Pediatricians Deny Link Between Food and Autism

Filed under: Medical Conditions, Development/Milestones: Babies, In The News, Special Needs, Nutrition: Toddlers & Preschoolers, Nutrition: Big Kids, Nutrition: Tweens, Nutrition: Teens

cheeseburger and fries

Doctors are finding no link between autism and food allergies. Credit: Corbis

Jenny McCarthy is wrong, according to researchers at the Mayo Clinic.

Diet does not contribute to autism.

The autism activist who started her career as a model and Playboy playmate has made a crusade out of her belief that food allergies and childhood vaccines are major contributors to the rising number of children diagnosed with the neurological disorder.

However, Mayo Clinic researchers tracked 124 kids with autism for more than 18 years and compared them with "typical" children. Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC News' senior medical editor, was emphatic in reporting the researchers' conclusions.

"These findings are very conclusive," she said on the "Today" show following the release of the study Monday in the journal Pediatrics. "There is no link between illnesses of the gut and the signs and symptoms we see in children with autism."

This is good news for parents, she told viewers. "Because its means if you're putting your child on a restricted diet, or if you're doing colonics (which is a type of enema), if you're using extra vitamins and nutrients, and you're spending a lot of money and putting your child through that, there is no reason to," she said.

Children should only be put on wheat- or dairy-free diets after undergoing diagnostic tests, Dr. Samar H. Ibrahim told The New York Times. She is a pediatric fellow in gastroenterology and an instructor in pediatrics at the Mayo Clinic, as well as one of the principal authors of the report.

"There is actual no trial that has proven that a gluten-free and casein-free diet improves autism," she said. "The diets are not easy to follow and sometimes cause nutritional deficiencies."

Physicians listed with the advocacy organization Defeat Autism Now stick to their belief in the link between food and autism.

Dr. Rochelle Neally, a chiropractor at the Long Beach Autism Center in California questions large-scale medical studies. They are often backed by the big money of monolithic pharmaceutical companies," she said.

"What they call 'scientific' are these expensive double-blind tests," she said. "I tend to believe what I see in my office and what I've seen at the autism conferences I've attended for the past 10 years."

What she sees, she said, are often dramatic improvements in children's behavior when they are placed on a special diet. "The proof is in the pudding," she added.

The gluten-free pudding, that is.

That's the problem, according to traditional researchers. Practitioners such as Neally base their conclusions on anecdotal evidence rather than hard scientific investigation. "I think there's room for both," said Neally.

However, she said parents with autistic children are increasingly unsatisfied with science that comes without answers. "Parents are rebelling against traditional medicine," Neally said.

Dr. Eileen Comia, M.D., in Bloomfield, Conn., is another physician allied with Defeat Autism Now. She said smaller-scale studies are needed. "Any doctor who says there's no link between diet and autism hasn't read a single article on the subject," she said.

Actually, believers in the link between mind and tummy have read too many articles -- inaccurate ones, Dr. Patricia Manning Courtney, medical director of the Kelly O'Leary Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, told US News and World Report.

"A couple of highly publicized cases of autism and loose stools in the 1990s led to an impression that children with autism had a higher rate of GI [gastrointestinal] dysfunction," she said. "It wasn't well characterized, but that got the story onto the national scene."

There is a link between diet and autism, Ibrahim said The New York Times, but not the one McCarthy and Defeat Autism Now physicians believe. Children with autism are often picky eaters. With limited diets, they often have more cases of constipation.

Restricting their diet choices even more than they do themselves only makes the problem worse, she told the paper.

"We did find that two specific problems -- constipation and feeding issues -- were more common in children with autism," Ibrahim told WebMD Health News.

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