Start the GFCF Diet: 5 Tips to Help You Begin the Autism Diet
Me: Are we really going to do that? My wife: “Yes, of course! Why wouldn’t we do it! If there’s a chance it could help Ethan, why would we not try it! It’s not going to hurt him, so yes! We’re going to do it!” 8 years ago, this was how my wife and I decided to start the GFCF diet for our son even before his diagnosis.
Starting the GFCF Diet was a No Brainer
If you would have seen the look in my wife’s eyes that day, you’d understand why this was all the discussion that we needed to start the GFCF diet (gluten free and casein free diet). She was quite adamant, and I knew there was no room for a discussion. Besides, she made a good argument. “It’s not going to hurt him to not eat bread or Goldfish. If it has even a tiny chance at helping him, then yeah we’re gonna do it!” How could I argue with that?
Are We Really Going to be “Those” People?
We started the GFCF diet without any knowledge of how it could help or why it helps so many kids. My wife had ran a respite program for autism families for years. She worked closely with kids with autism and their parents. This is how she knew about the “autism diet”. My only frame of reference for the diet came from her stories of the absurd reactions parents would have after a diet infraction.
She would always talk about how crazy parents were about their kid’s autism diet. For example, one Dad yelled at an employee because his kid had a drink of milk. Another Mom flipped out on her husband because he gave their son a cookie. When it became clear that Ethan, my son, had autism, this was the picture in my mind. Insane parents putting their kids on a strict autism diet, which is why I was like…. Really? Are we going to be “those” people???
It’s Overwhelming at First
It was not easy to start the GFCF diet, and it was very-VERY overwhelming. My wife and I both cried after grocery shopping that first time. We started with extremely limited knowledge of the science behind the autism diet, but we were fueled by the anecdotal stories from parents everywhere. Parents that had their kids suddenly start talking or start making eye contact for the first time shortly after removing gluten or dairy. We didn’t know how or why, but we knew there were no risks and plenty of hope with the diet.
How to Start the GFCF Diet
We took the “cold turkey” approach when we started the diet. However, there are many ways you can choose to go GFSFCF. Some parents choose to follow this “10 weeks to GFCF plan”, while others give up dairy first and then try to phase out gluten.
With going cold turkey, I should mention that there is a very slight risk of seizures for very sensitive kids. As gluten and casein can potentially be broken down into an opiate-like compound, very sensitive kids can become “addicted” to these foods. Thus detoxing from both gluten & casein at once can have a similar reaction as one detoxing from heroin. Having said that, this is very rare, but something you should be aware of if taking this approach.
Personally, my wife and I just dove right in. We eliminated every source of gluten, dairy, and soy in one swoop. My wife and I simply picked a day, and said on this day, we will start the GFCF diet. While I totally understand some people need to go at a slower pace, I think it’s best to just jump in head first. Here are some tips and advice to help get you through the challenges and emotional struggles you may experience.
5 Tips to Help You Start the GFCF Diet
First things first, before you start researching different bread recipes or breakfast ideas, you have to make the commitment. Give the diet a good 6 months of time, energy, & effort. By 6 months, I mean 6 months at 100%. If you needed to slowly phase into GFCF diet, then the clock starts once all sources of gluten, casein, and soy are removed. Many people will give up too quickly and stop before the body can start healing. If your child has a food sensitivity or an immune reaction to these foods, it may take 6 months for the immune system to calm down. Before you start the GFCF diet, make sure you are 100% committed and give it the time it needs.
Tell Everyone & Avoid Infractions
You’re going to want to make sure that everyone involved in the care of your child is on the same page. Think beyond your immediate family. Teachers, therapists, friends, and grandparents. Anyone that may give your child something to eat or drink. For us, we simply told everyone not to give Ethan anything that we haven’t provided. We brought all snacks, meals, and treats to school, therapy, and friend’s houses.
It’s easy for grandma to give them fresh baked cookies. Afterall, they’re job is to spoil our kids, right? Just make sure they know how committed you are and how important it is to not stray. Perhaps, they can even help figure out a new homemade recipe for GFCF cookies.
-2- Get the Family On Board
The whole family should adopt the diet. This is advice that I completely dismissed at first and I very much regret it today. I’ve written several posts on how my life has changed after our family adopted the paleo diet. Unfortunately, it took 4 years of my son being on the standard autism diet, for me to even start looking at changing my own.
In the beginning, we still bought regular food for the rest of the family, and we had plenty of junk food in the house for my wife and I. After all, this food was cheaper. We bought GF mac and cheese for Ethan and the regular cheap stuff for Gavin. But, when there were leftovers in the fridge, we would always have to guard against the possibility of Ethan getting into them. At first, food obsession is intense and Ethan was always sneaking to the kitchen. We even had to put locks on the fridge but he just broke the lock.
Lower Stress Level
Now that we no longer buy food that will hurt Ethan’s progress the stress level in the house has decreased. There’s no more concern when we hear Ethan in the kitchen by himself. You’re going to have enough stress when starting the diet, and worrying whether or not your kid got into something he should not have shouldn’t be one of them. Not only do you take that stress away, but you’ll likely find that you have more energy and more focus yourself with a change in diet. This will help you handle the upcoming battles you will have. At the same time, don’t beat yourself up too much when diet infractions occur. They will happen. Just get back on the train and keep going.
