I have definitely had my fair share of stomach problems, heartburn, nausea, and all the other digestive system discomforts that seem to plague people on the Autism Spectrum. I didn’t realize being overly sensitive with my five senses also made me overly sensitive to food as well. If I ate the wrong combination of gluten, lactose, and sugar I was going to have a bad night. Last October, however, my wife and I came across a way of eating that seemed not only to help us lose weight but also alleviate other health problems. The Ketogenic diet and the Low Carbohydrate, High Fat diet (two names but for all intents and purposes are basically the same) not only help people get to their ideal weight, but there have been studies done suggesting that this type of eating can reduce seizures associated with Epilepsy, may starve some cancer cells, and could improve the symptoms associated with Autism. (You can read more about that here.) Although it is called a “diet” it isn’t a diet in the modern sense of the word. It is a way of eating that is a commitment to giving up processed foods, most carbs, grains, and sugars and replacing them with healthy fats, proteins, and fresh nutritious foods that many people are missing in their diet today. It isn’t meant to cure or replace any current coping mechanisms or strategies for handling Autism symptoms, but it helped me spend less energy and time fixing secondary issues in order to focus on the more important ones.
I used to have a strict diet of cheese fries, grilled cheese sandwiches, and ice cream. I know there are a lot of kids (and adults also) on the spectrum who have strict diets that would mean the end of the world to be changed. I would like to think maybe a few of them like to eat healthier foods but eating just one healthier food isn’t going to provide all the nutrients a person needs daily. You could try to supplement a bad diet with vitamin capsules or powered drink mixes but wouldn’t it be easier to introduce new healthy foods instead? The beauty of going low carb is that with a little creativity and a few suggestions from Pinterest almost all regular unhealthy foods (desserts too, yay!) can be made into low carb options. I won’t lie. I could tell the texture was different right away, but it wasn’t terrible. I tried to keep an open mind, and eventually the benefits outweighed the differences in texture and taste. I wasn’t feeling sick all the time, my stomach pains and irritations were virtually non-existent, and I was losing weight. That was only the beginning. The past diet of high carb food coupled with sugar had created a lot of other health problems like high blood pressure, insulin resistance, high triglyceride levels, and an overall unhealthy gut. I stuck with the LCHF diet for less than a year, and saw all those diet-made issues correct themselves without any additional help. My brain was functioning better because my gut was healthier, and both consciously and unconsciously my body was able to focus more on processing than it was on just functioning poorly because of the food I was eating.
It isn’t uncommon for people with Autism to be naturally thin because of their need to fidget and their usually limited diets. The ketogenic way of eating does have a weight loss factor if you are eating less than the recommended amount of good fats because your body draws the fats it still need from the reserves in your body already, however, if you are eating within the range of good fats and keeping up with proteins the benefits will still be available without the weight loss. There are a ton of support groups on Facebook and elsewhere online which will explain in greater detail just what percentage of fats to proteins to carbs you need to eat and which foods are ketogenic-friendly and which are not. The basic rules are to eliminate sugar, grains, and starchy vegetables and replace them with whole foods and healthy fats like chicken, beef, cauliflower, and coconut oil. Those types of carbs are broken down into glucose which can impact blood sugar levels and then excess glucose is stored as fat cells. The ketogenic diet cuts out the majority of carbs therefore eliminating the need for the body to convert them to glucose for energy and keeping blood sugar levels stable. Instead the body burns through the fat cells for energy for a slower, more stable energy source. I like to think of it like burning a candle as opposed to burning a sparkler– the candle burns longer and slower but without giving off a ton of excess energy where the sparkler burns faster and more explosively but could easily lead to injury. (More about the science behind that here.) If some of the healthiest athletes in the world are turning to this way of eating to help them stay fit and still nourish their bodies then why not someone with Autism who is constantly exercising their brain by continuously processing the world in high-definition?
How do I begin? What if my child refuses to try new foods? Well first thing is first– don’t rush change. Some people can stop a bad habit just by seer will-power to quit, but most people need time to adjust slowly and with room for error. I started small by substituting real sugar for a no-calorie alternative. I tried replacing one meal a day with a ketogenic-approved meal. I tried increasing that to two meals and then to all three. If I started craving my old food I either found ways to make a low-carb version of them or I allowed myself one cheat meal to keep myself motivated without getting too overwhelmed. I did this over the course of a couple of months, and I realized after those few months I actually began to prefer the low-carb food over the regular because I wasn’t struggling with all the effects of eating poorly. I would have a cheat meal once a week, and I would notice how terrible I felt afterward with stomach pains and sluggishness. There isn’t a magic formula, and it takes a lot of work as does anything worth doing. My biggest suggestion is just take it slow and try it out a little at a time. The biggest way to make a mistake (at least for someone with Autism) is to overwhelm them with too many rules and information all at once. I can imagine even for a neurotypical person it would be stressful to hear someone suddenly ban your favorite food item, but it can cause a meltdown for someone with Autism if they think they will never get to eat their favorite food again. We often think of things as being “black and white.” If the diet says no candy that means no candy ever, no exception, but that isn’t always true in reality. There are some exceptions, but in order for the body to be convinced that it no longer needs to process carbs into glucose, the number of carbs per days needs to be less than a certain amount. If you can fit the exception within the maximum number of carbs allowed per day and still get the minimum amount of good fats, then go for it.
It might be all you can do to get yourself or your child to eat that one specific food for a day but isn’t it worth a try if it could potentially improve your gut health and provide a more stable energy source for your brain to process? I dare you to simply be open-minded to the idea that if your gut is healthy then your brain will get the nutrients it needs more efficiently to process. What better time than right now to start trying something new? You’ll never know until you try!