In the past I have mentioned how important a healthy diet is to all children, not just autistic children, but some parents jump in to using strict elimination diets without first making any simple changes to their child’s diet to make it more nutritious. You never know, a few simple changes to make your child’s diet more “nutrient dense” may lead to vast improvements without having to cut out gluten or casein.
Nutrient Dense Foods
As I have already said, the first thing to do before trying any special diet or eliminating any foods is to make sure that your child is having a nutritious diet and this means giving them nutrient dense foods. A nutrient dense food is a food that is rich in macronutrients, such as carbohydrates, fiber, fats, essential fatty acids, protein and amino acids, and water, and that is also rich in micronutrients like vitamins, minerals, trace minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients.
According to Catherine Gavin RD, LDN, MPH of the Pfeiffer Treatment Center, a nutrient dense diet is essential because micro- and macronutrients are needed for “proper biochemical functioning of the body and brain”. She advises that parents should give their children organic foods, where possible, and foods that are whole and unprocessed because they are much denser in these essential nutrients.
Everyone has seen vitamins and supplements that are labeled “antioxidant” but what does this actually mean and why are they essential in our diet?
Antioxidants are substances that protect the cells of our bodies from damage by free radicals which come from pollution, pesticides, artificial colors and flavors, heavy metals, trans fats and hydrogenated fats. Our children’s gastrointestinal tracts and brains are particularly susceptible to damage from these free radicals, which cause “oxidative stress”, and Austim experts like Dan Rossignol believe that oxidative stress is a key factor in autism.
Making your child’s diet richer in antioxidants does not necessarily mean that you need to resort to giving antioxidant supplements, unless your child is a “fussy eater”. Antioxidants can be found mainly in plant foods such as fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, wholegrains and beans. Here is a list to help you:-
Vitamin A – This vitamin is found in apricots, mango, cantaloupe, sweet potato, carrot, butternut squash and green vegetables.
Vitamin C – Vitamin C is found in fruit juices like grapefruit juice and orange juice, red pepper, sprouts, broccoli, peapods, kiwi and strawberries.
Vitamin E – This antioxidant is found in Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, almonds, peanuts, pine nuts and raw sunflower seeds.
Vitamin B6 – B6 is found in fish like halibut, herring and salmon, poultry, beans, prune juice and potatoes with skins left on.
Zinc – This mineral is found in seeds like sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds, Brazil nuts, pecans, almonds, chicken and turkey, beef , pork and lamb, and soybeans.
Selenium – Selenium is found in tofu, chicken and turkey, beef and pork, pasta, Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, oatmeal and oysters.
Magnesium – This mineral is found in fish, brown rice, dried beans, dark green vegetables, yogurt, soybeans, peanuts, nuts and seeds.
Coenzyme Q10 – This ezyme, also known as CoQ10 or ubiquinone, is found in sardines, mackerel, beef, lamb and pork, eggs, spinach, broccoli, wholegrains, wheatgerm and peanuts.
Carotenoids – These are found in orange, yellow or red foods like carrots, tomatoes and oranges.
Flavonoids – These antioxidants, also known as bioflavonoids, are found in chocolate, vegetables and berries.
Further Tips for an Antioxidant Rich Diet
Here are a few tips to help you and your child follow an antioxidant rich diet:-
- Buy organic – Organic foods are grown or produced without pesticides, which are free radicals, or harmful hormones and other pollutants. Buy organic options wherever possible to both reduce exposure to free radicals and increase consumption of antioxidants.
- Eat colorful foods – Gavin talks about serving a “rainbow of colors” at mealtimes and this is because colorful fruit and vegetables contain lots of antioxidants and phytonutrients which are essential for our health.
- Reduce your use of the microwave – Microwaving foods like vegetables can actually destroy around 90% of essential nutrients like antioxidants so steam your vegetables instead and don’t overcook. Vegetables are meant to be “al dente” (have a bit of “bite”) not soft and squishy.
- Introduce cold-pressed Omega 3 and Omega 6 oils – These are essential fatty acids that are required by the body for a healthy brain and healthy heart, and are also needed for concentration.
- Eat at least three servings of vegetables every day and two servings of fruit, and include one citrus fruit.
- Make vegetable soups and homemade fruit juices or smoothies – Soups are a great way of getting your child to consume a variety of vegetables and juices and smoothies are a fantastic way to get your child to consume nutrient dense fresh fruit.
If you find it really difficult to get your child to consume nutrient dense foods then you should consider using supplements like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and essential fatty acids. Speak to your pediatrician or doctor.