Mayo Clinic Weighs in on Restrictive Diets for Autism

Elena Schweitzer

Recently, on a Q&A portion of its website, the Mayo Clinic weighed in on the gluten free, casein free (GFCF) diet for autism. Dr. Jay Hoecker, emeritus consultant for the Department of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, stated that there was "no evidence that special diets are an effective autism treatment" and that "restrictive diets can lead to nutritional deficiencies."

Thanks in large part to a lack of autism awareness, there are many alternative treatments and therapies (including the GFCF diet) that desperate parents seek out and end up being more harmful than helpful.

Any home-brewed diet based on a lack of evidence, should not be used haphazardly. A professional nutritionist or doctor should be overseeing any type of diet being used on a child on a regular basis. Without these measures, a child’s health can be severely affected. Not many caregivers have access to the knowledge and diagnostic tools such as blood work, urine samples, blood pressure, vitals or are nutritionally savvy enough to keep a child’s well being properly monitored. 

I too, tried the gluten-fee, casein-free diet for my son and ironically enough, his healing began when I ended the diet and put him back on milks, yogurts, Happy Meals, Pediasure and Ensure. 

We’re spinning our wheels and are more interested in fads rather than facts. I have never read a single report stating that ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis), floor time, complete dedication, or any other behavioral modification therapy was harmful. These are the things we should be focused on.

Temple Grandin’s mother did not use the GFCF diet. Neither did the majority of parents of the greatest known adults with autism who are now fully functional in our society. 

One can search any number of alleged "fixes" and find someone touting results. My son is my result. The parents I study with and blog with are real and the diet did not work for them either. The positive results in GFCF studies could have very well been brought on by other underlying factors.

Granted, there are instances when a gluten-free casein-free diet is warranted if a child with autism has been diagnosed with allergies related to certain foods. However, this is often the exception and not the rule.

The GFCF diet is expensive and often forces already strapped families to spend their last dime, leaving them discouraged and distraught when the results don’t come.

I, like many other parents, am witnessing first-hand the behavioral modification approach and a complete turnaround in my son’s life. It is remarkable, miraculous and above all, it does not cost us anything other than our time.

Early detection and intervention of autism is the best approach to help our children.  Let’s stay focused and base decisions on recommendations from organizations like the Mayo Clinic instead of jumping on bandwagons and treatments that have yet to be proven by research.

6 Responses to Mayo Clinic Weighs in on Restrictive Diets for Autism

  1. Susan says:

    I can´t say I agree with the tenor of your argument. The point of having a child screened for food allergies BEFORE starting a GFCF diet is to determine whether it is even necessary. If the results show no allergy to casein and gluten, then it obviously isn´t the course to take and you have ruled out a major area of concern.

    I blew off the whole notion of diet for my autistic son until he ended up in the hospital with Crohn´s. The doctors told me diet had no bearing on his condition and I should shut down his immune system with chemotherapy. I refused. A human skeleton, he left the hospital with a gastric tube that pumped milk based formula into him eighteen hours a day.

    Through a miraculous series of events I found a DAN doctor specialising in autism and immunology in a neighboring state. He gave my son a food allergy test which determined he was allergic to casein, gluten, wheat, soy, and many other things I´d been feeding him all his life, including the milk coursing through the tube in his stomach. Cutting out all the allergens helped save his life. My biggest regret is that he didn´t get tested years ago.

    I hate to see diet turned into a pro/anti war like vaccinations when the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

  2. Eric Guilfoos says:

    I’m sorry, but I see your child’s food allergies and his autism as entirely separate issues. The MAYO Clinic article discusses the GFCF diet as it relates to “curing” or treating autism, period. Mayo Clinic emeritus consultant Jay L. Hoecker, M.D. simply made the statement “There’s no evidence that special diets are an effective autism treatment.” There is no mention of diet and food allergy concerns. I think the author C.A. Curie simply wanted to point out that for most children with ASD, the GFCF diet is a waste of time and money, and that it is important to quickly come to the realization that there are no panaceas to miraculously “cure” autism.

  3. Susan says:

    What needs to be remembered is that a good many autistic children do have gastrointestinal problems and allergies and it is good to find out if your child is in that category. If the test comes back negative, it would bring peace of mind to rule it out.

    My son´s autism symptoms were VASTLY improved through diet. I understand that it´s not a panacea, but I think the problem is people skipping the test and setting it out to do the diet on their own.

