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Healthy Eating For Autistic Adults

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The Impact Of Nutrition On Physical And Mental Health

Diet and Autism

May 17th, 2022

Note: This blog was written by Juliette Heim, Autism Resource Specialist, and Kristy Myers, Health Consultant at the Autism Society of North Carolina. Juliette Heims reflections on her experience as a parent to a son with autism are in italics.

Health is broadly defined as a state of physical, mental and social well-being, in addition to freedom from disease and/or illness . It includes daily movement, adequate sleep, healthy eating patterns and social connections that result in improved quality of life and reduced risk for chronic diseases.

As a parent of a soon to be 22-year-old son, who is on the autism spectrum, I have learned some very important lessons over the years, as to the importance of physical and mental health in relation to nutrition. At the time when Logan was four years old, we discovered that he had some nutritional deficiencies, as well as intolerances related to his digestion and his overall gut health. After doing my own research and consulting with my sons pediatrician, we placed him on a gluten-free and dairy-free diet. For Logan, this has made a world of difference for him.

How Do I Eat Healthy On A Budget

A lot of people think they can’t afford healthy food. It is possible to eat healthy on a budget. Finding simple meals with a protein source and some vegetables can be an easy, quick, and cheap meal.

Quick tips to save money:

  • Use coupons and check for sales. Buy in bulk when possible.
  • Protein – Meat is an expensive protein source. Decreasing your meat intake and using cheaper protein can help save you money. Eggs, beans, tofu are good sources of protein that tend to cost less.
  • Produce – Buy what you know you’ll eat. If you are buying fresh fruits and vegetables only get enough for what you know you will eat in the next couple of days. If you buy a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables they may go bad before you get a chance to eat them. This means wasted money. Buying only a few fresh items at once may mean more trips to the store, but it can also save you money.
  • Frozen produce – If you do not think you will eat fresh produce before it goes bad, frozen vegetables and fruit are a good option. They are just as good nutritionally and will keep longer in the freezer. Many frozen vegetables are also pre-cut, which can save you time and steps while cooking.
  • Many packaged snacks and prepared dinners are actually more expensive than making your own meal. If possible, learn how to make basic meals and make larger batches that can last for several meals. Cooking your fresh vegetables can often make them last longer.

Children With Autism Often Have Strong Food Preferences That Lead To Poor Nutrition You Can Help Your Child Form Good Mealtime Habits With These Guidelines For Healthy Eating

Healthy eating in childhood helps to set up good habits for life. This is especially important for children with autism spectrum disorder who have an increased risk for excessive weight gain, selective eating and nutrient deficiencies.

Scheduling meals

Fruits, veggies and other nutritious foods

Throughout each day, children should eat from all five major food groups, which include:

  • Meats and beans

Each of these food groups provides a different set of vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients like carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Its OK if your child only eats a few foods in each food group, as long as those foods are consumed on a daily basis in a balanced way. The United States Department of Agriculture has created the My Plate educational resource to help guide you in balancing your familys diet. Following My Plate also helps you with appropriate portion sizes based on age.

What to avoid

It is important to limit snacking between scheduled meals and snacks. Grazing, or eating small amounts of food throughout the day, isnt healthy. At an identified meal or snack time, portion out the correct serving size and put it into an appropriate container, such as small bowl or baggie. Reducing grazing also means limiting access to sugar-sweetened beverages, such as juice and soda. Caloric drinks should only be offered as part of a meal. Limit juice to no more than 8 ounces a day, and avoid soda whenever possible.

Recommended Reading: How To Potty Train A 4 Year Old With Autism

Problematic Eating Behaviours Of Autistic Women

Across the included studies, autistic women reported having eating behaviours frequently seen in ASD such as having problems with sensitivities regarding the sensory properties of food, having rituals and routines around mealtimes, having difficulties adapting one’s behaviour to other people present during the eating situation and having preferences with regards to brands of food, which is in line with findings of previous research . Additionally, they reported disordered eating behaviours, such a pathological avoidance of foods with a high carbohydrate or sugar content, a desire to be thin, a dissatisfaction with their body, as well as bulimic behaviours and a preoccupation with food, all on severity levels similar, though not quite like those of women with EDs.

How Can A Dietitian Help

Autism Diet

Dietitians can:

  • look at whether your diet is providing all the nutrients needed
  • give advice on nutritional supplements
  • give helpful, practical advice to help reduce mealtime stress or anxiety
  • if suitable, give advice to help to try new food

If you are autistic and would like to see a dietitian, you can:

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Increase Omega 3 Fats

Deficiencies in essential fats are common in people with autism. Research by Dr Gordon Bell at Stirling University has shown that some autistic individuals have an enzymatic defect that removes essential fats from brain cell membranes more quickly than it should10. This means that autistic individuals are likely to need a higher intake of essential fats. It has been found that supplementing EPA, which can slow the activity of the defective enzyme, has clinically improved behaviour, mood, imagination, spontaneous speech, sleep patterns and focus in autistic individuals. There have since been clinical trials testing omega-3 supplementation, which have found that when individuals with autism were given omega-3 supplements, improvements in symptoms such as hyperactivity, social ability, concentration, irritability and aggression were reported 11,12.

