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Gluten Free Diet And Child Behavior

Updated on October 29, 2014
Does a gluten free diet help kids with behavior issues?
Does a gluten free diet help kids with behavior issues? | Source

For parents with children who have autism, ADHD or other behavioral issues, life can be challenging. Getting children to be able to interact with their surroundings and not act out is a challenge for all parents but especially hard for those whose children face these disorders.

So it is only natural that parents begin to look for answers to help their child cope and thrive in their environment. While medication and therapy are two of the answers that some parents turn to, others are looking for more natural ways to cope with behavior issues.

One idea that has been gaining in popularity is modification of the child's diet--specifically targeting gluten and casein.

The internet is filled with stories of parents who swear it is working. But does it work? If so, why and what does the research say?

Scientific Studies

According to Trisha Henry in a CNN Medical report from May 20th, 2010, rigorous testing has still failed to produce a link between a gluten free diet and behavior modification. As in most research, scientists are careful to note that correlation does not necessarily mean causation and anecdotal evidence may have other reasons for the perceived change in behavior.

In the study, the autistic children, who were no older than five were first proven to not have milk allergies or celiac disease.

Then both casein and gluten were completely removed from the children's diets. After a month the children were randomly given one or both of the ingredients or a placebo. Their parents and teachers were then asked about any perceived differences in the child's behavior.

The results of the study showed that there was no difference in these children's behaviors either on or off those specific ingredients.

When Might It Help?

This is not to say that gluten free or casein free diet won't help in some instances. According, multiple studies have suggested at least a plausible link between behavior issue and food sensitivities. Although the studies did say that there are many complicating factors that make the results troubling and not fully reliable, parents whose children have known food allergies or intolerances may find some relief of their children's worst symptoms once the trigger food is eliminated.

Think about how you feel when you are sick? Grouchy? Irritable? Out of sorts? If your child has an allergy that is making him or her feel bad then they are likely to react in some of the same ways, especially if they can't verbally explain how they are feeling and can't understand why.

Some parents report changes in kids' behavior after GFCF diet and others see no change.
Some parents report changes in kids' behavior after GFCF diet and others see no change. | Source

So What Does That Mean?

Autism and other behavioral disorders are complicated and scientists are just beginning to understand the components that affect a child's behavior. There are specific therapies that can help children to adapt but there is no known cure.

If the child does seem to react well to a gluten free or casein free diet, the perceived change may either be because the child has an intolerance to those ingredients because of an allergy or because the parent wants to see a difference. It could even be that it happens to be because the child isn't around things that trigger behavioral issues at that time.

As many stories on the internet as there are about the perceived benefits, there are other parents who say that it didn't work or seemed to stop working. The parent's love and concern for their children in these situations is both evident and heartbreaking.

One Size Fits All Not Likely

Because autism and other behavioral disorders are complicated and nuanced, there is not likely to be a one size fits all answer. Diet changes may work for one child and not the next. But while the cause of the behavioral change may be attributed to removing gluten for example, the real reason the behavior is better might be because of a better diet in general.

Perhaps removing gluten encouraged the parent and child to be more creative in their food choices or to seek healthier foods high in vitamins and good fats.

The answers are likely to be as complicated and nuanced as the issues themselves. Parents who are desperate for answers cling to anecdotal evidence and stories of success. But until that success can be reliably proven, the causes of perceived changes in behavior can't be attributed to the lack of gluten and casein. So many outside factors influence behavior as well.

Breads must be avoided in a gluten free diet.
Breads must be avoided in a gluten free diet. | Source

What Kinds of Food Contain Gluten and Casein?

If your child does suffer from food allergies, eliminating gluten and casein form the diet can be difficult. Gluten is found in many processed foods so switching to a whole food diet will eliminate the gluten and help your child feel better and get better nutrients as well.

Foods with gluten include:

  • wheat products such as breads, cakes, cookies, and pasta
  • some soups
  • some soy products
  • sausage links (look for bread crumbs in the filler)
  • some ice creams

Casein is a protein found in milk that is often used in processed foods. Anything that is dairy will trigger a casein reaction if the consumer is sensitive to that ingredient. Some items to avoid when you are trying to avoid casein include:

  • Milk
  • Icecream
  • Non Dairy Creamer
  • Soy cheeses
  • Soups
  • Puddings

The only way to figure out if a gluten free, casein free diet is right for you or your child is to talk to a trusted doctor. Nutrition and balance of nutrients in any diet is important but it is especially important for young children.

There is no doubt that eliminating these foods has helped some people but, according to Autism Speaks, it does not help all autistic people nor does it help all those with behavior problems. It is one tool that may or may not benefit certain children, but even if one person has success, it does not guarantee that everyone will find that same success.

If the behavior problem is caused by allergies or if allergies are aggravating other problems such as autism, then the diet can produce some benefits.

Have you tried a GFCF diet for you or your child? Did it help?

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    • LCDWriter profile image

      L C David 4 years ago from Florida

      Yes. I think that parents often feel so overwhelmed and really want to try anything. And I think that is okay. But they don't need to discouraged if the diet change doesn't yield the results that they want. There are still other options out there.

    • ExpectGreatThings profile image

      ExpectGreatThings 4 years ago from Illinois

      I like that you said, One Size Fits All Not Likely. My son is on a GF diet for digestive issues. The groups that I am part of have such mixed reviews of how their kids are being helped with this kind of diet. I have heard enough stories, however, that I would be willing to at least give it a try if I had a child with behavior issues. Nice hub! - Ginger