Gluten-Free Casein-Free Diet is Not Working

10 Strategies for the GFCF Diet Plan for Autism and ADHD

Starting on a gluten-free and casein-free (GFCF) diet for your child with ADHD, autism, anxiety, or other neurological/special needs can result in profound improvements. Let’s start by defining what these things are. Gluten refers to the proteins found in wheat, rye, barley, spelt, kamut, and triticale. Gluten helps foods maintain their shape, acting as a glue that holds food together. It can be found in many types of foods, dressings, sauces, and condiments. Casein is a protein found in milk and other dairy products. Similarly to gluten, casein protein can be found in many things, not just dairy products. In this article whether we say gluten-free and casein-free or gluten-free and dairy-free, we are generally talking about the same thing.

Implementing a gluten-free and dairy-free diet can potentially offer a wide range of benefits for your child. Improvements can be varied and include receptive and expressive language, enhanced cognition, better sleep cycles, less hyperactivity, improvements in constipation, and a decrease in disruptive behaviors. Consistently following a special therapeutic diet can offer immense benefits for your child.

In fact, one study found that over a 5 month period, participants on a gluten-free diet showed an improvement on a number of behavioural measures.[1] If you are interested in the science behind a GFCF diet, read my article on 7 science-based reasons a GFCF diet affects the brain and autism.

But, not every child responds the same way to dietary intervention and sometimes parents may wonder why a dairy-free and gluten-free diet is not working for their child.

Maybe you thought behavior would improve, or perhaps you were hoping for improvements in digestive symptoms, sleep, rashes, anxiety, hyperactivity, irritability, or language.

Maybe the diet was working at first, or maybe you never saw the results you were hoping for.

I have heard these challenges in my practice over the last 20 years and I tell parents that there can be a number of things for them to consider. I will share my top 10 reasons why a GFCF diet may not be working and offer strategies that can help.

So if you’re asking the question:

Why is the GFCF diet not working? Or Why is the GFCF diet not working anymore?

… you’re in the right place.

Here are 10 strategies to help when the GFCF diet is not working:

1) Infractions

Firstly, let’s define what an infraction is. It simply means that some small – even minute – amount of gluten protein and/or casein protein is still getting into your child’s diet or can even be absorbed through their skin. This can be from many different sources including:

Treats or foods at Grandma or Grandpa’s house

Treats or foods at school or daycare

Cross-contamination is when a gluten-free and/or casein-free food is sliced, prepared, heated, fried, or placed with foods that contain gluten or casein

Personal care products like lotions or shampoos

Craft items like Play-Doh

If your child’s diet is not 100% gluten-free and dairy-free compliant, that can interfere with seeing positive results.

Success Strategy – Keep going. Review your child’s diet and personal care products or things like Play-Doh for gluten and dairy. There can be many names for both of these compounds so make sure you are checking everything. Also, it is important to communicate with well-meaning friends, relatives, and school/therapy personnel. To see the potential gains, you have to be strict so yes, even 1 bite can hurt the progress you are making. And since it takes a while for gluten and dairy to leave your child’s system, being consistent with avoidance – including cross-contamination – is key to success.

2) Salicylates Interfering With Symptom Improvement

Salicylates are naturally-occurring food chemicals in fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods like herbs, spices, nuts, etc., and in artificial additives and food colorings. So even gluten-free and dairy-free foods can be high in salicylate and if your child is sensitive to these compounds, it could be masking the positive benefits from a gluten-free and dairy-free diet.

High salicylate foods can cause red cheeks or ears (not related to heat), hyperactivity, irritability, bed wetting, aggression, sleep challenges, and other symptoms in some children.

One of the most common experiences I see with clients is that they do a GFCF diet and hope to see improvements in hyperactivity, behavior, and physical symptoms, but they don’t. So they figure “diet,” or a GFCF diet specifically, must not work for them. But instead of giving up, I encourage them to try also removing salicylates. Then, all of the reduction in symptoms and the gains they hoped to see suddenly happen!

It’s important not to give up on diet but to dig deeper!

Some foods that are high in salicylates include:

  • Strawberries
  • Blueberries
  • Raspberries
  • Red grapes
  • Most melons including watermelon
  • Peaches
  • Nectarines
  • Plums
  • Apples
  • Red bell pepper
  • Cucumbers and pickles
  • Ketchup
  • Tomato sauce
  • Zucchini (with peel on)
  • Cinnamon and spices
  • Almonds
  • Honey

Success Strategy – If you’ve implemented a gluten-free and dairy-free diet and are seeing things like the symptoms listed above or irritability, defiant behavior, aggression toward self or others and your child is eating many of the high salicylate foods listed above, it may be worth reducing or eliminating those foods as well and assessing how your child feels and behaves as a result. But, it doesn’t mean that the gluten-free and dairy-free diet is not working, it just may mean that there are additional compounds that are also presenting a challenge for your child’s body to process.

3) Additional Food Sensitivities Causing Inflammation

When a food causes inflammation in the body there can be many reactions both physically and behaviorally. Removing gluten and dairy is a great start in reducing inflammation because both of these are inflammatory foods. But, each person is unique and any food can be or become inflammatory, even those we consider “healthy.”

The most common food sensitivities (in addition to wheat and dairy) are:

  • Soy
  • Corn
  • Eggs
  • Citrus
  • Peanuts
  • Nuts
  • Chocolate
  • Sugar

So once again, if you have removed all exposure to gluten and dairy and still are not seeing the results that you want, exploring food sensitivities is a good next step.

