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Study shows popular autism diet doesn't help

Eliminating all wheat and dairy products from a child with autism’s diet is a popular alternative therapy.
Eliminating wheat and dairy from a child with autism’s diet is a popular alternative therapy.

Families with kids with autism hear the stories. Someone’s child started stringing words together again, another could sleep through the night in peace. They are the holy grails in the autism world–therapies that, at least anecdotally, have improved lives of children with autism. And for families faced with few effective treatments, other than early behavioral intervention, they are often worth a shot.

One popular alternative treatment is a gluten-free/casein-free diet, known as the GFCF diet, where all gluten (a protein found in the seeds of several grains such as barley, rye and wheat) and casein (a protein found in dairy products) is eliminated. But recent evidence from the most controlled diet research in autism to date suggests that the GFCF diet doesn’t actually help. The University of Rochester study found that, for the 14 children monitored, a GFCF diet didn’t result in a change in sleep habits, bowel habits, activity or core symptoms of autism.

Leonard Rappaport, MD, MS, chief of Children’s Division of Developmental Medicine, says he’s been eagerly anticipating the results of this study. Even though he didn’t believe that the GFCF diet worked, he was still saddened by the study’s conclusion. “I was hoping I was wrong,” he says.

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