Gluten-free and casein-free diets (also referred to as GFCF) continue to grow in popularity as an alternative remedy for treating special needs like autism or ADHD. While some parents say their child’s symptoms disappear while on these diets, other parents note their children do not improve. So what exactly is GFCF and how does it help?
Gluten is a protein found in grains, such as wheat and barley. While gluten is harmless for many children, those individuals with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity can have extreme symptoms even from the smallest bite of food containing gluten.
For those children with celiac disease, the body released antibodies that attack the intestines and prevent the body from absorbing nutrients from food. It often results in extreme pain, stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or NCGS, also causes an autoimmune reaction, but it does not cause the body to create those antibodies like celiac disease.
There is no treatment for celiac disease or NCGS except a gluten-free diet. These diets can be tricky for kids because of food provided at school or parties, and eating out with the family can be challenging as well. Working with a dietician is important to ensure your child is not missing out on vitamins and nutrients often obtained from foods with gluten.
Casein is a milk protein found in milk and other dairy products. A casein-free diet eliminates dairy products and some soy products that might contain added casein. Reading all labels is the best way to ensure the product does not contain casein.
The theory behind GFCF diets is that children with autism and ADHD have a heightened sensitivity to foods with gluten and casein, in the absence of celiac disease or NCGS. It is also theorized that children with autism also produce more protein by-products after eating these foods, which hypothetically increases autism symptoms. Other theories suggest that the protein produced activates areas of the brain or acts like an opiate in the brain, which also produces autism symptoms. These theories might explain why children who test negative for celiac disease or NCGS are still sensitive to gluten and casein and why the GFCF diet helps these individuals.
Not all children benefit from GFCF diets, but it is worth a try. It can be expensive and tricky to avoid certain foods, and parents need to be extremely cognizant of labels. Additionally, making sure your child receives adequate nutrition in the absence of foods that often provide essential nutrients and vitamins is important. With the increase in popularity of GFCF diets, it is becoming easier to find appropriate foods (many labels now boast “gluten free” on the package), and many more restaurants are adding GFCF options. Research has begun fairly recently, so GFCF diets should not entirely replace other therapies and treatments recommended by your doctors and therapists.