5 Tips for a Gluten-Free Diet for Individuals with Special Needs

Start your gluten-free journey with confidence by following these 5 essential suggestions designed specifically for people with special needs. Uncover strategies to navigate gluten-free living seamlessly, addressing dietary challenges with practical solutions. Furthermore, this guide empowers caregivers and individuals alike by providing insights into label reading, safe ingredient choices, and dining-out considerations for a well-rounded gluten-free experience. In addition, it helps elevate your understanding of gluten-free living for special needs, ensuring a balanced and enjoyable diet. Lastly, it provides expert tips to navigate the intricacies of gluten-free dining, fostering a healthy and fulfilling lifestyle for those with unique dietary requirements.

5 Tips for a Gluten-free Diet for Special Needs

Gluten-free is a big buzz phrase right now. If you walk the grocery store aisles you will likely see dozens, if not hundreds of products labeled “gluten-free”, which as a nutritionist for special needs families, I am happy for the variety and ease in selecting products that are gluten-free. However, having a gluten-free diet for special needs families can also be incredibly daunting. The Standard American Diet or SAD is particularly high in gluten-containing foods. From pizza, chicken nuggets, burgers, bagels, pasta, cakes, cookies, crackers, and much more it’s hard to avoid such gluten-heavy food items in everyday life. I want to encourage you that it is possible!

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You may be wondering, “Why even do a gluten-free diet for special needs?” In recent years research has uncovered the inflammatory component of the protein, gluten which is present in wheat, barley, & rye grains. This protein, gluten, can be difficult to digest, especially for people with autism, ADHD, ADD, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, autoimmune diseases, and possibly even people with Down syndrome or people suffering from mental disorders. When a protein, such as gluten, does not break down in the body, then the body’s immune system will tag that protein as an invader, and the immune system will fight and destroy those tagged proteins, this is called inflammation. The areas of the body that are most highly affected for those with special needs tend to be the gut lining and the brain.

Common Symptoms of Inflammation in their Brain Due to Gluten-Induced Inflammation

  • Constipation, bloating, undigested food in the stool
  • Mood swings, irritability, tantrums, compulsive behavior
  • Anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, inability to focus
  • Possibly, language and social delays

It’s important to note when going gluten-free for special need, it has to be a complete elimination of gluten-containing foods in the diet to see results. In some people, they may not see results for several weeks as the body detoxes the gluten out of the body. It’s not always an easy process, but it is worth it to see individuals transform as their bodies heal with less inflammation in the body.

There are practical steps to take to help make the transition easier. In this blog, I will give 5 tips to help you and your family go on a gluten-free diet for special needs.

Tip # 1. Know what foods contain gluten.

The most common and well-known foods are wheat, barley, and rye. However, food manufacturers will often process other grains or products on the same equipment as wheat, barley, and rye, thus creating cross-contamination. For some people, even the slightest exposure can cause a reaction. In addition, wheat is sometimes used in products, you wouldn’t expect, such as soy sauce, fried foods, sauces, gummy candies, and even medications! Creating a habit of looking at the ingredient label of all your foods, medications, and supplements will help you find any hidden gluten-containing foods. Diane Sanfilippo, from www.balancedbites.com created a great handout, that I highly recommend you print and hang on the fridge.

You can also bring a copy with you whenever you grocery shop or eat out. This is a wonderful guide to help you understand which foods to avoid. Go through your pantry and fridge and throw away all gluten-containing foods. I’ve observed that if it’s in the house, it gets eaten. Throw it away! Consider replacing your toaster, spreads, and jams that may still have gluten-containing crumbs. Deep clean any kitchen items & utensils that may have baked on gluten-containing crumbs.

Tip # 2 Find foods that are a good substitute or don’t contain gluten at all.

