A close kid relative of mine can die if he eats gluten. Actually, this child is so allergic to gluten that you can’t even cook pasta if he’s in the room or he’ll break out in a rash, or worse. He’s been to emergency rooms, both in the U.S. and abroad, due to his allergies, and it usually happens when someone hands him a so-called “gluten-free” cookie or snack that actually wasn’t.
So gluten is a hot topic in our family. Recently, though, skepticism has been rising about the very notion of gluten allergies, or sensitivities. Exhibit A in this arena is Michael Specter’s latest New Yorker story on the current gluten-free craze, which has enraged more than a few parents whose kids have real and scary reactions to gluten. Specter writes:
While there are no scientific data to demonstrate that millions of people have become allergic or intolerant to gluten (or to other wheat proteins), there is convincing and repeated evidence that dietary self-diagnoses are almost always wrong, particularly when the diagnosis extends to most of society. We still feel more comfortable relying on anecdotes and intuition than on statistics or data.
Speaking on Here & Now yesterday, Specter reiterated the article’s takeaway that the national gluten-free obsession is mostly just the latest fad diet.
Maybe. But here’s some reaction from a parent who thinks Specter should have taken a broader view:
“My son has gone into anaphylaxis from accidentally ingesting gluten four different times over the course of his life. Each time we had to administer an emergency Epipen injection and rush him to the ER. I don’t think he was reacting to a fad…
It is fine to debate the merits of going gluten free as a diet or lifestyle choice for some. But for others it is a clear medical issue, with the most serious consequences. The number of Americans suffering from celiac or severe gluten allergy seems to be growing fast, and that merits substantial funding and research to figure out why and find cures. It would be a mistake if that fact were to be lost amid the current efforts at “de-bunking” the risks of eating gluten for some.”
For parents of children with autism, the new findings — that a gluten-free, casein-free diet may help ease kids’ troubling GI symptoms and improve behavior — are nothing new.
Still, the report from Penn State backs what so many of these parents say they’ve experienced: Children appear to get some relief when following a strict diet that eliminates these ubiquitous ingredients (gluten is in most bread and grain products, and casein is found in dairy products).
The study is a survey, which, of course has its limitations. But for parents of children on the autism spectrum, the news suggests that painful physical symptoms associated with the condition might be alleviated through diet.
From the press release:
“Research has shown that children with ASD commonly have GI [gastrointestinal] symptoms,” said Christine Pennesi, medical student at Penn State College of Medicine. “Notably, a greater proportion of our study population reported GI and allergy symptoms than what is seen in the general pediatric population. Some experts have suggested that gluten- and casein-derived peptides cause an immune response in children with ASD, and others have proposed that the peptides could trigger GI symptoms and behavioral problems.”
The team — which included Laura Cousino Klein, associate professor of biobehavioral health and human development and family studies — asked 387 parents or primary caregivers of children with ASD to complete a 90-item online survey about their children’s GI symptoms, food allergy diagnoses, and suspected food sensitivities, as well as their children’s degree of adherence to a gluten-free, casein-free diet. The team’s results appeared online this month in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience.
Pennesi and Klein and their team found that a gluten-free, casein-free diet was more effective in improving ASD behaviors, physiological symptoms and social behaviors for those children with GI symptoms and with allergy symptoms compared to those without these symptoms. Specifically, parents noted improved GI symptoms in their children as well as increases in their children’s social behaviors, such as language production, eye contact, engagement, attention span, requesting behavior and social responsiveness, when they strictly followed a gluten-free, casein-free diet. Continue reading