Starting the Autism Diet: The Day I Almost Cried at Whole Foods

No matter where you do your grocery shopping, you can find a section with food for “special diets”. Even the local grocer in my small town has a gluten free section. However, that was not the case almost 10 years when my wife and I were starting the Autism Diet for our son, Ethan.

We made the decision to make this major lifestyle change during a particular tumultuous time in our life. I was secretly battling depression. We were broke, and emotionally reeling from an autism diagnosis we knew was coming for Ethan.

Nevertheless, we decided to completely overhaul his diet because we had heard the success other parents had with it. Knowing very little about what we were actually going to feed our son, we set out for Whole Foods one day determined to find a solution.

 Starting the autism diet can be overwhelming. The first time we went shopping for foods on the GFCF Diet nearly brought me to tears right there inside the store.

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*Starting The Autism Diet: The standard diet that many parents try for their kids with autism is the GFCF Diet or the gluten-free, casein-free diet. For more info on this diet check out my Complete Guide to the GFCF Diet.

Starting The Autism Diet: The Day I Almost Cried At Whole Foods

Why I Am I Telling You This Story

I want to share the beginning of our journey because it is my hope that it can inspire other parents and show you that it is possible. Changing your diet and lifestyle is a daunting task for anyone autism or not, so I believe many families can relate to our story.

While our situation may be seem extreme, I want to share it with you, so that you can see that if my family was able to do it, so can yours. You can overcome whatever obstacle you believe is standing in your way from adopting a more nutritious and healing diet for your family.

What Made Our Situation Different

The 2 years leading up to this point, my wife and I had another baby, relocated to Texas from Missouri, and started brand new careers. To complicate the situation, our home in Missouri was not selling. The house sat for months, and the bills were piling up. Faced with insurmountable debt and a looming foreclosure, we were forced to declare bankruptcy.

The stress of moving away from my family and friends and the inescapable financial burdens took its toll on me. I inevitably fell into a state of depression. It was years before I finally pulled myself completely out of it.

Broke and Depressed

So, that was the stage. That was all going on when I started to realize that Ethan had stopped progressing, developmentally, the way most kids do. Eventually, my wife began to notice things as well, and we braced ourselves for that autism diagnosis.

Where To Begin?

Even before the official diagnosis was made, we knew we were going to be starting the GFCF Diet right away. Unfortunately, we had no idea how to start or where to even begin. All of Ethan’s favorite foods were gluten and dairy based, so we had absolutely no idea what were we actually going to feed our him?

Starting The Autism Diet: The Day I Almost Cried At Whole Foods

The Worst Advice We’ve Ever Gotten

Before starting the GFCF diet, we went to see a local doctor in the hopes of getting guidance. The doctor claimed to specialize in the holistic treatment of autism which included diet. However, after our appointment, it was abundantly clear that she had no idea how to help parents actually make this change.

During our appointment, we began to ask questions about the diet. How to start, what to eat, what not to eat….etc. You know, they typical questions parents would ask in this situation.

She told us to just go to Whole Foods and the people working there can help show us what we can eat. She followed up that advice with a phrase that has been ingrained in my mind ever since. I can still see her nonchalant face as she said:

“Just give him some rhubarb.”

The doc said this as if it were no big deal at all to give a 3 year old with autism rhubarb instead of goldfish crackers.  The first thing that popped into my head after hearing this was, “What the hell is rhubarb?!?!”

On Our Own

We left that appointment feeling even more lost. The one idea she had given us was a food that neither Heather or I even knew what it was. Is it a fruit? Is it a vegetable? What does it even look like. Nevertheless, one thing was clear. It was time to go to Whole Foods.

Starting The Autism Diet: 

Off to Whole Foods

The day had finally arrived, and it was time to go on that first shopping trip to find GFCF compliant foods. Knowing this trip was going to take a long time and that we’d need all our attention focused on reading labels and navigating this brand new store (new to us), we lined up a sitter for the boys, and went off to the store.

As we arrived at Whole Foods, the only thing we had to guide us was a list that Heather had printed off the internet. It was a list of ingredients to avoid on the diet, and it was several pages long. She also found a list of brands that made gluten and dairy free foods.

Let the Wandering Begin

We began to wander around the store in search for answers. Knowing we’d have to bake more, we started in the flour aisle.

I was quickly lost in the many flour choices most of which I had never even heard of. To make matters worse, they all seemed to cost twice as much as normal wheat flour while being half the size.

Let’s Try a Different Aisle

Overwhelmed at the flour aisle, we started looking for the gluten free snacks. As our doctor advised, we asked someone working there for help. The employee guided us to the gluten free aisle, and said there you go and walked away. So much for all the employees that were going to help us.

So, we continued wandering the aisles of Whole Foods. Picking up new foods, checking the ingredient labels, and putting 95% of them back. It seemed like everything we picked up either had an ingredient derived from milk, soy, or wheat or it was insanely expensive.

