The GFCF Diet for Autism – A Complete Guide

What is Autism?

Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) involves a wide variety of challenges, most of which involve struggles with communication, social skills and behavior. This complex disorder typically begins in the early years of life, and symptoms can vary widely in the degree of severity from person to person. The exact causes of autism are still unknown, but early intervention and treatment seems to be key in improving outcomes.

What is the GFCF Diet?

Many parents have seen great success in using a Gluten-free, Casein-free (GFCF) diet to improve outcomes in children with ASD. Gluten is typically found in foods containing wheat, barley and rye. Casein is found in dairy products, as it is one of two dairy proteins (the other dairy protein is Whey). Foods that contain casein include cow’s milk, cheese, yogurt, butter, and anything with those ingredients. Many packaged foods use milk powder that also contains casein. The GFCF diet excludes all gluten and dairy containing foods.

What Can You Eat on a GFCF Diet?

Although many foods commonly eaten by children contain gluten and dairy, there are still a wide variety of foods available on a GFCF diet. Foods you can include are gluten-free grains (rice, corn, quinoa, millet), fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat, nuts and seeds, and foods made from gluten-free grains like bread, crackers, pasta. When buying packaged foods, make sure you check the ingredients carefully to ensure the food does not contain any gluten or casein.

Why is a GFCF Diet used for Autism?

One thought behind using a GFCF diet to help with symptoms of autism is geared toward reducing inflammation that could be adversely affecting the way the brain functions. Research has shown a connection between gluten and leaky gut, which occurs when gluten disrupts the barrier that lines the intestines. When this barrier is disrupted by gluten, particles can sneak through the lining of the intestine and trigger an immune response in the body. This immune response leads to inflammation that has been shown to affect the brain and increase the risk of anxiety, depression, and other brain disorders. Similarly, casein is thought to also increase inflammation in the gut, especially for those who are sensitive to it, although there is no strong scientific evidence behind that theory. Another theory regarding a GFCF diet for autism is the peptides from gluten and dairy increase opioid activity in the brain, with children with ASD processing these peptides differently. This increase in opioid activity, in theory, exacerbates symptoms of ASD. While the research regarding the GFCF diet for autism is not strong, many parents have reported seeing promising changes in their child as a result of eliminating both casein and gluten.

Gluten-free foods: How to get started

When starting a gluten-free diet, it’s important you have a good understanding of the foods that contain gluten. Gluten is most commonly found in foods containing wheat, barley, and rye, but also shows up in packaged foods under many different names. To get started with gluten-free, go through your pantry at home and remove any foods containing gluten (or finish eating them before you start the diet). Then, be sure the new foods you buy are completely gluten-free.

Ingredients to avoid on a gluten free diet

  • Wheat or any ingredient containing the word wheat
  • Barley
  • Rye
  • Malt or any ingredient with the word malt or malted in it (malt extract, malted barley, etc)
  • Brewer’s yeast
  • Durum
  • Semolina
  • Triticale
  • Spelt
  • Farina
  • Farro
  • Graham
  • Kamut
  • Einkorn

Hidden Sources of Gluten

When you’re looking for gluten, you’ll want to check out food and even non-food items that contain hidden gluten. Foods like sauces (soy sauce, teriyaki sauce), herbs and spices, salad dressings, french fries, and candy are just a few examples of foods where gluten may be hiding. Be sure to look at ingredient labels carefully! Some non-food items that may contain gluten include chapstick, vitamins and/or medications and play-doh.

Casein-free foods: How to get started

Just like gluten, before starting the GFCF diet, it’s important to know which foods contain casein. Casein is found in most products containing cow’s products, including milk, cream, and cheese. Many packaged products like crackers, cookies, and cereal contain some casein, so be sure to check everything in your pantry to be sure none of it contains casein. Once you’ve done that, be sure any new foods you buy are casein-free.

Ingredients to avoid on a casein-free diet

  • Cow’s milk
  • Cheese
  • Yogurt
  • Sour cream
  • Butter
  • Cream cheese
  • Cream and half and half
  • Ice cream
  • Pudding

Hidden Sources of Casein

Casein may be hiding in places you wouldn’t expect. It can come in powdered form in many packaged products, so be sure to check all crackers, cookies, rice mixes, soups, sherbet, margarine, chocolate chips, cake mixes, and processed meats. Milk and/or milk products are found in many foods, so be sure to check all ingredient labels for milk or milk ingredients.

