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5 Tips for a Gluten-free Diet for Special Needs

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!

You may be wondering, “why even do a gluten-free diet for special needs?” In recent years research is uncovering 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 Downs 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. When someone is experiencing inflammation due to gluten-induced inflammation, in their brain and/or gut lining, we will likely see the following symptoms.

  • 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.

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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. It’s a specially formulated product that has enzymes and herbs that helps the body break down and detox any lingering gluten proteins in the body. 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 the grilled chicken nuggets and a large fruit cup. At Chipotle, you could order a rice bowl with meat and toppings. Having a game plan will help cut down on impulse eating and chaotic mealtime to help ensure you maintain a gluten-free diet for special needs.

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. Anticipate slips & mess-ups, give yourself grace and get back to your plan. Finding ways to distract and reward you 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.

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!


Special Strong provides fitness and nutrition for special needs children, adolescents, and adults with autism and other disabilities. Through our online training platform, we also provide special needs fitness certification courses for personal trainers and service providers who want to work autism and other disabilities.

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