Top 10 Therapeutic Diets and How They Can Help Your Child
There are many dietary approaches you can use to help your child with autism, ADHD, and other neurodevelopmental disorders. Today I am going to reveal the Top 10 Therapeutic Diets and How They Can Help Your Child, and discuss a few of them in detail.
Diet is the first intervention by physicians and other practitioners who specialize in working with our children. Proper diet is fundamental to correcting the underlying causes of neurological symptoms. Often, parents see “miraculous” results when implementing dietary interventions which focus on removing inflammatory foods and provide nutrients that support gut healing and detoxification.
As I mentioned in one of my earliest articles, I took the “all or nothing” approach to dietary change with my daughters and dove head first into the GAPS diet. But my path may not be right for you—each child is different, and there are many variables to consider before choosing how to proceed with your child. In addition to the brief discussion below of a few of the ten diets to consider, download my Top Ten Therapeutic Diets Cheat Sheet for an overview of your options.
Top Ten Therapeutic Diets to Help Your Child Address Autism, ADHD, and Other Neurodevelopmental Disorders (in no particular order):
- Gluten-free/casein-free diet (GFCF)
- Specific carbohydrate diet (SCD)
- Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) Diet
- Ketogenic diet
- Low oxalate diet (LOD)
- Feingold diet
- FAILSAFE diet
- Body Ecology Diet (BED)
- Autoimmune paleo (AIP) diet
- Elimination/rotation/food sensitivities diet
Here I will briefly discuss three of the above diets: GFCF diet, GAPS Diet and the elimination/rotation/food sensitivities diet.
Gluten-Free/Casein-Free (GFCF) Diet
What Is the Gluten–Free/Casein–Free Diet (GFCF)?
Most parents start with the GFCF diet first. A study of children with autism, based on parent reporting, found that the GFCF diet resolved symptoms over 65% of the time. 1 This diet is focused on the complete elimination of all gluten- and casein-containing foods from the diet.
Gluten and casein are proteins found in certain grains and dairy products, respectively. Complete elimination of these proteins is required in order to adequately assess the diet’s impact, as even small exposures through cross-contamination can trigger symptoms in children, reducing the efficacy of the diet.
How Does the GFCF Diet Work?
Many children test positive with IgG antibodies to gluten and casein, indicating a sensitivity to these proteins which can result in impaired cognition and focus. One theory is that the peptides created by the breakdown of gluten and casein are known to mimic the peptides of opiates, creating a “morphine-like” impact on the brain.
A more recent study has shown that the opiate peptides mentioned above impact the methylation cycle, resulting in increased inability to effectively detox, and increased inflammation in the gut which in turn impacts the function of the brain. 2
Challenges and Benefits of the GFCF Diet
- The GFCF diet is one of the easiest to implement, maintain and see benefits from.
- Strict adherence is necessary.
- The diet cannot be properly assessed for effectiveness until strict adherence has been achieved for a minimum of six weeks, although many parents report seeing gains immediately.
- In order for this and other therapeutic diets (especially the ones that remove entire food groups) to be a healthful change, you must ensure that the gluten- and casein-containing foods are not replaced with processed foods that are labeled “gluten-free” and “dairy-free”. Instead, substitute and include a variety of whole foods to ensure your child is getting the nutrients they need.
Many household products contain gluten, so you must not only remove gluten from food but also any products that come into contact with your child. Personal care products, such as shampoo, moisturizers, toothpaste, etc., must also not contain gluten.
Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) Diet
What is the GAPS Diet?
The GAPS diet was developed by Natasha Campbell McBride, MD. She developed the diet when her own son was diagnosed with severe autism at the age of two when she realized that allopathic medicine and her advanced training in neurology didn’t have the answers she sought. Her further research and education in the area of nutrition lead her to develop her own diet protocol that is based on the specific carbohydrate diet (SCD). More about the SCD diet can be found in my Therapeutic Diets Cheat Sheet.
How Does GAPS Work?
GAPS was developed on the premise that the health of the gut impacts the physical and mental health of the child. You must heal the gut in order to resolve the symptoms seen in your child. GAPS is a comprehensive gut-healing protocol that corrects digestion, is nutrient dense, and starves the pathogenic bacteria in the gut (by only allowing monosaccharides in the diet) while repopulating the gut with beneficial bacteria.
In addition, the nutrients, foods and therapies emphasized in the GAPS diet support methylation, transsulfuration, and sulphation cycles to naturally improve your child's detoxification abilities.
Challenges and Benefits of the GAPS Diet
- Many see this diet as very restrictive and find it a challenge to be compliant.
- Food preparation time can be overwhelming.
- Parents of picky eaters can't imagine their children eating the recommended foods.
- Healing reactions can make symptoms appear worse before resolving.
