The Top 10 Diets For Children With Special Needs

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When a child is diagnosed with special needs, it’s natural for parents to start looking for ways to improve their child’s quality of life.

Diet is one area that can be modified relatively easily.  Sometimes dietary changes are necessary due to allergies or celiac disease, and sometimes families choose a new diet for overall improvements in health.

Here’s a list of the top ten special diets in the world of special needs.

1. Gluten-free Diet

The gluten-free diet is a treatment for celiac disease, a digestive disorder caused by an immune reaction to gluten.  Some people also avoid gluten to improve other health problems such as rheumatoid arthritis.  Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale; it is also found in oatmeal that is processed with wheat.

2. Gluten-Free Casein-Free Diet

The GFCF diet, also known as the Autism Diet, requires the elimination of 2 proteins from a person’s diet: gluten, which is present in wheat, rye, barley and triticale, and casein, which is present is milk and dairy products.  The hypothesis behind this practice is that some autistic behaviors are caused by digestive problems, and these proteins are the two most difficult to digest with harmful byproducts in the digestive tract.

It must be noted that this diet is still controversial – the results of randomized, placebo-controlled studies have been mixed.  Although there were no harmful effects of the diet, one study found the GFCF diet to be as effective as a placebo in the treatment of autism – in other words, it was ineffective.

3. Specific Carbohydrate Diet

The SCD was originally developed as another treatment for celiac disease.  Now it is also used as a treatment for Crohn’s Disease, Ulcerative Colitis and IBS.  These are all digestive problems that frequently occur with autism and other developmental disabilites.  It is far more restrictive than the gluten-free and the GFCF diet.  The SCD eliminate all grains, all lactose (the sugar that occurs naturally in milk and dairy products) and all sucrose (the sugar in most other foods).  What is allowed?  Eggs, meat, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes.

4. GAPS Diet

Named for the book Gut and Psychology Syndrome by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, this diet is even more restrictive than the SCD.  Many legumes are banned from this diet, in addition to potatoes and yams.  Dr. Campbell-McBride also advocates the use of probiotics, the beneficial bacteria that colonize the human intestines.  In her private practice, Dr. Campbell-McBride has noted a clear connection between digestive problems and neurological or psychological problems, so this diet is a treatment for those interconnected health issues.

5. Body Ecology Diet

Continuing with the idea of re-colonizing beneficial bacteria in the intestines, the Body Ecology Diet aims to treat many types of health problems and behavior problems by including more probiotic foods and reducing the amount of sugars consumed.  Coconut kefir is one example of a food with live bacterial cultures that is recommended for this diet.

6. Feingold Diet

This diet is named for a physician who studied the connection between diet and behavior starting in the 1960s.  He found that behavior and attention improved when artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives were removed completely from a person’s diet.  He also found that behavior improved when aspirin and foods containing salicylates were removed.

7. Ketogenic Diet

The ketogenic diet is well-studied, supported by 80 years of research and clinical practice.  But it is intended only as a last resort to treat seizures, and should be pursued under the direction of a physician.  This diet minimizes the amount of sugar consumed and maximizes the amount of fats consumed, because when the human body burns fat for energy, seizure activity in the brain is significantly reduced or eliminated.  80% of the calories in this diet come from fat.  But this restrictive diet lacks many key vitamins, so supplements must be prescribed.

8. Yeast-free and Sugar-free Diet

Still a controversial topic, a few physicians link chronic yeast infections, bloating and even psychiatric symptoms with yeast overgrowth in the digestive tract.  Since yeast feed on sugar, a diet free of yeast must also be free of sugar.

9. Raw Food Diet

When food is cooked above 116 degrees Fahrenheit, naturally occurring enzymes are destroyed, and most of the vitamins are destroyed, too.  Raw foods, such as fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and grains, contain all of the naturally occurring enzymes and vitamins, which means improved digestion and absorption of nutrients.

10. Whole Foods Diet

“Whole Foods” are defined as foods that are unprocessed and unrefined before being consumed, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and meats.  Most physicians and dieticians agree that the main benefit of any special diet is the elimination or reduction of bleached flour, refined sugar, artificial flavors, colors and preservatives and processed, pre-packaged foods.  In other words, a more natural diet usually leads to health improvements.

Many special diets are missing from this list – if you have found success with dietary changes, please share in the comments below.

Karen Wang

Written on 2012/12/03 by:

Karen Wang

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"
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  • Ewa Omahen

    This is an excellent summary of the key information about the specialized diets. I have a child with autism…his behavior, social engagement, and learning have improved significantly when we eliminated gluten and casein, followed by other grains from his diet. In addition, we introduced fermented vegetables that provide the beneficial bacteria and heal the gut. The dietary changes have made a significant difference in the case of my son! It may be worth a try for your child!
    Faithful reader of the blog

  • Sarah at Easyread

    Great summary – thanks for this! We’ll definitely be sharing this information with our parents. – Sarah at Easyread

  • sarah

    what is food for special needs what is at