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What Are Biomedical Diets for Children with Autism?

What Are Biomedical Diets for Children with AutismWhen a child is diagnosed with autism, there ideally should be a treatment team composed of a physician, ABA therapist, and any other professional that is related to services the child needs, such as a physical, occupational, or speech therapist, dietician, or psychologist. There are different treatment modalities for autism, and since each child brings unique challenges, the type of treatment will be decided on a case-by-case basis. Not every child with autism needs occupational therapy, just like not every child with autism needs a dietician. 

For those children that are seeing a dietician or GI physician or for those parents who want to try something new to supplement the current treatment plan, beginning a biomedical diet is an option, although it should only be started under medical knowledge and supervision.

“In practice, most people use the term [biomedical diet] to refer to a group of interventions which are designed to stop, or at least reduce, the effect of biomedical problems (such as gastrointestinal abnormalities, immune dysfunctions, detoxification abnormalities, and/or nutritional deficiencies or imbalances)” (ResearchAutism). 

Overview and Goals of Biomedical Treatments 

A high number of individuals with autism experience gastrointestinal (GI) problems such as chronic constipation and diarrhea. 

“Research is now increasingly able to characterize the “fragile gut” in these children and understand the role that impairment of specific GI functions plays in the GI symptoms associated with ASD. This mechanistic understanding is extending to the interactions between diet and ASD, including food structure and protein digestive capacity in exacerbating autistic symptoms. Children with ASD and gut co-morbidities exhibit low digestive enzyme activity, impaired gut barrier integrity and the presence of antibodies specific for dietary proteins in the peripheral circulation,” (Sanctuary, 2018). 

While prescribing medications for GI distress is an option, many parents and physicians would rather take a more holistic route while focusing on the environmental effects on the child’s body that are causing symptoms. 

The main goal of biomedical treatments for children with autism is to utilize food and nutrition as well as dietary supplements to calm severe symptoms and naturally regulate the GI tract. 

“The goal of medical treatment is not simply functional health, but rather optimal health,” (Cortica). 

Examples of Biomedical Diets

Common biomedical diets for autism will omit or add in specific groups of food or supplements to obtain a health goal, such as to reduce inflammation. 

  • The gluten-free/casein-free (GF/CF) diet is a well-known diet among those in the field of autism—even those without autism enjoy foods free from gluten and casein to be able to reap the health benefits of doing so. Gluten is the protein found in wheat and casein is the protein found in dairy. Both have been known to cause inflammation and GI distress. “The Autism Research Institute has reported that 69% of kids have benefited from a gluten and casein-free diet (GF/CF). The GF/CF diet is one of many diets and is important to lay down a foundation, to improve digestion and absorption and to heal a leaky gut,” (TreatmentsForAutism). Although research is still limited, many cases show that there is a decrease in inappropriate behaviors following the diet. 

 

  • The addition of Omega-3 from fatty fish, eggs, soybeans, tofu, walnuts, and flaxseeds—or from a supplement—has been shown to decrease hyperactivity in some children with autism, although additional clinical trials need to take place in order to evidence correlation. 

 

  • The Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SDC) is the omission of starches and sugars including table sugar, maple syrup, rice, pasta, bread, potatoes, certain beans, rice milk, and cornstarch. “The Specific Carbohydrate Diet unlike other specialized diets works by removing the foods that cannot be properly broken down. The vicious cycle of malabsorption, maldigestion, inflammation, and food allergies seen in children with autism can be corrected using this dietary approach and healthy digestion can begin.”

 

  • The Feingold Diet is another specialized plan for those with autism that removes additives and chemicals from the diet. A “major contribution from the Feingold followers has been the recognition of benefits for other issues having been helped by the Feingold diet such as behavioral problems, self-stimulation (stimming), focus, concentration, eye contact and so on,” (TheAutismExchange). 

 

  • A probiotic diet is one that is focused on increasing the beneficial bacteria and yeast in the body and to maintain healthy gut flora. “Probiotic bacterial cultures are intended to assist the body’s naturally occurring flora within the digestive tract to reestablish themselves and may help children on the autism spectrum who have gastrointestinal problems,” (AutismHelp). 

It is important to remember that the claim on biomedical diets is not to “cure” autism but to improve physical symptoms and decrease unwanted or inappropriate behaviors. There are many other diets out there that have been shown to help decrease unwanted symptoms of autism. Dieticians and physicians are the professionals that should oversee any sort of diet change in children, as omitting and adding nutrients into a diet can have negative consequences if not done by the recommendation of a doctor and not closely monitored. 

While changing a diet can prove to be beneficial, there are opponents in the world of autism who do not believe that biomedical diets legitimately work. There needs to be much more research in this area with trials that produce a greater correlation between the diet and the behavior goal. However, a child on a biomedical diet in conjunction with other treatment modalities such as ABA therapy, speech and language therapy, social skills groups, and so on may see more positive results than being placed on a diet alone without other forms of treatment. 

Brittany Wilson

Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University

Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University

April 2020

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