Not Eating Enough Food

Children with autism have a hard time focusing on one thing for an extended period. This is why they may not be eating enough. They lose interest in finishing their meals or sitting at the table. Introducing snacks can help, but finding the right balance between healthy snacks and what your child likes is challenging.

Read Also: What Causes Autism And Aspergers

Does A Persons Diet Cause Gastrointestinal Disorders

It is essential to determine the underlying causes of GI symptoms and whether they can be treated or resolved by adjusting food habits or applying special diets. Ultimately, parents are advised to consult the childs physician and report relevant diet, digestion, and bowel movement issues that might affect moods and behavior associated with autism.

Better Eating On The Autism Spectrum

An AUTISM Diet – what are YOU EATING?

Picky eating or challenging eating behaviour is common in children on the autism spectrum. Dietitian Katrina Pace looks at ways to help.

Many parents struggle at one time or another with their childs eating behaviours. Whether its battling to get them to eat any vegetables or finding an entire weeks worth of bread and peanut butter has been scoffed for afternoon tea while dinner is left uneaten, the pain and frustration is very real.

But what about kids who have problems tolerating foods because of how theyre wired?

For many families who have a member on the autism spectrum, these challenges can be much more pronounced.

Healthy Food Guide takes a look at food selectivity or aversion in people with autism and practical ways to help.

Also Check: How To Deal With Kids With Autism

Cooking Is Hard For Me What Are Some Ideas To Make It Easier

There are a lot of cooking resources on the Internet. These three are particularly clear with a lot of steps and photographs, and no confusing phrases like “until it looks good to you.”

Step-by-Step Cook offers in-depth, detailed, start-to-finish instructions on a wide variety of recipes. This site assumes that the users have no prior cooking experience, and includes photos of what each step should look like.

Cooking for Engineers breaks recipes down very concretely with tables showing which steps are done in order and which are done at the same time. It also has information on cooking gadgets.

Cooking With Autism has some step-by-step sample recipes, and offers a book for purchase.

If following recipes or cooking a lot of different things just isn’t going to happen for you, here are some ideas:

Food Issues for Independent Autistic Adults is a website created by Patricia E. Clark that includes tips to help with cooking.

When Hes Hungry Enough Hell Eat

How often have we heard this from well-meaning family, friends, and medical providers? While most young children exhibit food preferences and some food selectivity, other children display persistent and highly restrictive eating patterns. Almost 70% of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder exhibit selective and restrictive eating patterns. Some childrens food selectivity may be so severe that they only eat one or two foods. Extreme eating patterns can lead to caloric and nutritional deficits, which are especially concerning in young children as growth and brain development may be affected.

In addition to the health and developmental effects of persistent restrictive eating patterns, it also causes disruptions to family life and may interfere with the childs daily functioning. Eating only certain foods may affect the social activities that a child participates in. Families may be forced to cook special meals each day or to eat at only certain restaurants, if at all. Planning for school lunches can become challenging as well. Mealtimes are often stressful for the family as there may be disagreements between the adults on how to get the child to eat, along with crying and other avoidant behavior by the child.

Children and adults with feeding difficulties may display the following behaviors:

Read Also: How To Know If Youre Autistic

Vitamin B6 Vitamin C And Magnesium

We have known since the 1970s that a nutritional approach can help autism, thanks to the pioneering research by Dr Bernard Rimland of the Institute for individual Behaviour Research in San Diego, California. He showed that vitamin B6, C and magnesium supplements significantly improved symptoms in autistic individuals. In one of his early studies back in 1978, 12 out of 16 autistic individuals improved, then regressed when the vitamins were swapped for placebos 14. Other studies, however, have failed to confirm conclusively positive outcomes with certain nutrients. For example, a French study of 60 autistic individuals found they improved significantly on a combination of vitamin B6 and magnesium, but not when either nutrient was supplemented alone16.

Why Are Dietitians Recommended For People With Autism

Healthy Eating for Children with Autism, Sensory Issues or Allergies

As some people on the autism spectrum can have difficulty with eating, or can be fastidious eaters, there are a number of professional registered dietitians who have a particular interest in the nutritional needs of children and adults with autism.

Behavioural challenges as well as sensitivities to certain foods, particularly among some children with autism, can make it difficult for parents and carers to ensure they are providing them with a nutritious diet.

For example, people with autism may refuse to eat unless they sit in the same place at the table, eat on the same dishes, use the same tablecloth, and eat the same foods every single day. Just a small change in routine can cause an enormous amount of anxiety or fear in a child or person with autism, and can often result in the refusal to eat.

