Treating Autism With A Healthy Diet

June 2, 2016

What could be better for you than a whole-foods, plant-based diet including fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, pasture-raised meats and healthy fats, while also minimizing your intake of refined foods like bleached flour and refined sugar?

For most people, the answer is “not too much.” A whole-foods, plant-based diet is simply good for your health and your quality of life. What’s more, when it comes to treating people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as we do at The Center for Discovery, a residential facility for individuals with developmental disabilities, the answer is doubly true.

The idea that diet is an important component in the treatment of autism might sound surprising. Many health professionals consider autism a neurological disorder, and as such, structure treatment around behavior and behavior modification. Efforts are focused on improving attention and socialization. But ASD is not just about the brain. It is also about the body, and involves a range of biomedical issues.

In fact, studies show that over 70 percent of people with autism suffer from some form of gastrointestinal disorder. Their ability to absorb and utilize nutrients is compromised. Sometimes, so is their immune system, and also the way they produce and use serotonin, the neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood, sleep, memory, and learning.

This is where food comes into play.

At The Center for Discovery, our guiding philosophy is Food is Medicine. We believe that ASD is not only a brain disorder, but a biomedical one, and that treating it with a healthy diet, as well as exercise , sleep, and a nurturing environment, will lead to healthier lives for our residents and students. That is why we grow as much of our own food as possible on our network of farms and orchards. This is not just farm to table, it is what we call “Seed to Belly” – meaning a diet that starts with the quality of the seed planted in the ground and that finishes in the belly of a satisfied diner. We pack as much nutrition as possible into every bite.

It often is a difficult road. Many of our residents arrive with aversions to foods with certain colors, textures, and smells. They reject fruits and vegetables. Favorites typically include highly processed items that are full of artificial ingredients. Transitioning our residents to a whole-foods, plant-based diet can take months, or even years.

Recently, we admitted an individual whose diet consisted almost solely of packaged garlic bread that is found in the frozen section of grocery stores. This product is neon-yellow and contains, among other troubling ingredients, high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils.

To start the transition, we baked our healthy bread, which is naturally fermented, in the same shape as the frozen brand. Then we sautéed it in a pan with butter, garlic, parsley, and turmeric to give it that vibrant yellow color. With time, the student accepted the alternate version. As a next step, we might pair that food with a new one, perhaps add a slice of cheese on top or a sauce for dipping. The resident may pull off the cheese or not eat the dipped bread, but there will be interaction with a new food. That is a move in the right direction.

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