-3- Be Ready for Battle
There’s no getting around it. Changing your child’s diet will be a battle, and you should be ready for that. You’ll be working hard to introduce new foods, fighting off cravings and requests for old favorites. On top off all that, there’s likely to be some regression too. You may see increased aggression, tantrums, meltdowns and you may even see health related regressions like rashes and sleep disturbances. Don’t be scared away. This is temporary and very much worth it in the long run. Keep the long term goal in mind, and don’t let it shake your commitment.
It may feel like you’re hurting your kiddo, but trust me. You are doing what’s best for them. Gluten is not an essential nutrient, so ignore all the naysayers that tell you you’re hurting your kid. It’s not harming your child. Know that we’ve all felt this way in the beginning, so when your kid is throwing a tantrum in the middle of Target over Goldfish crackers, remember we’ve all been there. You’re not alone. You’ll make it through just stay strong. Stay committed. It will get easier.
-4- Know When to Fight
At first, you will have many challenges to face. Many kids are reluctant to try new foods. Make sure what you are fighting for matters. We parents want normalcy, so we simply look to replace foods with gluten free alternatives. For example, we try to use GFCF bread or buns at first. If your kid doesn’t like GF hotdog buns, then don’t fight them on it. Just don’t have bread. There’s virtually no benefit from eating it, so why spend the energy and extra money on gluten free bread if your kid doesn’t even like it? Focus on the battles that will yield the most return. For us at first, it was nuts. I always said if we could get him to try almonds, that would be a healthy & cheap snack for him. Perhaps, your kiddo needs more protein or veggies, so focus on reinforcing and fighting for things that will yield a real nutritional benefit.
-5- Pick Their Favorites and Replace Them
While I suggest you not fight over hotdog buns or breads, it is worthwhile to identify their favorite things and look to substitute those. Maybe pick 5 things that they love and find things that will be a suitable GFCFSF replacement. For example, my son loved chips, but of course they were no good on the diet. This was an easy replacement. We just switched to an organic corn chip instead. While these provided no nutritional value whatsoever, they proved to be an invaluable tool that helped in getting him to try the new foods. If he tried a new food or ate something he didn’t like, then he got a few chips as a reinforcer. Eventually, we phased out chips and used other healthier substitutes.
Figure out the things your kid cannot live without, and try to replace them. If they love pancakes, you can buy a GF frozen pancake or find tons of recipes online. Keep in mind that the long term goal should be to get to a healthy autism diet not simply a GFCF diet. Most commercial GFCF foods are not beneficial as they contain copious amounts of sugar. Eventually, you’ll want to start making sugar free pancakes and phase out the other.
Finally, when you decide to start the GFCF diet, make sure you have reasonable expectations for the diet. Yes, it is true that some kids improve dramatically after starting the diet. Sadly, that is not the norm. I’m certain you will see some progress after your initial 6 month commitment. Maybe your kid is simply sleeping a tiny bit better, or having more regular bowel movements. That’s a big help for you kiddo and will help them feel better. If they feel better, they’ll do better in other areas too. The goal with diet is to ease the burden on the body and help them be ready for progress.
We’ve Become Those People
As it turns out, we did become “those” crazy parents. Luckily, those or should I say “WE” parents aren’t actually as crazy as we may seem from the outside. There’s a reason we’ve become
so crazy so committed to the diet and focused on our kids. It’s because we’ve seen them progress and continue to seek out ways to help them feel better.
What are you waiting for? Grab the whole family and hop on the “crazy train” with us. It’s a long trip, so make sure you are committed before jumping on. We’ll drive through a few rough parts of town, but along the way you may also see some really incredible views.
Start the GFCF Diet Today
Don’t keep tossing around the idea of maybe one day trying. No more saying, I really should start the GFCF diet sometime, just do it. Remember, it will not harm your child. If it has the chance to help your kid even a tiny bit, why not start now???
What’s holding you back?
Leave a comment and share your biggest roadblock or concern.
Standard “CYA” Disclaimer:
The content presented on this blog are for informational purposes only. I’m Simply a Dad sharing his experiences. I’m not a medical professional, and my writing should not be considered medical advice.
Once you’re ready to jump into the diet, here are a few great reads to help you start to understand how & why GFCF can help improve the symptoms of autism.
Dr. David Perlmutter A GFCF Diet may lead to improvements in behavior
Learn the science and other tips behind the diet from an expert in the field. Julie Matthews. Nourishing Hope
The Autism Research Institute also provides tips and more info on the science to help you better understand why you should start the GFCF diet.
There are plenty of books out there that can teach you about gluten and casein. These are a few that I have personally read and they helped me understand the science behind the GFCF diet. (These are affiliate links. I earn a small fee from Amazon with these links.)
*The Kindle edition of Wheat Belly is a great read on gluten and is free with Amazon Prime at the time of this post*