Can a diet avoiding gluten and milk proteins reduce autism?

For years, many parents of children with autism have advocated a diet avoiding the proteins gluten and casein, but there had not been a scientific review of evidence about this practice. Today Informed Health Online has published a short report for parents summarising the state of knowledge on this diet for autism.

According to Hilda Bastian, editor of the consumer web site, Informed Health Online,"The jury is still out on whether or not diets free of gluten and casein can reduce autism,but the little evidence that there is suggests it's possible that it could help some children."

Researchers in the UK have analysed all studies on gluten-free and casein-free diets for children with autism. After assessing more than 30 scientific articles,they concluded in a Cochrane review that there was only one small trial of these diets that could be regarded as reliable scientific evidence. The study involved only 20 children between the ages of five and 10.The children had both autism and abnormal levels of proteins in their urine.

Dr Michael Ferriter, from the research team led by Claire Millward, said that,"Unsurprisingly in such a small-scale study, the results for several outcomes did not show a significant result. However, there was a significant reduction in autistic traits in the children allocated to a diet eliminating gluten and casein. This provides some support for the theory that abnormal levels of these proteins may be responsible for some of the effects of autism, but well-conducted large randomised trials are urgently needed."

'Autistic traits' is a measure that looks at a wide range of characteristics including verbal and non-verbal communication, speaking when spoken to, eye contact, repetitive talk and movements, and sharing of emotions. The average level of autistic traits was halved in the children who were allocated to the special diet.

Eliminating gluten and casein proteins from children's diets is very difficult. These proteins are included in wheat, most cereals (but not rice), and milk products. There is no guarantee that the diet will work, and some children could also have withdrawal-like symptoms when these are eliminated from their diets. Dr Ferriter said, "There is not yet sufficient evidence for clinicians to advise the use of such diets in cases of autistic spectrum disorder."

A wide range of web sites and parent support groups exist that provide advice and support to parents trying to follow gluten-free and casein-free diets for their children with autism. These diets are also followed for some other kinds of behavioural problems in children, and Hilda Bastian said parents and children deserved to have better evidence to help them decide whether or not to make this difficult lifestyle change.

Informed Health Online is published by the Health Research and Education Foundation, a non-profit health promotion charity based in Australia. Informed Health Online provides consumers, healthcare practitioners and journalists with up-to-date health information they can trust.

You can see the summary for parents at


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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