- Individuals with common allergies to nuts, eggs and dairy find GAPS more difficult to implement, however some find their allergies resolve taking this approach to gut healing.
- Gains reported by parents implementing the GAPS diet range from resolution of individual symptoms (both developmental and digestive) to full recovery of their children.
The GAPS Diet recommends primarily using food-based nutrients and adding supplements only once truly deemed necessary. The GAPS diet also implements a number of non-food-based therapies, such as epsom salt baths, iodine “painting,” cod liver oil packs and enemas. Not all are required, but many parents find they help speed the healing process.
In addition, preparation is key when you start a diet like the GAPS diet. For success, ensure your home, kitchen and family are fully prepared before implementing the diet.
Elimination/Rotation/Food Sensitivities Diet
What is the Elimination/Rotation/Food Sensitivities Diet?
The elimination/rotation/food sensitivities diet is used to address food sensitivities, allergies and gut dysfunction, which can all be underlying causes of your child’s neurological symptoms. This diet, as the name implies, can be approached a few ways.
The first step is to identify which foods your child is sensitive to, so you know which ones you will need to avoid. Identifying food sensitivities is tricky. It can be done by two methods:
- Eliminate the common highly allergic/sensitive foods from the diet for a minimum of six weeks and slowly add them back in one at a time to determine which foods you child is sensitive to based on symptoms.
- Have your child perform a food sensitivity test (there are many types of tests with varying degrees of accuracy) to determine which foods they are sensitive to.
Eliminate and/or rotate foods that your child is sensitive to, to give the gut time to heal and provide relief for the immune system. Typically the foods that your child tests to be highly sensitive must be completely eliminated from their diet. The foods that they test as having mild/moderate sensitivity to can be rotated into the diet a few times a week. In most cases, all of these foods can be reintroduced later once gut healing is complete without the related symptoms returning.
This diet must be strictly adhered to produce benefits. Ingesting sensitive foods even in the smallest amounts can produce an inflammatory response in the body, preventing healing to occur and slowing progress.
How Does the Elimination/Rotation Diet Work?
When foods that your child has developed sensitivities to are removed from the diet or rotated in the diet, inflammation caused by these sensitivities is reduced and the immune system, which weakens from repeated exposure, is given a chance to rest.
In addition, when inflammation is reduced, the gut lining has an opportunity to heal. (The tight junctions of the gut lining are closed and therefore no longer allow maldigested food particles to enter the bloodstream and trigger an unwanted immune response.)
Challenges and Benefits of the Elimination/Rotation Diet
- Depending on how many foods an individual is sensitive to, it can be a very restrictive diet.
- If more than one family member is following the diet, meal planning can be a challenge.
- Relatively short duration (three months in many cases) is necessary for healing to occur, which can make compliance to the diet easier.
Additional gut healing supplementation is recommended during the elimination/rotation diet. Supplements might include HCl with pepsin, digestive enzymes, multi-strain probiotic, L-glutamine, aloe vera juice, bone broth or meat stock.
How to Choose a Therapeutic Diet to Help My Child with Autism, ADHD or Other Neurodevelopmental Disorders?
- Write everything down. Start tracking what your child is eating and how it impacts their mood, sleep habits and digestion. You can use the My Child Will Thrive Food, Mood, Sleep and Poop Journal, or an app like Birdhouse for Autism. Once you have been tracking for a while, take a step back to look at what patterns may be emerging.
- Dig deep to learn more about the different diets. Start by grabbing the Therapeutic Diets Cheat Sheet. Once you have your bearing and have decided to try a particular diet, pick up a book that details the diet completely so you can learn more about how it works.
- If you haven’t joined already, jump into the My Child Will Thrive Village Facebook group and ask us about what diets we have tried and why.
- Talk to your practitioner team. Bring them your Food Journal, or Reports from the Birdhouse app, and get input based on their clinical experience.
Therapeutic diets can bring about significant healing for your child. It took me a while to take the plunge and make significant dietary changes with my children because I thought I would never get them to eat “that way.” Eventually, I asked myself, what would be harder for me and my children, changing what we eat, or living with the daily struggles they were experiencing? I knew the answer, made the changes and even though it isn’t always easy, the improvements in their health and the gains we’ve made have been 100% worth all the challenges along the way.
Let me know in the comments below, in the My Child Will Thrive Village Facebook group or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have considered trying a therapeutic diet for your child or if you are considering trying a new diet, what is holding you back?
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- Summary of Biomedical Treatments fro Autism, Dr. James B Adams, PhD, April 2007http://autism.asu.edu/Additional/Summarybiomed07.pdf
- Trivedi et al. Nutrition & Metabolism (2015) 12:54 DOI 10.1186/s12986-015-0050-1