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Can the Gluten and Casein Free Diet Help a Child who has an Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Updated on September 15, 2015
The gluten contained in bread can cause real problems for those who are allergic or sensitive to it.
The gluten contained in bread can cause real problems for those who are allergic or sensitive to it. | Source

Do You Follow a Gluten and Casein Free Diet?

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The gluten and casein free diet is an alternative treatment that is used by many people to help treat and manage autism spectrum disorders. The diet which is also known as the GFCF or GF/CF diet involves removing all sources of gluten and casein from the affected person’s diet. Once this has been successfully achieved many people have reported great changes and even that certain troubling and difficult behaviour have completely disappeared. These dietary changes are thought to work as they eliminate or greatly reduce gastrointestinal problems and undiagnosed food allergies or sensitivities that are in fact worsening or even causing the behaviours.

Eliminating gluten and casein containing foods, rather than others is believed to help due to the belief that many adults and children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have an allergy to or are highly sensitive both proteins. It is thought that as a result of these sensitivities their bodies are unable to process either of these proteins in the same way as everyone else can. This then leads to the formation of peptides in their bodies because they are unable to be digested fully and pass through the digestive system correctly.

In some cases these peptides can have an opiate like effect on the brain and it is this reaction that is thought to be the cause of a lot of the undesirable changes in the person’s behaviour and reactions to their environment. Many people also report that they crave foods that contain gluten and casein and if they do not eat them for some time they experience withdrawal like symptoms in the same way that a drug user can.

Some scientists do now agree that peptides can trigger unusual immune system responses in sensitive people. For example, research that was carried out at the New Jersey Medical School’s Autism Centre found that children who have autism or autism spectrum disorder were more likely to have abnormal immune responses to milk, soy and wheat than typically-developing children.

The Proteins Gluten and Casein and their Effects

Gluten is a protein that is found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. Gluten can be very hard to avoid, although it is becoming increasingly common for shops and supermarkets to stock a range of gluten free breads, pastas, cakes, sweets, flours and other products. Gluten can be a hidden ingredient in many other unexpected products such as crisps, sauces, processed foods, gravy and even children’s sweets, meaning that if you wish to exclude it from your diet it is very important to read packaged food labels or opt for naturally gluten free foods such as fruits and vegetables.

Casein is a protein that is found in dairy products. Like with gluten there is a wide range of foods available now that are dairy free and so will not contain casein. These include yoghurts, cream, cheeses, chocolate and milk made using soya and a variety of dairy free milks including oat, rice, hemp, coconut and almond milks. Large supermarkets, health food shops and specialist retailers on and offline often stock a range of ‘Free From’ foods that do not contain gluten or dairy and so these are ideal for a gluten and casein free diet. Any foods that are labelled as being suitable for vegans will also be safe to use as they must be completely free of all dairy products. These also will not contain eggs, however they may contain gluten.

Like gluten, milk and therefore casein can also be found in many unexpected places such as children’s sweets and pre-prepared food such as packet rice, sauces, soups and processed meats. Some foods may not contain milk but have had had casein added to them. Lactose free milk products also can still contain casein as these have had the lactose (milk sugar) removed rather than being free of milk products.

Common and familiar foods can still be made by substituting gluten and dairy free versions of foods such as pasta.
Common and familiar foods can still be made by substituting gluten and dairy free versions of foods such as pasta. | Source

Getting Started with the Gluten and Casein Free Diet

As with any diet that restricts what can be eaten, it is important to ensure that anyone following the GFCF diet gets adequate nutrition from the foods that they do eat. There are a variety of non-dairy sources of calcium such as kale, soya beans, broccoli and fortified non-dairy milks. These foods also have the advantage that the calcium they contain is easier for our bodies to absorb. Vitamins and minerals, including calcium can be taken as supplements if needed or you have any worries about consuming enough.

The GFCF diet can be started in two ways; either you can completely eliminate all gluten and casein containing foods at once or you can chose to take a slower approach and remove one protein at a time. The body is able to clear itself of casein quicker so many people chose to cut this out first and then remove gluten containing foods from their diets several weeks later.

Because the body takes a while to remove all traces of gluten it may be several months before any real improvements are seen or felt. Advocates of the gluten and casein free diet recommend trialling the GFCF diet for at least six months for this reason.

Many foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans and pluses, eggs, rice and fresh and frozen meat are naturally gluten free. There are also many substitutes for commonly used items. Potato, rice, soya, coconut or nut flours can be used to bake cakes, breads and other items such as pancakes and cookies. There is also a large range of milk substitutes available now and these include soya, rice, almond, hemp and coconut milks. Many retailers stock a range of specific gluten and milk free foods such as pastas, bread, cakes, yoghurts and cheese. It is also possible to buy products online from retailers including:

Delicious treats can still be enjoyed on a gluten and casein free diet. This cake is gluten, casein, egg and soy free.
Delicious treats can still be enjoyed on a gluten and casein free diet. This cake is gluten, casein, egg and soy free. | Source

Further Information

There are a vast range of books available that have information and recipes to suit a gluten and casein free diet. Online there is also a great selection of websites and blogs that make it possible to find a huge variety of information and recipes as well as the ability to connect with other people experiencing the same journey and difficulties.

As well as sites dedicated to the gluten and casein free diet specifically there are many more that are based around allergies or veganism (which will be free of all dairy products but may contain gluten ingredients) that can be used or adapted and are full of tips and recipes. Blogs and groups such as those found on Facebook or Yahoo can be a good source of information and recipes as well as support from other people going through the same challenges.

© 2012 Claire


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    • profile image

      Mike 2 years ago

      very good article! Thanks!

      also you can learn more at

    • Elderberry Arts profile image

      Claire 5 years ago from Surrey, Uk

      Your welcome, hope it helps. My son and I are both milk free and pretty much gluten free and it has made a difference to his behaviour and digestion especially. I feel much clearer headed and less tired and 'up and down' too and I no longer get a lot of stomach and ear aches. My asthma is better now too.

    • angie ashbourne profile image

      angie ashbourne 5 years ago

      Hi! Elderberry Arts I will show this to my daughter, well done. Angie