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The Gluten and Casein Free Diet and Autism

Updated on July 2, 2013

It is often said that we are what we eat. Everything we put into our bodies becomes part of us as our cells are renewed or is used to create the energy we need in order live our daily lives. The foods we eat and how much of them we eat has a profound effect on how we feel, how well our bodies systems are able to work and on how well we can perform in life. Many people seem to be able to go through life eating whatever foods they chose and not needing to worry about any adverse effects but research has shown that problems do not always show up straight away and that they may in fact be putting themselves at an increased risk of disease and even premature death by not taking more care. When someone is already living with the additional challenges of autism, taking notice and care in what they eat can become of even greater importance.

Bread can be a problematic food for people with a gluten sensitivity.
Bread can be a problematic food for people with a gluten sensitivity. | Source

Many people have found that by reducing or eliminating certain foods from their own or their children’s diets they are able to reduce the severity of some issues related to autism. In many cases they have also found that other physical symptoms that are not associated with autism, such as ear problems, runny noses and otherwise unexplained stomach aches or other pains have improved or gone entirely. Common allergens such as wheat, gluten, milk, soy and food additives are among the foods that are often chosen to be eliminated from the diet of people who have autism.

Many individuals who have autism and especially children can be very picky eaters or have sensory issues that make eating difficult or unpleasant for them. They may only like to eat certain foods or foods cooked in a set way. Textures can be a big problem, with some people preferred and others intolerable. People may also dislike their food to be mixed, such as in a stew or to touch on their plate.

Food Sensitivities

There are some foods and ingredients that time and time again are found to be a problem to people’s digestive systems or to cause reactions such as sneezing, swelling, hives and rashes, bloating, stomach pain and headaches. These include:

  • Wheat
  • Corn
  • Gluten
  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Cow’s milk
  • Caffeine
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Nitrates
  • Yeast
  • Citrus fruits
  • Members of the nightshade family such as tomatoes and potatoes
  • Chemical additives such as MSG and food colourings.
  • Soy (soya)

It can often be the case that people believe that because they do not have a big reaction or what is known as an allergic reaction, that it cannot be food that are causing their problems. This is not always the case as sensitivities differ from allergies in the way they affect the body and also in the symptoms and reactions they produce. Issues from food sensitivities maybe slight or easily contributed to other factors, the reactions can also be delayed which can add to making the real cause harder to detect. Genuine food allergies usually cause a very quick reaction due to antibodies being present in the bloodstream. Common allergic reactions include hives, nausea, headaches, swelling and in serious cases breathing difficulties and anaphylactic shock. Food sensitivities do not affect the body in the same way and can have a much slower and drawn out effect. Food sensitivities can affect the body is a wide range of ways including causing dizziness, fatigue, ‘foggy’ thinking, headaches, red ears or cheeks, hyperactivity, digestive problems, recurrent ear infections and mental confusion. These issues can then go on to cause disturbances to behaviour or too children seeming as if they are not paying attention for example.

The Gluten and Casein Free Diet

The gluten and casein free (GF/CF) diet is a common choice for dietary interventions for autism. Gluten is a protein found in wheat and other grains. Casein, also a protein is found in milk. The GF/CF diet has shown to give positive results in many people who have autism, from those who are high functioning to those who are more severely affected, though there is no definitive answer as to why it works currently. One theory believes that both proteins are not broken down properly by the body and form opioid like peptides, whereas another states that it is due to immune system deregulation causing an abnormal immune response.

Gluten and casein are present in many everyday foods, either as their natural forms of mil and grain, as derivatives (yoghurt, cheese etc.) or as ingredients in other foods as products. The later can occur in the most unlikely of places such as wheat and milk being added to sweets, crisps, sauces and even meat products. Bran, wheat germ, cereal filler, cereal protein, wheat starch, rusk, modified starch, vegetable protein, vegetable starch, vegetable gum, durum wheat and semolina are some of the ways gluten can be found in foods and hidden milk as butter, butter oil, casein, caseinate, sodium caseinate, hydrolysed casein, cheese, cheese powder, evaporated, dried or condensed milk, cream, curd, ghee, lactose, whey, whey syrup and whey powder among others.

Starting out on the GF/CF diet can seem very difficult and intimidating at first and feel as though there is nothing left that is safe to eat. There are many resources online and also books that can help out and provide recipes to get you started. Most supermarkets now have a range of gluten and dairy free products that will be suitable to use. In many cases you can simple substitute these for the normal gluten and milk varieties. Today there is a wide range of alternatives to animal milks such as almond, soya, hemp, oat, coconut and rice milks which can be used in most applications.

