Diet & Asperger’s: Food to Eat & What to Avoid
Years ago, experts considered Asperger’s syndrome a unique condition. Symptoms were outlined in diagnostic books, and doctors were encouraged to spot the signs in their patients and offer appropriate care.
Research changed that thinking. Experts realized that people with symptoms attributed to Asperger’s also had symptoms very similar to autism. Now, they’re considered part of the same condition: autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Even though Asperger’s is no longer an official diagnosis, people still use the term.
People with ASD often have an unusual relationship with food, and that can be due to reactions to smells or tastes. While some people with autism may not be able to express how they feel about food, people with Asperger’s often have few speech delays. They might tell you quite clearly how they feel about food.
If left unaddressed, an Asperger’s diet might be filled with bland, carbohydrate-heavy foods. Unfortunately, these foods can be hard to digest. Many people with ASD have slow-moving guts that just can’t take meals like this.
There is no specific, science-based Asperger’s diet that’s right for everyone. However, experts have good ideas about what foods might be right (and wrong) for people with ASD.
Asperger’s & the Gut
Your gut and your brain don’t share space within your body, but they are intimately linked. The bacteria within the gut can influence your emotions, and a poorly functioning digestive tract can lead to distracting discomfort. Researchers say people with autism have an unusual gut biome, and that could influence behavior.
Researchers say the gut-brain connection involves:
- Neurons. The gut and the brain share these vital connections.
- Genes. Mutations that cause autism could also spark digestive differences.
- Co-occurrences. Up to 90% of people with autism have gut issues.
Researchers say people with autism often have guts that move at a slower pace, so food stays within the body for longer time periods. Studies also suggest that people with ASD have bloating, gas, and pain due to the malfunctions within the gut, and that can make them feel grumpy and uncomfortable.
In a perfect world, researchers could craft a diet that would:
- Speed motility. Food would push through the gut quickly, so it wouldn’t stagnate and cause bloating and pain.
- Digest in the stomach. Food would pass to the intestines in an uncomplicated state, so fewer gas episodes would occur.
- Taste great. Perfect diets don’t work if no one eats them.
Unfortunately, a perfect Asperger’s diet doesn’t exist. Studies on the gut/brain connection are relatively new, and experts say they need much more time to determine how someone must eat to keep discomfort at bay. That work hasn’t been done quite yet.
Asperger’s Diets to Avoid
While researchers say they’re not quite sure how to amend an Asperger’s diet to reduce symptoms, some people claim they have the answers right now. Sometimes, their solutions are dangerous.
There are a few diet modifications parents should avoid. These include:
- Gluten-free or casein-free diets. Proponents claim that avoiding casein (in milk) and gluten (in wheat, rye, and barley) can reduce ASD symptoms. Experts say there’s no proof that these diets work. Restrictive diets like this can eliminate nutrients people need to stay healthy.
- Online supplements. Some parents buy tapeworms from the internet. Others attempt fecal transplants. Before you attempt a DIY approach to treat autism, talk with your doctor. The solutions you try could harm the person you love.
- Carb-only meals. Researchers say people with ASD have a strong preference for carbohydrates and processed foods. Sometimes, it’s easy to give in and encourage the person to eat based on these preferences. Experts say families should encourage bravery in food choices, so people have well-rounded meals each day.
In general, if you’re tempted to follow a fad diet to help someone with autism, it’s best to talk with a doctor first. Your plans could be based on faulty science.
Foods to Avoid for People With Asperger’s
Researchers say that people with autism can struggle with food sensitivity. When that happens, they can feel ill after almost every meal. A diet calendar could help families to identify those issues.
To do that:
- Write down what the person ate and how much was consumed.
- Note the time of the meal.
- Write down any behavioral or physical symptoms you see.
You might find that a fatty meal caused the person to seem agitated or upset. The person might also tell you that a bowl of ice cream resulted in a long-lasting stomach ache.
Experts say families can eliminate foods with ingredients that often cause digestive problems, such as:
- Artificial colors. Food dyes have been linked to digestive symptoms in people with ASD. Stick with natural colors instead.
- High-fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners. Mercury is used to process some artificial sweeteners, and others cause nausea or diarrhea.
- Preservatives. People with headaches, mood changes, and hyperactivity could benefit from removing preserved foods from the diet.
This list looks long, and it can be daunting to determine what people with autism should eat (rather than what they should not). But with a little creativity, families can plan meals that both appeal to the person and boost health.
New Foods & Supplements to Try
Fruits and vegetables are good for overall health, and everyone is encouraged to eat more of them, including people with Asperger’s. Vitamins and minerals can also be helpful for people hoping for a health boost.
A healthy Asperger’s diet might involve:
- A colorful plate. Most of a standard plate should be filled with fruits and vegetables. Carrots, salads, blueberries, tomatoes, and other bright foods are exceptional choices. The rest of the plate should contain a lean protein, such as fish.
- Vitamins and minerals. Experts recommend adding a multivitamin that contains A, B6, C, D, folate, and magnesium to the daily diet.
- Omega-3 fatty acids. Fish oil supplements can help to improve brain function, and they might be helpful for people with Asperger’s.
It’s not always easy to get people with Asperger’s to try new diets. Researchers say a full 70% of children with autism have unusual eating habits. Those habits can persist throughout their lives.
Approach the topic with the spirit of collaboration.
- Start the conversation. Ask the person to define beloved food, hated food, and not-so-hated foods.
- Introduce something new. Add a tiny bit of the not-so-hated foods into each meal.
- Fortify when possible. Look for ways to enhance the nutritional value of the foods the person will eat. Add eggs, almond flour, or quinoa into foods when you can.
- Talk about the diet. Reassess the meal plan. You may find the person is willing to add more foods to the not-so-hated list.
Changing a diet can take time and persistence, but it’s worthwhile. A healthy diet might decrease gastrointestinal distress, which can make the person feel a lot better. And the diet might boost health enough to allow the person to live longer. The end result is a healthier, happier individual.
Asperger’s Syndrome. (June 2019). American Academy of Family Physicians.
Research Confirms Gut-Brain Connection in Autism. (May 2019). ScienceDaily.
Could the Gut Microbiome Be Linked to Autism? (January 2020). Nature.
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and Diet. (March 2020). Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Supplements, Worms, and Stool: How Families Are Trying to Game the Gut to Treat Autism Traits. (June 2019). Spectrum.
What Is It About Autism and Food? (September 2018). Autism Speaks.
Autism Spectrum Disorder—Research Suggests Good Nutrition May Manage Symptoms. (January 2013). Today’s Dietitian.
Supplements for Autism Spectrum Disorder. (September 2009). Today’s Dietitian.
Unusual Eating Behaviors May Be a New Diagnostic Indicator for Autism. (July 2019). ScienceDaily.
Asperger’s Syndrome and the Power of a Good Diet. Autism Parenting Magazine.