monitoring, but “no significant changes were found when the children were given snack foods with gluten, casein or both, compared to placebo.”
That said, Karl Reichelt of The Univeristy of Oslo in Norway conducted a similar, year-long study in 2002 that saw completely different results, showing that implementing a GF/CF diet did have a positive impact on the behavioral symptoms of children with autism. He says that although “the design for this [new] experiment was very good, the time on the diet was far too short.” Reichelt claims that because “this complex developmental disorder is not usually quickly changed,” any study “not longer than three months is the stuff of fairy tales” and should be taken with a grain of salt.
However, Smith argues that even if the trial period was several months or even a year long, “there is no medical reason to expect that prolonging the study would have changed the results.” The study period was based on “the time it takes for symptoms to improve when treating food sensitivities and gastrointestinal disorders, as well as the time it takes for symptoms to come back when foods are reintroduced.” And there are other previous studies, like this one from 2006 or this one from 2008 whose results are similar to Smith’s.
Due to the conflicting evidence from this study and previous, similar studies, there is no universal recommendation for GF/CF diets. However, all these studies, despite their disagreements about the effectiveness of GF/CF diets in treating digestive discomfort in children with autism, do agree that following such a diet is safe and has no worrisome side effects. Even Smith agrees, “if it is not too difficult for families and children to follow a GF/CF diet, it certainly can’t hurt.”