How to Ensure Good Nutrition on a GFCF Diet

Many opponents of a GFCF diet cite nutrition deficiencies as a reason to avoid the diet. However, it is absolutely possible to follow a GFCF diet AND meet all of your nutrient needs. There are really no nutrients that are eliminated as part of the GFCF diet that your child cannot get anywhere else. You can still includes gluten free grains (just not wheat-based ones), and there are plenty of good sources of calcium other than dairy.

Who shouldn’t follow a GFCF diet?

For those children who are extremely picky eaters, and only eat a few foods, the focus should be on expanding their diet before switching to a GFCF diet. If your child only eats a few foods and all of them contain gluten or dairy, you may want to wait before trying a GFCF diet. As a parent, you know best what will (and will not) work for your child, and if they already aren ‘t eating well, and are struggling to gain weight, the GFCF diet shouldn’t be the top priority.

Should your child try a GFCF diet?

Although the science doesn’t strongly support this diet for helping with ASD, the research also doesn’t show any adverse side effects of following the GFCF diet. Many parents have seen amazing results, and have seen their child’s communication, social skills, and behavior all improve as a result of switching to the GFCF diet. It can be a help to many who don’t know what else to do and are desperate for help with their child’s communication and behaviors.

How to get started with a GFCF Diet

To get started, you should seek out a dietitian in your area for help in implementing the diet. It can be a challenging diet, so having an expert to guide you can make a big difference. Not only could a dietitian help ensure your child’s nutrition needs are being met, she could also give you lots of helpful ideas for foods, recipes, and products you could buy that would help make the transition to GFCF easier.

How to transition to GFCF

There’s no one right way to transition to a GFCF diet. You could start by finishing up all the non-GFCF foods in your pantry, and then only buy foods that are gluten free and casein free. You could clean out your pantry and get rid of anything that doesn’t fit with the diet. Some families start with just one meal, for example breakfast, and focus on making that meal gluten and casein free, and then move on to the next meal until they’re totally gluten and casein free. Some families eliminate gluten first, and then casein next. And some choose to jump in and do everything all at once. To minimize stress and make this transition as easy as possible for both you and your child, I recommend a gradual transition. You could focus on the easiest thing to eliminate first, and leave your child’s favorite foods as the very last things you eliminate. It helps to find some new favorites that are gluten and casein free before you eliminate the foods they rely on most.

Favorite Gluten-Free and Casein-Free Products

Here are some of my favorite products to get you started:

  • Bread: Canyon Bakehouse
  • Dairy free milk: Ripple or Good Karma Flax
  • Crackers: Simple Mills
  • Muffins and Cake Mixes: Simple Mills or King Arthur Flour
  • Cookies: Enjoy life
  • Cheese: Follow Your Heart or Kite Hill

Favorite Gluten-free and Casein-free recipes

Here are some of my favorite, go-to recipes:

  • Dinner: Stuffed Cabbage Bowls
  • Snacks: Ranch Snack Mix
  • Baked Goods: Flourless Chocolate Muffins
  • Breakfast: Sausage Spaghetti Squash Breakfast Casserole
  • Lunch: Veggie Stuffed Meatloaf
  • Dessert: Dark Chocolate Strawberry Cream Cups

Favorite Gluten free and Casein free Cookbooks

Here are some cookbooks that have the best GFCF recipes:

  • Against All Grain – She has several cookbooks, and they’re all amazing!
  • Practical Paleo – This has great kid-friendly meal ideas
  • How Can it be Gluten Free Cookbook – This has some dairy containing recipes, so you’ll have to substitute dairy free ingredients for some of the recipes

How long should you follow a GFCF diet?

While its different for everyone, the ultimate goal of GFCF isn’t to follow it forever (although some kiddos do best on it long term). The goal is to reduce inflammation in the body (and the brain) and give the body and gut time to heal, and then gradually reintroduce gluten and dairy to see if they are tolerated by your child. This reintroduction process is best done with the help of a dietitian. That being said, you should stick to the GFCF diet for at least 6 weeks before you begin reintroducing gluten and casein.

The Bottom Line

The gluten free casein free diet is a wonderful tool to improve symptoms of autism, ADHD, and inflammatory conditions like eczema. When followed in a way that focuses on whole, real foods it can absolutely be a healthy and nutritionally complete diet. Many families have seen great success with following this type of diet for their children with autism, ADHD, and eczema.