I remember picking up a box of snack bars. My wife said, “Enjoy Life! That’s supposed to be a good brand.” All the while, I am thinking these are 4 bucks and Ethan eats like 2 bars a day. We’re gonna need like 2-3 boxes that’s 12 bucks a week on snack bars. “There’s no way”, I thought to myself.

Starting the Autism Diet:

Is This Even Possible?

Remember, we had just filed for bankruptcy. The question of how in the world we were going to afford these foods never left my mind. My wife and I had fully intended on having the whole family start the GFCF diet too. After seeing the cost of everything, we no longer thought that was possible for all 4 of us. (although, I do regret not doing this today)

The snack bar example pretty much happened with everything we looked at. I began to get really upset. “How are we going to do this? There’s no way we can afford it. It doesn’t seem possible.” I tried my best to hold it together, but inside I just felt like crying.

After almost 2 hours, we finally shifted gears. We began to focus on what we could give him to eat that next day. We asked ourselves, “What can we get so we can start the gfcf diet tomorrow as planned?”

Say Cheese

That set us off looking for lunch food to send to school, which led us to the alternative cheese section. Oh boy, did Heather and I spend way too long in this tiny section of the cooler.

I swear we read the labels of every single option on the shelves. In addition to gluten and casein, we were also avoiding soy. Most of the fake cheese options had soy, but I was shocked with the amount of “vegetarian” cheese that actually had milk in it.

I remember holding a block of almond cheese and saying, “what the hell is the point of making an almond cheese if it’s going to have milk in it!”

As you can see my sadness and overwhelm was beginning to turn into frustration and anger. After a good 20 minutes at the cheese display, it was time to go home before we both had a meltdown right there in the store.

My Wife Nearly Strangled The Cashier

As were checking out, both Heather and I were feeling lost. The cashier asked if we found everything okay, and my wife said not at all. We started talking with the cashier and told her we were having a hard time because we were starting the GFCF diet for our son. She then asked, why we decided to change his diet.

Upon hearing us tell her our son had autism, she replied as if she just saw a cute puppy dog, “Awwwwweee.”

My wife and I were both appalled by this response. To this day, my wife still gets mad when she thinks about it. Needless to say, this scene left a permanent impression in our minds.

I’m not really sure why this had such a lasting impact on us. Probably because we were in such a fragile state to begin with, and it was one of the first times we ever told anyone that our son had autism.

Starting The Autism Diet: The Day I Almost Cried At Whole Foods

Starting the Autism Diet

We spent over 2 hours at Whole Foods, and had very little to show for it. I think we went home with a pack of lunch meat, a bag of gluten free all purpose flour, and those $4 snack bars. At least we had lunch for him to take to school.

We had planned to be starting the autism diet the next day and thought we would at least have an idea of what to start feeding Ethan. Instead, we spent that drive home feeling so deflated and even more lost. Had it not been for the insensitivity of the cashier, we probably would’ve both cried on the way home.

 Speaking of Insensitivity

While the cashier’s statement has been burned into my wife’s memory, it was the babysitter’s statement that I will never forget. We arrived home and started discussing our strife with the sitter. She eventually responded with, “yeah, reading labels is hard.”

Tangent Time: Really, reading labels is hard? That’s all you thought we were doing?  As if we never read a label before, and all we were doing is reading labels. We were making a complete lifestyle change just after filing for bankruptcy and realizing our son had autism, and your response is, “reading labels is hard”, really!?!?  Sorry, I’m getting all fired up just writing this and it was 8 years ago. Back to the story.

It’s Easy Peasy Now

This all happened 8 years ago. Today, Ethan still follows a special diet, and it is no problem at all. In the beginning, it felt nearly impossible, but over time it got much easier. Today, it has become a way of life and doesn’t even require much thought. Today, it’s easy. 

By sharing our story, my goal is to show parents considering an autism diet for their kids that it is possible. No matter what your situation or what obstacle you may think is in your way, you can do it.

I took the boys shopping that next day, and found a few things that would get us through the next week. Each week, we would find new foods and continue to broaden our menu offerings one step at a time.

Starting the Autism Diet:

Go For It

If you decide to give the diet a try and find yourself feeling stuck, take a step back and take it one day at a time. Just as we did, ask yourself what can we do to get through tomorrow? Once you figure out tomorrow, move on to the next day and keep expanding from there.

While it may be incredibly overwhelming at first, just keep at it. Make small changes here and there. Find new foods that your child we eat and build upon that. Once you have that foundation you’ll be on your way to mastering the autism diet just like we did.


More Information on Starting the Autism Diet:

Looking for more answers on starting the autism diet? Check out my GFCF Diet Resource Guide for everything you need to get started.

GFCF Diet Resource Guide: Find all the information you need to get started on the gluten free, dairy free diet. #autism #adhd #autismdiet