As I mentioned earlier, there so many options for gluten-free foods at the grocery store. Take inventory of current diet and figure out which foods contain gluten. If your child eats chicken nuggets, graham crackers, and cereal then go to the grocery store and find the gluten-free substitution for these food items. Next, start incorporating naturally gluten-free foods into the diet, if they don’t already exist in the diet. Fruits, vegetables, meats, nuts, seeds, and coconuts are all naturally gluten-free foods that are packed with vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Continue offering these foods, even if your child refuses at first. Repetition is key to helping them feel comfortable in trying new foods.

Tip # 3 Use supplements to help digest the gluten left in the body.

Remember look at the labels for all your supplements, vitamins, and medications that are currently being used and make sure they do not contain gluten. Approved supplements that can help the body digest and get rid of lingering gluten in the body will have enzymes and herbs that will help break down the gluten protein in the body. One product I like is, GlutenFlam by Apex Energetics. This specially formulated product contains enzymes and herbs that aid the body in breaking down and detoxifying any remaining gluten proteins. In addition, taking a high-quality multivitamin and eating lots of green leafy vegetables or green juices with collagen peptides will assist the body in removing gluten as well.

Tip # 4 Meal plan and prep

Take time each week to game plan what meals and snacks to eat for the coming week. Take into account activities and long periods of time being out of the house. Those are often the most vulnerable times for stopping and getting something to eat out. Put together two to three different meals for breakfasts and lunches. Have easy-to-grab gluten-free snacks such as fruit, cut-up vegetables, trail-mix packets, crackers, deli turkey, nut butter, coconut milk yogurt, meat sticks, or granola bars.

Plan meals to be big enough to produce leftovers for lunch or dinner the next day. Make batches of fat-bombs, gluten-free muffins, or gluten-free cookies. Think about meals and places you and your family can eat at. For example, Chick-fil-A, you could order grilled chicken nuggets and a large fruit cup. At Chipotle, you could order a rice bowl with meat and toppings. A game plan will reduce impulse eating and chaotic mealtimes to help you manage a gluten-free special needs diet.

Tip # 5 Find a non-food distraction during the elimination phase.

Lastly, having a gluten-free diet for special needs can be very difficult initially for some families. Furthermore, anticipate slips & mess-ups, give yourself grace, and get back to your plan. Finding ways to distract and reward yourself or your family member with non-food distractions and rewards while going gluten-free can be a good way to take your mind off the transition. Going for a walk, playing at the park, putting together a puzzle, playing a board game, exercising, or dancing are all activities that will help bring enjoyment during this transition.

Benefits of a Gluten-Free Diet for Individuals with Special Needs

For individuals with specific special needs, dietary considerations play a pivotal role in managing their conditions and enhancing their quality of life. A gluten-free diet, which eliminates all sources of gluten found in wheat, barley, and rye, has gained recognition for its potential benefits beyond those with celiac disease. Here, we explore how adopting a gluten-free diet may be beneficial for individuals with special needs, including those with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and other related conditions.

Nutritional Well-being and Digestive Health

At the forefront of its benefits, a gluten-free diet can significantly improve digestive health in individuals who are sensitive or intolerant to gluten. For those with celiac disease—an autoimmune disorder where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine—the diet is essential. It can alleviate symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea, and prevent long-term complications associated with the malabsorption of nutrients.

Behavioral and Cognitive Improvements

Emerging research and anecdotal reports from parents and caregivers suggest that some individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) may experience behavioral and cognitive improvements on a gluten-free diet. While the scientific community is still exploring the connection between gluten and ASD, it is hypothesized that dietary changes may influence gut-brain interactions, potentially leading to improvements in behavior, focus, and social interaction skills.

Enhanced Quality of Life

Beyond the physiological implications, adhering to a gluten-free diet may also lead to an enhanced overall quality of life for individuals with special needs. This includes reduced discomfort from gastrointestinal issues, improved energy levels, and a decrease in the frequency and severity of mood swings or irritability, potentially attributed to the removal of gluten from the diet.

Have you gone gluten-free for special needs? What are your tips and tricks for maintaining a gluten-free diet? Do you have a favorite recipe or snack you’d like to share in the comments? Contact us!

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