Dietary supplementation has mixed results for children with autism

Dietary supplementation has mixed results for children with autism
Dietary supplementation has mixed results for children with autism

Dietary supplementation and regimens such as gluten-free and casein-free (GFCF) diets for children with autism spectrum disorder may result excessive or insufficient nutrients, says a study by Elsevier Health Sciences.

Children with autism are often picky eaters and their parents may be concerned that their kids may not be getting enough vitamins and minerals. Some parents turn to nutritional supplements or dietary regimens such as gluten-free and casein-free (GFCF) diets without consulting medical professionals. Researchers report that results may be mixed such as some autistic children still having calcium deficiencies while others were consuming excessive amounts of vitamin A and other nutrients.

“Many families try a GFCF diet in an attempt to improve symptoms of ASD,” explained lead investigator Patricia A. Stewart, PhD, RD, assistant professor of Pediatrics, the University of Rochester Medical Center. “While 19% of all Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (AS ATN) participants were reported to be on a GFCF diet, 12% of the children in the subgroup participating in this study were given a GFCF diet and were significantly more likely to use nutritional supplements (78% vs 53%), however, the micronutrient intake of children on or off the diet was remarkably similar.”

The study included 368 children between the ages of two and 11 years of age who had been diagnosed with autistic disorder, Asperger disorder, or pervasive developmental disorder. They were recruited from AS ATN sites at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, the University of Arkansas, the University of Rochester, the University of Colorado, and the University of Pittsburgh.

A registered dietitian nutritionist trained caregivers to complete three-day records of the amounts of all foods, beverages, nutritional supplements by brand name, and recipes used for meal preparation. Photographs were taken of labels in ensure the ingredients were recorded accurately. The records were verified and clarified by the families, if needed.

Study findings:

Autistic children were consuming micronutrients in similar amounts to children without autism

Autistic children had the same deficits in vitamins D and E, calcium, potassium, and choline as the general pediatric population

Autistic children take supplements more often (56 percent vs. 31-27 percent of the general population)

After supplementation, 40 to 55 percent of autistic children lacked calcium and 30 to 40 percent lacked vitamin D

Children on the GFCF diet consumed more magnesium and vitamin E – researchers speculate that this may be due to soy and nut-based products being substituted by other foods

Children on the GFCF diet had more adequate vitamin D supplementation

Calcium supplementation was inadequate for those on or not on the diet

Autistic children received most of the micronutrients that they needed by eating foods

The supplement users may have exceeded the tolerable upper limit for the safe intake of vitamin A, folic acid, and zinc

“In clinical practice, each patient needs to be individually assessed for potential nutritional deficiencies or excess. Few children with ASD need most of the micronutrients they are commonly given as multivitamins, which often leads to excess intake that may place children at risk for adverse effects. When supplements are used, careful attention should be given to adequacy of vitamin D and calcium intake,” Dr. Stewart noted.


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