The importance of protein for autistic (and other) children

A study published last month in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (33 (4): 449-454, August 2003) focused on protein status in children with autism. Researchers measured plasma amino acid levels of 36 children and found that all had multiple deficiencies.

This should come as no surprise and is the result of very poor diet, coupled with poor digestion and intestinal health. What is more troubling in this study is that 10 of the 36 children were on a casein-free/gluten-free (cfgf) diet, and those ten were found to have the most severe deficiencies.

This cannot be taken as an indictment of the cfgf diet and the dramatic improvement we often see in children on this diet tells us that we must be doing something right. On the other
hand this is a clear signal that, for instance, replacing milk with high-sugar fake foods like potato milk can be a recipe for disaster.

It should also be clear that the problem does not come from eliminating gluten. Gluten itself is an incomplete protein, meaning that it does not contain all the amino acids the body needs. Gluten is also closely equivalent to similar proteins found in rice, corn or other grains like millet, so that nothing is lost when gluten is replaced with these alternative grains.

Casein, however, is a complete protein and for some children may be the only source of complete protein in their diet. A complete protein is one that contains all of the amino acids we need to live. Alternative sources of complete protein include eggs, beef, poultry or fish – but not potato milk!

We need to understand that protein is not just good for us, it is essential to life. Without enough protein, some critical functions of the body will be impaired. Although everyone knows about the importance of calcium to healthy bones, many do not realize that bones are structured around a protein matrix – and that without enough protein bones cannot grow, regardless of how much calcium a child is getting.

Protein plays a critical role in every aspect of health. Our skin and muscles are made of protein, as are our hair and nails. Our immune system functions largely by releasing proteins called immunoglobulins, so without enough protein the immune system comes to a halt. Brain chemistry itself is dependent on protein, which is used to make neurotransmitters.

Without enough protein the brain can’t make these neurotransmitters and depression, hyperactivity, or behavioral disorders can result.

There are many physical signs of protein deficiency in children. A very common one is the characteristic protruding abdomen that so many children with autism have. Other signs include low muscle tone, reduced weight gain or growth, weak or slow-growing nails. A blood test called plasma amino acids is an excellent means to monitor protein status. As you upgrade the diet and introduce supplements, you should see a concurrent improvement in physical signs as well as in blood levels of amino acids.

According to the World Health Organization, children ages 1 to 14 need approximately 1 gram of high-quality or complete protein per kilogram of weight (1 kg equals 2.2 pounds).

Increases above this minimum are in all likelihood beneficial and can be healing, as long as carbohydrate consumption is kept in check.

The table below outlines the protein content of selected foods. But, consumption of protein is only half the picture. Digestion and assimilation make up the other half, so it is important to monitor physical signs of deficiency or, if you can afford to do so, have plasma amino acids tested periodically until they normalize.

I have recently acquired a software program to help patients precisely monitor their diet. You can bring a detailed description of your or your child’s food and drink intake for three consecutive days to me on your next appointment. We will input the data and produce a printout giving you the exact amount of protein, calcium and more than 100 other nutrients
you are getting from your diet.

Protein content of selected foods

Complete proteins (use as primary source of protein in your diet):
Eggs/6 grams each
Lean meat, fish, poultry/25-30 grams per 3-1/2 ounces
Milk/8-9 grams per cup
Yogurt/8-10 grams per cup
Cottage cheese/28 grams per cup

Incomplete proteins (use as adjunct sources):
Tofu/20 grams per cup
Kidney beans, cooked/15 grams per cup
Nuts and seeds/2-3 grams per tablespoon
Rice, cooked/5 grams per cup
Cornmeal, cooked/2 grams per cup
Vegetables/1-3 grams per half cup

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