13. “Anyone can benefit from a gluten-free diet: it can give you more energy and even treat autism.”
With more and more gluten-free products cropping up in supermarkets, it’s easy to think their benefits might stretch beyond the audience for whom they’re intended: people with celiac disease and gluten intolerance. Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition in which the body can’t digest gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley; it’s marked by damage to the small intestine that leads to deficiencies because nutrients can’t be absorbed. A blood test is used to diagnose celiac disease. Gluten intolerance, on the other hand, may be diagnosed when abdominal distress, and sometimes fatigue, regularly occurs after consuming gluten—and celiac disease has been ruled out. If you don’t have a medical reason for following a gluten-free diet, “there’s probably no benefit,” says Tricia Thompson, R.D., a Massachusetts-based dietitian and founder of glutenfreedietitian.com.
When people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance go gluten-free, “they do feel better and more energetic,” adds Thompson, “but that’s only because they were feeling so sick before.” Those without a medical need to avoid gluten shouldn’t expect such results, she adds.
(If you suspect you have trouble with gluten, don’t self-diagnose. It is much more difficult to get a definitive medical diagnosis of celiac disease if one stops eating gluten.)
When it comes to autism, however, the case isn’t so clear-cut. Many children with autism have gastrointestinal problems, and some parents report that their children’s autism symptoms improve when they follow a gluten-free diet that usually also eliminates casein, a protein found in milk. (The son of celebrity mom Jenny McCarthy is perhaps the most famous example.) But objective clinical studies haven’t shown that the diet works. Most recently, in May, University of Rochester researchers reported the results of a well-designed (double-blind, placebo-controlled), four-month study of 14 preschoolers with autism. They found that a strict gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF) diet had no discernable effects on autistic behavior patterns, attention, sleep and other symptoms.
Indeed, a consensus report published last year in the journal Pediatrics noted that “available research data do not support the use of a casein-free diet, a gluten-free diet, or combined gluten-free, casein-free diet” for people with autism spectrum disorders. But that doesn’t rule out trying diet therapy, says Timothy Buie, M.D., a pediatric gastroenterologist at Harvard Mass General Hospital in Boston and lead author of the report. “At the minimum, these kids merit a nutrition consultation with a registered dietitian to determine if there’s an underlying problem.”
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