The GFCF Diet: Is It Worth It?

Annie Tanasugarn, PhDc, BCBA CEO/AUTHOR, The Autism Analyst
"Autism Awareness simply means to acknowledge that Autism exists; Acceptance is to acknowledge its value."

Should I go GFCF for My Child?

I can recall 10 years ago that the words “Gluten-free” were barely recognized within health food stores, let alone the field of Autism. Today, GFCF has become a buzzword of sorts; a trend that many health food stores and specialty stores are cashing in on. But, should I go GFCF for my child? How legit is this GFCF trend?

The Basics:

GFCF stands for: Gluten-free and Casein-free. Gluten is found in common foods such as breads, pastas, cereals, beans, and other high-carbohydrate foods and casein is found in foods that contain milk proteins. Children who use this diet are restricted from ingesting dairy (milk, eggs, cheese, yogurt etc.) and are restricted from eating wheat-based, or carb-based foods. These are all items that are recommended by the FDA food pyramid to use in moderate consumption, following the pyramid recommended guidelines. While there have been changes to the FDA’s food pyramid within the last few years, experts still agree that several nutrients found in pastas, breads, high-carb foods and milk protein(s) are essential for proper health.

BUT: research suggests that children with Autism are at an increased risk for sensitivity to these foods which have been reported to cause symptoms ranging from stomach upset, diarrhea, sleepiness, confusion, and inability to concentrate to name just a few. Scary stuff. So what the heck is a parent to do?

The Pros:

The biggest positive change that parents have reported in beginning the GFCF diet for their child is in the child’s increased attention and less stomach upset. Many parents have reported that stomach issues (gas, bloat, painful irritation, diarrhea, etc.) have stopped or been greatly reduced when introducing this diet to their child. When eliminating common carbs from a diet, parents can opt to increase insoluble fiber foods from plants such as apples, oranges and nuts to help replace the lost nutrients from restricted carbohydrate intake. Exchanging white or wheat rice for quinoa may also help in maintaining a healthy diet for your child, while reducing and/or eliminating gluten and casein from their diet. Veggies such as broccoli and kale are also reported as being high in calcium which is excellent for replacing lost dairy-based vitamins.

The Cons:

The diet is very expensive to maintain and it has to be administered exactly as instructed. As with any restricted diet, the use of supplements are usually recommended to ensure that all vital nutrients are being absorbed into the body. Supplements are expensive and require strict adherence to the required administration.  Many children cannot take the supplements or have issues in swallowing them. Liquid versions are available at most organic stores, but children may be averse to taking this too. Vegetables such as kale and broccoli are not always liked by children due to their bitter taste which may be another issue. Similarly, there is no hard evidence that the GFCF diet actually ‘works’ or does what it says it does. While many parents have reported less intestinal upset and less attention issues with their child on the GFCF diet, other factors must be taken into consideration including the child’s overall health and any possible undiagnosed health concerns.

So, What Can I do…?

The first thing I tell parents when considering the GFCF diet is to speak to your child’s pediatrician to rule out any possible underlying medical condition. Once a clean bill of health has been issued by your pediatrician, then you should consider whether you can afford this type of diet. Organic foods, while a much healthier choice for people, are often very expensive, especially when adding in the often necessary supplements that go along with this diet. Another consideration is to consider your schedule. This diet requires proper administration of foods and supplements which can be time-consuming for parents. Parents who work or have limited free-time must weigh the pros and cons of adding this task to their daily schedule.

Ultimately, the choice should be left up to the parents and discussed with the child’s pediatrician and a sound decision made from there.

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