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Question: Does eliminating certain foods, such as dairy or gluten, in the diet benefit children with special needs, including autism or other behavioral issues?

Feeding kids

Research doesn’t support claims that eliminating dairy, gluten, sugar or other foods can benefit a child’s behavior, says Dr. Ruth MacDonald, chair of the department of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University.

MacDonald says any claims you may see online or hear from friends that artificial colors or too much sugar can affect behavior in children have all been debunked by science. Research also hasn’t shown that you can manage autism with diet.

“(When parents) take these things out of the diet, they end up paying attention and being more attuned to their kid, and that in itself may cause the behavior to improve,” MacDonald says. “Without a really controlled trial, you don’t know what’s really happening.”

If you suspect your child has a food allergy or gluten intolerance, schedule an appointment with your doctor for an allergy test before putting your child on a restrictive diet, MacDonald says.

“You do get in situations where you could have an allergic reaction. That happens. People can be allergic to any food,” MacDonald says. “However, only a tiny percent of population has an allergic reaction to milk, and it can be clinically determined if you have an allergic reaction to any food.”

MacDonald says parents should aim to introduce kids to a wide variety of foods, including lean meats, dairy, vegetables and fruit.

“We can because of convenience eat the same things. You have a routine of rotation menus that you have in your house. I know I do,” MacDonald says. “But it’s really important to try to use a range of foods. And that includes everything. Fish, lean meats, including vegetarian options. Tofu is really a good source of protein. Just having a wide variety of food is important.”

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