    The Mayo Clinic had an opportunity to recommend allergy testing even as they dismissed the effectiveness of the GFCF diet. Just because the medical establishment makes a claim based upon a study doesn´t mean the door is closed completely and I´m afraid that´s going to be people´s take away.

  4. Martin says:

    How very irresponsible of this article and the Mayo Clinic to deter people from applying HEALING diets for autism – which, by the way, are beneficial to MOST families who try them.

    Dr. Hoecker is seriously misguided, and flat out WRONG about diets for autism. And he’s in complete contrast to respected mainstream pediatrician Dr. Bob Sears who said “”I hope that parents everywhere consider trying the GFCF diet for their child,” and television’s Dr. Oz who believes that “some of the most promising treatments for autism come from changing the foods that the child is eating.”

    For autism (or anyone for that matter), diet means making calculated (intentional) omissions and additions to one’s food choices. Everyone from Hippocrates to Homer Simpson knows that food affects the body’s functioning and overall health. When one desires to improve health (autism or ANY disorder), addressing diet should always be part of one’s strategy.

    To NOT comprehend and support this is sheer ignorance.

    You’d never tell a diabetic or celiac sufferer that their “restrictive diet” is a problem, let’s not be so ignorant with autism (or ADHD, Asthma, Cancer, etc…).

    Diet for Autism comprises omitting known problematic foods/substances and adding necessary nutrients. Multiple studies indicate that nutrient deficiencies are common with autism. Being attentive to diet (what children eat) is 100% common sense!

    Of course it’s risky to simply restrict restrict restrict – to do so without conscious attention to the purpose and intent of what’s meant to be a healing intervention is unsafe and NOT the onus of autism diets. Rather, autism diets are a Nutritional Intervention – focused on fostering healing in the body through improved (researched and evidence-based) food choices.

    Honestly, can anyone argue against such a principle and practice? Especially since survey after survey of parents indicate that MOST children who follow a healing diet see some improvement in their autism symptoms – which again, makes sense. The avoidance of gluten and/or casein, or the GFCF Diet is but one dietary strategy for helping autism – there are several other diets that prove very effective

    Autism affects the entire body – most children have some physical ailments and symptoms (not just gastrointestinal), AND what happens in the body affects the brain. Whether or not you believe this unquestionable reality (every have a glass of wine “go to your head?”), more and more parents and progressive (i.e. smart and willing to learn and listen to parents) physicians are paying attention to what children EAT and how their diet affects their physical and cognitive healing.

    This is both ancient wisdom and modern learning. A nutrition expert from California has synthesized the autism nutrition information in a book called “Nourishing Hope for Autism” which definitively explains the scientific rationale for, and holistic application of, diet and nutrition intervention for autism. If the folks at the Mayo Clinic would just glance at it (even just the table of contents), they’d realize the depth of the science and common sense for autism diets – and they’d STOP trying to steer people away from their common sense.

    Again, this article is irresponsible. The greatest autism awareness that should be reported is the reality that children with autism can heal, they can improve, they can gain relief from physical pain that many suffer, and their life potential can be significantly enhanced…IF we allow ourselves to listen and learn – and TAKE CHARGE of what they are eating.

    This article and Dr. Hoeker’s attitude may inadvertently harm children with autism – you are unjustly promoting fear, that may cause people to NOT try to help their children who suffer. Survey after survey after REAL research reports indicate that MOST children with autism who following a restrictive (i.e. healing) diet see improvements.

    Why inhibit that?


  5. Hello. I am one of the authors of the ScanBrit diet study cited in the article from the Mayo Clinic on the use of GFCF diets for autism (reference 2). I am not entering any opinion on whether the diet “works” or not for any specific case of autism but would like to point out that our study conclusions were perhaps not totally in line with the article in question. I would perhaps encourage your readers to view our paper abstract in PubMed ( to see exactly what we said.
    Many thanks.

  6. P Small says:

    I was hoping for more of a scientific discussion of the molecular chemistry of the opiate-related compounds produced by abnormal digestion of Gluten and Casein in individuals on the Autism Spectrum and their adverse effects on neurochemistry from a Dr from an institution with the reputation of the Mayo Clinic. Instead here is an ad for Happy Meals, Pediasure and Ensure. Like you said, my clinical trial is my son with whom we live daily. It helps him and that’s what matters. There’s such a variety of nutritious food replacements for Wheat and Dairy that meets and exceeds basic nutritional needs that I don’t think we need Dr-endorsed Happy Meals :D!

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