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Special Diets and Autism Ranking: Unable to rate

Risks and Safety

Hazards

There are many potential risks in withdrawing normal or regular foods from individuals, but especially young children.

Some individuals on the autism spectrum are faddy eaters. They already have a less healthy and less varied diet than other people. Restricting what they eat even further may reinforce those rigid eating patterns. It may also increase their social isolation (because they can’t eat the same food as their friends at parties or restaurants).

In the long-term special diets could lead to health problems if they are not carefully balanced. For example, according to Marí-Bauset et al (2015),

“The combination of food selectivity and restrictive diets can make it difficult to achieve an adequate diet, consequently resulting in an excessive intake of certain foods and/or deficiencies and malnutrition due to insufficient amounts of other foods. In turn, inadequate intakes may lead to the development of chronic and degenerative conditions that tend to appear in the third or fourth decade of life (cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, dyslipidemia and osteoporosis, among others) or even earlier, in the case of menstrual disturbances, sleep apnea, and psychosocial disorders.”

Notes: diabetes, condition characterised by high blood sugar levels; dyslipidemia, an abnormal level of fatty acids; osteoporosis, brittle or fragile bones; sleep apnea, temporary suspension of breathing.

Specific diets:

There are some potential hazards associated with specific diets. For example,

  • According to the Healthy Food Guide website, accessed on 26 September 2016, “The poor range of foods [in the Gut and Psychology Syndrome diet] leaves a nutritionally inadequate diet. The introductory stage provides well below the recommended nutrient intake for vitamins, minerals and protein (as well as calories), putting people at risk of malnutrition.” It also notes that the “...  advice on diet in pregnancy and infancy contradicts government food safety guidance – for example, liver intake in pregnancy is not recommended in the UK, and raw eggs are not recommended for infants and young children.”
  • According to Connor (2014), the gluten-free, casein-free diet poses a number of potential risks including a low intake of calcium, iodine and fibre which can lead to weaker bones, iodine deficiency and gut problems. There is also a risk of masking undiagnosed coeliac disease if a coeliac disease test is not carried out before trialling the diet.
  • According to Kossoff et al. (2009), the ketogenic diet may produce a number of adverse side effects including gastrointestinal symptoms, carnitine deficiency and elevated lipids. More seriously “Children receiving the ketogenic diet continuously for more than six years are at high risk for kidney stones, bone fractures, and growth disturbances.”
  • According to Zelman (2011), the specific-carbohydrate diet “...can be a very challenging diet to follow because there are a limited number of foods allowed... Not only is the SCD difficult to follow, it may also be risky for your health. When you eliminate whole food groups like dairy and grains, you significantly reduce the nutritional quality of the diet, which may result in nutritional deficiencies.”

Contraindications

There are no known contraindications (something which makes a particular treatment or procedure potentially inadvisable) for most diets.  However, some diets can be very challenging and difficult to adopt, especially for some people on the autism spectrum. For example, according to Evangeliou (2003),

“The classic ketogenic diet is very restrictive and requires a large amount of dietetic involvement in terms of calculations, monitoring, patient support, and motivation from the family to adhere to the diet; consequently, it is difficult to adapt for children with [learning disabilities].”

Individuals on the autism spectrum or their carers who have concerns about their or their child’s diet should seek advice from a responsible health professional such as their health visitor or GP. This may lead to a referral to a dietitian, in particular one with experience of working with individuals on the autism spectrum.

Updated
31 Oct 2017
Last Review
01 Jan 2017
Next Review
01 Jan 2020