Researchers at Marcus Autism Center at Emory University School of Medicine found that children on the autism spectrum are five times more likely to have mealtime outbursts, be more selective about their food, or have ritualistic eating behaviours.

The study also found lower intakes of calcium and protein in children with autism. Calcium is crucial for building strong bones, while adequate protein is important for growth, mental development and health.

This can be why people with autism, or with a child who has autism, find it useful to seek advice from a dietitian, as they can provide solutions for evading some of these common issues.

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Where Can I Find Specific Details On Individual Foods Or Nutrients

NutritionData.com has tools and information to understand and analyze nutrition, including

  • Information about what nutrients are in which foods
  • A daily nutritional needs calculator based on your sex, age, weight, and activity level
  • Detailed information about special health diets such as diabetic or heart diets

The Linus Pauling Micronutrient Information Center has detailed, technical information on many nutrients found in food, as well as symptoms from not getting enough–or getting too much–of a nutrient. It also has summaries about research on nutrition in specific medical conditions. NOTE: This site has a lot of information, but is not written in a way that is easy to understand. The information is very technical and uses a lot of jargon.

Sensory Food Aversion Or Selectivity

Having over-responsive sensation reactions is thought to be a factor in sensory aversions to food. Miriam Belsham, principal occupational therapist at Sprouts Child Occupational Therapy Service explains: Eating and drinking is the most complicated sensory task a child engages in. Its the only daily activity for children that requires all eight of our sensory systems to work in coordination. Therefore, its understandable that if a child has challenges with their sensory processing, like in ASDs, this can impact their eating and drinking and mealtime participation.

Read Also: Can Autism Be Diagnosed Before Birth

Should Autistic Children Be On A Special Diet

Despite the lack of evidence that a particular diet improves symptoms of autism, many parents opt for trying specific food regimens they believe will help. While these diets are not scientific, the response from parents proves otherwise.

Exclusion diets are popular in parents that administer specific autism diets to their children. These diets involve reducing or removing food that is considered harmful to a persons health. Some examples of exclusion diets are:

Digestive Problems In Asd

What My Autistic Son Eats In A Day

Some people with autism also have digestive problems, such as constipation, abdominal pain, or vomiting. Some research7 suggests that digestive problems occur more often in people with autism than in people without autism, but research is still being done on this topic.5,7 Working with a health care provider can help ensure that a diet does not make digestive problems worse.

NICHD and other agencies and organizations will continue research to learn more about how children with autism grow and if they have specific nutritional needs.

Read Also: Can Autism Be Diagnosed At Any Age

Bmi And Body Composition Of Autistic Women

The study of Garcia-Pastor et al. is the only study that provided separate BMI and body composition data of autistic women without intellectual disability, without including any measures of general or problematic eating behaviours. Here, body composition data was compared between autistic men and women as well as between autistic children and adolescents. Autistic men had a significantly higher BMI than autistic women and were more often overweight or obese. Autistic women on the other hand had a significantly higher body fat percentage than autistic men. In Nisticó et al. , BMI was compared between autistic women, women with an ED and control women. Here, no significant differences were found between autistic women and women with an ED, and between autistic women and control women. In Karjalainen et al. , BMI was compared between autistic women and women currently ill with AN, with autistic women having a significantly higher BMI than women currently ill with AN.

Eating Optimal Foods: Autistic Children & Problems With Food

Children with autism often have inadequate nutrition, partly due to food avoidances and aversions. Poor nutrition increases the risk of later chronic illnesses, like diabetes and heart disease. Children who grow up with poor diets are more likely to be obese, which is associated with several chronic illnesses. Children with autism are more likely to have low calcium and protein, which can reduce brain development, bone growth, and muscle strength. These issues may be correlated with problems with cognition, balance, physical strength, and other aspects of physical development. Feeding issues can be a major problem for autistic children, and the consequences can be serious if the child ends up with nutritional deficiencies. Parents can help by employing various strategies to get their children to eat a more diverse diet. Doctors and therapists are often involved in this process.

Also Check: Autism Spectrum Disorder Dsm 5 Criteria

Problematic Eating Behaviours Of Autistic Women With Comorbid Eds

Even though very little is evidently known about the eating behaviours of autistic women, there is evidence from the ED field that autistic women with comorbid AN and ASD have a more severe presentation at the beginning of treatment and poorer treatment outcomes . Autistic women with ASD and comorbid AN seem to view both of their conditions as deeply interlinked, which makes it difficult to profit from current treatment modalities as these do not take the autistic traits underlying their ED into account .

Recently, a novel clinical pathway for autistic individuals and comorbid AN has been developed, which aims to improve evidence-based treatments offered to these patients . Most of the studies on the relationship between eating problems and ASD however have not applied comprehensive assessments including developmental analysis to determine the diagnosis of ASD. This is of great importance, as instruments like the ADOS-2 or the AQ-50 alone are not sufficient to detect ASD in patients with EDs, and whose eating problems cannot be linked or attributed to ASD this way.

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