Benefits of Special Diets for Special Needs Children
Benefits of Special Diets for Special Needs Children
What we consume can influence how our brains and bodies function. It should come as no surprise that many parents look to special diets as a way of improving their children’s health, behavior, and quality of life. Many children with special needs also have dietary issues, including constipation, diarrhea, lactose intolerance, Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), celiac, and other concerns.
Knowing where to start is the key to the successful implementation of a new diet protocol. However, choosing which diet is best for your child is the first step. With so many special diets available today, Parenting Special Needs Magazine decided to provide you with information on the most common options. The information provided here is not our endorsement of a specific diet – it is offered to help you understand current protocols.
Implementing special diets is not easy – we are not going to sugar-coat this article. It takes great resolve to make the type of dietary changes many of these programs require. Even harder still is to ensure your child sticks to the diet when not with you. Of course, the earlier in life you start your child on a healthy dietary journey, the easier it becomes. Giving up a favorite food is harder than never introducing it in the first place.
There is no doubt that pesticides, chemicals, nitrates, artificial dyes, sweeteners, and flavorings, and antibiotics in the food chain are a problem. Opting for organic and grass-fed foods is undoubtedly better. Sticking to the perimeter of the grocery store and avoiding the aisles filled with prepackaged foods can help improve health, weight, and brain functions. But, what about eliminating specific foods? Can that help, as well?
In the sections below, we look at many of the special diets, what they are good for, and how they might benefit your child.
Scd Diet – Specific Carbohydrate Diet
The Specific Carbohydrate Diet was created by Elaine Gottschall, based on the work of Dr. Sidney V. Haas to help her young daughter who was suffering from ulcerative colitis. Since the printing of Elaine’s book “Breaking the Vicious Cycle; Intestinal Health through Diet,” people all over the world have found relief from symptoms of Crohn’s disease, UC, IBS, celiac, and more. Again, the diet does not work for everyone.
The SCD diet removes all sources of complex sugar and starches, including grains, potatoes, corn, rice, soy, and buckwheat. Homemade yogurt (preferably from goat milk) is a staple of the diet, as is natural “whole” foods – organic whenever possible. Baked goods are made with nut flours and honey. Preservatives and artificial sweeteners are not allowed.
Fruits, nuts and nut fours, dried beans, eggs, meat and fish, honey, unflavored gelatin, aged cheese, butter, coconut, sunflower, and olive oils are allowed.
The intro diet lasts only 2 to 5 days and features homemade bone broth, eggs, roasted, broiled, or boiled meats, carrots that have been peeled and cooked for 4 hours, 100% apple cider, and unflavored gelatin.
Stage 1 allows meat, peeled, seeded, and well-cooked vegetables, SCD yogurt, homemade almond, coconut, or pecan milk, applesauce, homemade pear sauce, and ripe banana. Many children enjoy pancakes made of ripe mashed banana and eggs. With each new stage, the protocol returns other foods to the diet as they are tolerated.
Roughly 50% of all pediatric gastroenterology consultations have to do with Functions Gastrointestinal Disorders (FGID). Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) may affect up to 20% of school-aged children in the US. The FODMAP (Fermentable, Oligo-, Di-, and Mono-saccharides and Polyols) diet has shown some promising results for children between ages 7 and 17. A low FODMAP diet may also be good for people with multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, eczema, fibromyalgia, and migraines.
FODMAPs include fructose, lactose, and other short-chain carbohydrates and sugar alcohols that are rapidly fermented by the intestinal bacteria. The result can be abdominal bloating, pain, and flatulence. The FODMAP diet has shown significant promise in reducing IBS symptoms.
Although it may seem complicated at first, the FODMAP diet is easy to follow. Only foods that are low FODMAPs should be consumed. Foods that are high FODMAP should be avoided. Keep in mind that just because something is on the low FODMAP chart does not mean it is healthy, as in many of the artificial sweeteners. The chart below is from ibsdiets.org and shows the high and low FODMAP foods.
link to chart: https://www.ibsdiets.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/IBSDiets-FODMAP-chart.pdf)
The Ketogenic diet is very low in carbohydrates, includes moderate amounts of protein, and high in healthy dietary fat. It puts the body into a state of ketosis, where it uses fat for energy.
Following a Keto diet may result in a significant decrease in seizure frequency for patients with epilepsy. Mechanisms of action may be due to altering mitochondrial function and reducing inflammation. For children with seizures, the Keto diet also improved sleep, attention, behavior, communication, and mood.
