Autism, eating disorders and nutrition: Figure out the link

An eating disorder named anorexia could be the hidden manifestation of autism in girls, suggests a new study. Read on to know including and excluding some foods can help you ease the symptoms of this neurodevelopmental condition in your child.

Girls and women with autism are more likely than boys to have an eating disorder called anorexia nervosa, says a new study published in the journal Current Psychiatry. It also states that autism symptoms in girls and women are actually mistaken for an eating disorder.  This probably is the reason behind them going undiagnosed for autism. According to a 2018 data of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 151 girls is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder world-wide. Autism is a neurological condition characterised by repetitive behaviours, challenges in communication, lack of social skills, and speech problem. A child with this condition can also have stereotyped body movements, attachment to objects, and resistance to change. In some cases, he/she may even experience seizures.

Anorexia is a psychological eating disorder where a person starves himself or herself out of an obsessive fear of being overweight. The condition generally stems from the desire to attain an unrealistic body image, poor self-esteem, lack of confidence, so on and so forth. It hits more women than men. This is because, from a very tender age women are socially conditioned to look at certain way to meet the parameters set by the society.

The study that we have referred to here, explores the association between anorexia and autism. It finds that the attribute that connects anorexic people indulging in restrictive eating and autistic people obsessing over perfectionism is rigidity. However, when we see a woman being picky about what she is eating, we don’t associate it with autism. We take it to be the manifestation of an eating disorder emanating from her distorted body image, common in the female population. Hence, the chance of autism remaining undiagnosed in women is high.

The experts of this study draw our attention to the possibility that the reasons behind a woman’s rigid, restrictive eating could be something else than the sheer fear of becoming fat. The trigger could be her tendency to avoid certain tastes and textures that she is extremely sensitive to. This is common in people with autism who also exhibit rigid eating habits.

There are two types of foods namely pro-inflammatory and non-inflammatory. While the former can aggravate autism, later can ease the associated symptoms of this condition. If we talk about the connect between autism and food, it starts in the prenatal period itself. We all know that the diet of an expecting mother is linked to the development of the foetus. A study published in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience says that eating foods deficient in zinc, copper, iron, and vitamin B9 can increase your baby’s likelihood of autism. These nutrients are essential for brain development. So, if the mother is deficient of these essential minerals and nutrients, the child, will naturally be low on them.

Also, due to higher sensitivity in kids with autism, they are selective of their foods. This further leads to nutritional deficiency in them. Another study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders states that children with autism are eight times at higher risk of developing gastrointestinal disorders like irritable bowel syndrome and constipation than those without the condition. They are also likely to get eating disorders like bulimia nervosa (binge eating).

As there is a strong link between eating habits and aggravated symptoms of autism, the role of food in the life of an autistic child, especially girls, is extremely crucial. Here, we share science-backed food suggestions for kids living with autism.

Make sure your child doesn’t go high on sugar
Sugar spikes blood sugar levels and lead to hyperactivity. Autistic children, who are generally prone to hyperactivity, get adversely affected by sugar-laden foods. So, it is important to restrict their sugar intake. Cut back on unhealthy drinks and food preservatives to prevent a blood sugar spike in your autistic child.

Include gluten-free and casein-free foods (GFCF foods) in her diet
Due to disruption in their gut microbiome, autistic children cannot easily digest foods containing gluten (wheat, barley and rye) and casein (milk and dairy products). These foods are pro-inflammatory and therefore can cause allergy to children. In fact, most of the autistic kids are already allergic or sensitive to gluten and casein. In fact, these foods can affect their regular bowel motility and brain function due to leaky gut condition (a common symptom in people with autism). Gluten and casein, if not digested properly, have a high chance of leaking out from the intestinal wall and reaching the brain of autistic kids through the bloodstream. This can trigger an opioid-like effect, impacting their behaviour negatively and aggravating the symptoms of autism.

Opt for vitamin C and zinc rich foods for her
Deficiency of these two nutrients in expecting mothers are associated with an increased risk of foetal development of autism. Also, children with this condition, who do not load up on foods containing these vital nutrients may experience aggravation in their condition. Therefore, adding vitamin C and zinc-rich foods in your children’s diet is crucial. Also, these micronutrients will help treat gastrointestinal problems associated with autism. The rich sources of vitamin C include oranges, kiwis, pineapples, grapes, tomatoes, papayas, broccolis and strawberries among others.  You’ll find zinc abundantly in legumes, dairy products, eggs, wholegrains, etc.

Add foods high in omega-3 fatty acids in her diet
According to research, some autistic children have a defect in their enzymes. This removes vitals fats from their brain cell membranes at an abnormally fast pace. So, autistic kids need more essential fats than those without the condition.  Foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids are potentially rich brain foods. The top sources: Walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, soya beans, cod liver oil, salmon.

Increase probiotic intake
These foods, including yogurt, kefir, pickles, etc. support the health of the gut microbiome. Autistic children are known to be suffering from gut microbiome disruption along with other gastrointestinal problems. A diet rich in probiotics will relieve them of associated gut issues like constipation and irritable bowel movement.