Starting out

Some people cut out both gluten and milk at the same time, whereas others chose to remove one at a time. The human body clear itself of milk (casein) quicker than gluten and is often a bigger problem to the immune system so it makes sense to eliminate that first if you wish to take a gradual approach. Improvements maybe gradual so do not be discouraged if at first there seems to be no difference. Keep all milk products out of the diet for a minimum of two weeks and then allow a small amount to be eaten and note if there is any reaction or deterioration in behaviour at this point. If there is an adverse reaction stop giving milk again for 6-8 weeks before testing again. If the reaction is still present then it is likely that there is milk sensitivity present and that a milk free diet will be of benefit. This process can make reactions and behaviours easier to spot and pin down to a cause as when something is happening or you feel a certain way every day it is very hard to find the cause and in some cases even realise that there is a problem present rather than it just being the way the person is or due to a medical condition or disability.

Gluten requires a longer period and can take as much as six months before any real benefits are felt. After this time and sometimes within it, a person with a gluten sensitivity with be able to tell if they have accidently eaten gluten due to their body reacting. Ideally gluten should be completely removed from the diet for at least three months before a small amount is reintroduced to check for sensitivity.

Gluten free carrot cake
Gluten free carrot cake | Source

If it is the case that a casein or gluten sensitivity is present it is important to completely eliminate these foods in order to gain the full benefits from the diet. In some people even a small amount of either food can cause a large reaction and a return to previous difficult behaviours. There is a huge variety of foods that are naturally gluten and casein free such as fruits and vegetables, rice, meat, fish and shellfish, nuts, seeds, beans and pluses so it is still possible to have a varied and enjoyable diet without the need for specialist foods. However there is a now a wide range of breads, pasta, cakes, cereals and other products that would normally contain gluten available to buy in supermarkets and health food shops or online. Although in many cases these do differ from their gluten and casein containing varieties in taste and texture they are tasty and useful to have at home. The internet is vast source of gluten and casein free recipes and more and more books are also being published full of recipes, advice and other suggestion whether they are specifically aimed at those with autism or people living with food intolerances in general.

© 2013 Claire


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    • Elderberry Arts profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Surrey, Uk

      It is possible, if a bit more complicated at first. I do enjoy cooking and coming up with new recipes which helps too. I tend to go for vegan recipes and then there is only any gluten to worry about substituting. There is also a recipe book called Gluten Free Vegan which I use or get ideas from quite often. Raw food recipes are good too. I have learn how to use lots of ingredients in unexpected ways such as avocados to make chocolate pudding and a cheesecake like cake and nuts as flours. I have a few recipes hubs that are gluten, dairy and animal free too.

    • ThompsonPen profile image

      Nicola Thompson 

      5 years ago from Bellingham, WA

      I'm vegetarian too! I'm glad that it is possible! Well done with all you do Elderberry!

    • Elderberry Arts profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Surrey, Uk

      Thank you both for your kind comments. I have aspergers and my son has autism. We both have a range of food sensitivities including milk, wheat and eggs so have to avoid those. Cows milk really changes my sons behaviour for the worse and he is the same with orange juice.

      I can remember when I was a child my parents used to say I always had a cold and I suffered with a lot of ear infections too. I rarely felt ill though so now I wonder if it was done to my issues with some foods.

      I gave up wheat and dairy at the same time as well and found it really hard at first, especially as I am also vegetarian and can't eat eggs either. But now it has been two years and I find it much easier now I know what to avoid and found lots of useful books and other resources to help.

      Good luck if you try again. Hope it helps you too.

    • ThompsonPen profile image

      Nicola Thompson 

      5 years ago from Bellingham, WA

      This is such an awesome Hub! I have done my own research on this and it's so interesting how it's all tied in. I have a friend who I was friends with for a good long while and found out that he was Autistic, but he kept it in check by doing just as you suggested - keeping gluten and casein out of his diet. Its really amazing. Voted thumbs up, useful, interesting and awesome. Shared on Facebook and twitter too!

      I've quit both dairy and gluten at the same time before testing an allergy - it's tough! I'd like to attempt it again, but do it differently.

    • HeatherH104 profile image


      5 years ago from USA

      I've heard that GF/CF diets can help individuals with autism. It will be interesting to learn why. There is so much mystery around autism, hopefully researchers will be able to learn more and help find solutions to the problems surrounding autism.


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