In one study out of Hawaii, on children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a modified keto diet that included medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) oil to improve fatty acid utilization and ketone production showed significant promise.
At the 3-month assessment, social affect score improved 19.9%, and overall total score improved 20.7%. Continue improvement was noted at 6 months into the study. Parents and caregivers reported better eye contact, meaningful language, interest in others, focus, and more.
Children with Downs syndrome (DS) may also benefit from a Keto diet, as studies have shown improvements in fine motor, adaptive, and language quotients over conventional treatments. The Keto diet may help improve emotional behaviors and neurobehavioral development in children diagnosed with global development delay.
Foods not allowed on a Keto diet include grains, corn, pasta, rice, all forms of sugar, including honey and maple syrup, all potatoes, and fruits (except berries).
Meats (preferably organic and grassfed), low-carb vegetables, high-fat dairy, avocados, nuts, and seeds are some of the primary offerings on the Keto diet.
A gluten-free diet is standard for individuals with gluten allergies or celiac disease. Many people have tried a GFD for non-celiac issues, and studies on children with ASD have not turned up meaningful results. However, some parents do report improvements in symptoms with a GFD.
Gluten-Free Casein-Free Diet
The GFCG diet removes all gluten and dairy from the diet. Barley, wheat, rye, milk, cheese, and other dairy products are not allowed. A study by Penn State determined that a GFCF diet could help improve ASD physiological symptoms and social behaviors in children who also suffered from allergy symptoms.
Other benefits found in the study included better attention, eye contact, social responsiveness, language production, and social behaviors. Compared to just eliminating gluten or casein, the combined diet seemed to provide better results.
One study looked at GI issues in children with autism as compared to other neurodevelopmental illnesses, such as cerebral palsy. As many as 70% of those with autism had GI issues compared to 42% diagnosed with other neurodevelopmental illnesses and 28% with normal development.
Assessments of current research do not support the GFCF diet due to conflicting results, citing the need for further studies. However, based on other reviews and parent reports, a trial of three months may show if this diet can benefit your child.
The paleo diet is not typically recommended for children as they miss out on some nutrients their bodies need. As with some of the other diets listed, it omits grains, sugar, beans, carbohydrates, and dairy. The research on the paleo diet and children is lacking. More research and better benefits point to the Keto diet as being a better option.
Gaps Diet – Gut and Psychology Syndrome Diet
The GAPS diet utilizes the elimination of pasteurized dairy, grains, refined carbohydrates, sugars, and starchy vegetables. Like many other diets, it is not without controversy as definitive research showing its benefits is not available. A primary difference between GAPS and SCD is the allowance of lactose-free dairy products on the SCD diet.
Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride developed the GAPS diet on the theory that leaky gut is the cause of many conditions affecting the brain. People with leaky gut syndrome may suffer from toxins such as bacteria and chemicals in food entering the bloodstream to cause brain fog and autism symptoms.
While there is no statistical proof, Dr. Campbell-McBride believes that the GAPS diet can help people with conditions such as autism, ADD, ADHD, Dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome, food allergies, and more. Any online search will turn up many success stories – and just as many failures.
The GAPS diet begins with eliminating most foods and introduces them back in six stages.
Stage one essentially eliminates solid food, offering only homemade bone broth, homemade unpasteurized yogurt or kefir (for those who can tolerate dairy), juices from probiotic foods and ginger, and only chamomile or mint tea with honey between meals.
Stage two adds vegetable and meat or fish stews, ghee, and raw organic egg yolks.
With each new stage comes a few new foods, introduced one at a time, slowly and in small amounts to see if they are tolerated – as shown by normal bowel movements.
Expect to remain on the full Gaps diet for one and a half to two years. If your child does not do well on this diet, do not stick with it. There are other diets to try.
The Feingold diet was introduced in the 1970s as a way to manage ADHD in children. Avoided foods include artificial flavors and colors, processed meats, grapes, and apples. Results have been mixed, and recent versions of the diet call for the removal of only artificial additives and food colors.
A Final Word on Special Diets for Children
Special diets may offer some help to children. However, always work together with your child’s doctor and a nutritionist to ensure that your child continues to get proper nutrition. Some of the elimination diets may lead to problems such as poor growth, vitamin deficiency, decreased bone mass, kidney stones, abdominal issues, eating disorders, and other concerns.
If you decide to implement a special diet for your child, it is essential to realize that watching other family members eat unallowed foods may be difficult. Discuss these issues with your doctor and your family to best address the situation.
Please check out some of our previous articles about special diets for additional information:
This post originally appeared on our March/April 2020 Magazine