Autism Spectrum Disorder and Food Choice

By Stefanie Sacks, MS, CNS, CDN

According to the National Institute of Health, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex neurological and developmental condition affecting various aspects of life, including communication, social interaction, learning, and behavior. Despite being diagnosable at any age, symptoms typically manifest within the first two years of life.

Until March of 2023, ASD had minimal influence on my life, aside from a few families seeking help with their child’s picky eating habits. However, since being asked by Luv Michael, a 501c3 whose mission is to support adults on the autism spectrum, to consult on nutrition and culinary education for their residential pilot in Southampton, I became deeply interested and motivated to learn more about the nourishment needs of the autistic community.

My recent attendance at the Autism Science Foundation’s Day of Learning underscored the depth of my learning curve within the autistic community. I recognized the necessity of maintaining an open and curious mindset. The event covered a range of topics, including drug therapies, genetics, early ASD screening, and public health initiatives. Hearing insights from medical professionals and researchers representing esteemed institutions like Yale, Columbia, MIT, and Tufts, as well as from parents and autistic adults, was both enlightening and moving. However, despite the positive and powerful discussions, one glaring omission stood out: the crucial link between diet and autism remained unaddressed.

At WTFork, advocating against ultra-processed foods forms the cornerstone of our mission.

A cursory search on “autism and diet” reveals some research on the ketogenic diet—a way of eating that starves the body of carbohydrates favoring fat and protein as fuel. While there may be behavioral improvements, this diet is highly restrictive and near impossible to follow without medical intervention. You will also find research on the benefits of a gluten and casein (dairy) free diet, but this is mostly to curb gastrointestinal symptoms, common in those with autism, and the research is limited.  However, there's a notable absence of research on the benefits of a whole foods, plant-forward diet, which is accessible to all and has demonstrated health benefits across various populations.

At WTFork, advocating against ultra-processed foods forms the cornerstone of our mission. Not only is my lived experience proof that a whole foods plant-forward way of eating offers significant health benefits but also there is now a large body of research offering scientific proof. Considering this, shouldn't there be proactive discussions and interventions aimed at educating the autistic community and establishing guidance and protocols for healthier food choices, simply as a starting point? With the right education and support, healthy food is accessible to all. This is the low-hanging fruit and could establish new foundations for those living with autism. 

While ASD presents unique challenges, embracing the potential benefits of a whole foods, plant-forward diet offers a beacon of hope. Witnessing its impact firsthand among the individuals I work with daily reinforces my belief in its transformative power. Though scientific research is currently lacking, embracing cleaner eating habits devoid of chemical-laden foods and excessive sugars and fats could pave the way for improved health outcomes. After all, as the adage goes, food is indeed medicine.

For guidance on where to begin, don't forget to grab a copy of What The Fork Are You Eating!

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