Success Strategy – Again, stick with a gluten-free and dairy-free diet, but also eliminate specific foods that your child is reacting or sensitive to. And not all food sensitivities are visible like a rash. Sometimes they cause underlying inflammation in the system that you can’t see on the outside, but that affect the brain and get in the way of you seeing improvements.

4) Food Additives

Chemicals and additives in foods can trigger behavioral issues that can mask the benefits seen from a gluten-free and dairy-free diet. As mentioned above, sometimes the issue is related to salicylates – as in the case of artificial colors – or it can be because of another food compound. Artificial colors, artificial flavors, and preservatives are three very problematic food additives for behavior. Studies show artificial colors and preservatives cause hyperactivity in children.[2]

Another problematic food additive is MSG and related substances high in glutamate. Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter that causes a feeling of excitability and hyperactivity, as well as anxiety, aggression, and other stimulatory sensations – and can be found in food. It is not only found in MSG-type additives such as monosodium glutamate and autolyzed yeast extract, but also in foods naturally high in free glutamate, such as soy sauce, parmesan cheese, and marmite. Glutamate is often found in similar foods as amine foods such as sauerkrauts and bone broths.

These food additives can cause a lot of behavior issues that can mask any beneficial results you were hoping for with the GFCF diet.

Success Strategy – Cooking a healthy gluten-free and dairy-free diet with as many home-cooked foods as possible is the easiest way to overcome this possible challenge. Reading food labels and knowing exactly what is in the foods your child is eating is essential. And eliminating food colors, preservatives, and chemicals is a tremendous step towards the positive improvements you are hoping to see.

5) Chemicals Around The Home

We don’t often think of chemicals in our home interfering with a GFCF diet, because we are not eating these chemicals. However, when we are exposed to them through breathing them in or putting them on our body, they can have detrimental effects.

Synthetic fragrances found in air “fresheners,” candles, fabric softeners, and body care products can also contain salicylates as well as dozens of chemicals that can negatively affect mood, behavior, and brain function. There are many chemicals to be careful of including cleaning products, detergents, antibacterial soaps, flea treatments, and more.

With some of these chemicals you might see immediate reactions that interfere with diet results; whereas, with others there can be long term damage that you might not notice right away.

Success Strategy – Avoid chemicals and choose natural options. Pay attention to any chemicals you use in your home and seek out more natural products. Additionally, only put natural body care products on your skin or your child’s skin. And be careful of anything you breathe in that could negatively affect your family.

6) Grains Are Irritating The Gut

Again, the issue of inflammation can be a big one and can mask many of the benefits of a gluten-free and dairy-free diet. Grains and starches can be difficult to digest, especially for some people, such as those with gastrointestinal disorders and microbiome imbalance and can cause irritation – and even inflammation – of the gut, impacting GI symptoms and the microbiome. The gut and brain are closely tied so when the gut is irritated, the brain is often negatively impacted.

If your child is still experiencing digestive symptoms after doing a diet that removes gluten, casein, soy, and any personal sensitivities, a grain-free diet trial may be beneficial. Working with an integrative physician knowledgeable about underlying issues is important. Through them you can do specialized testing that can give you much information on whether grains may be presenting a challenge for your child. Leaky gut, candida overgrowth, bacterial overgrowth, and other gut imbalances can indicate a benefit to following a grain-free diet.

Success Strategy – The strategy here would be to transition from a gluten-free and dairy-free diet to also exclude grains. Most grain-free diets such as the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, GAPS diet, or Paleo also remove starches like potatoes which can be helpful. Many gluten-free products use rice flour, millet, quinoa, or potato as common ingredients. If your child suffers from gut issues, those grains and starches break down into sugars which can feed those imbalances in the gut. So, by removing grains and starches, you remove the food source for the pathogenic bacteria and fungus, and improve both the gut and the brain.

7) Microbiome Imbalance / Infections

As we discussed briefly in the section on grains, when your child is experiencing gut issues like leaky gut, dysbiosis (imbalanced bacteria), and gut pathogens, because of the gut-brain connection, it can have a profound impact on your child and their ability to function. While a gluten-free and dairy-free diet is likely helpful, it can be hard to see the effects while the body is also dealing with this other issue.

As we mentioned in diet strategy #6, grain-free and starch-free diets can be helpful with dysbiosis.

Another strategy is a low FODMAPs diet. FODMAPs are fermentable carbohydrates that bacteria feed on and can create gas, bloating, pain, diarrhea, and constipation.

Additionally, a low oxalate diet can be helpful with dysbiosis, as high oxalates damage the microbiome. We’ll talk more about this diet strategy in #10.

Sometimes, more than one diet is implemented and in other times people switch to a new diet. But in a vast majority of situations, gluten-free and casein-free are still recommended.

Success Strategy – The strategy here would be to discuss any medical issues with your physician. From a dietary perspective, you can support the good, healthy gut bacteria by eating a clean, whole foods diet and adding in probiotic rich foods. Sauerkraut, kimchi, homemade dairy-free yogurt, kombucha are just a few things that can be rich in probiotics and can be beneficial to add to the diet,while you consider which therapeutic diet or principles might help.

8) Sugar

Sugar can be inflammatory, cause behavioral reactions, and even deplete vital minerals. Sugar can create problems in the body which could be interfering with the success of your gluten-free and dairy-free diet.

Since sugar is inflammatory, it can cause digestive and systemic inflammation that can lead to a worsening of symptoms. Sugar can also negatively impact behavior and ADHD, so a high sugar diet can mask improvements or “counteract” benefits of a GFCF diet.

Furthermore, sugar is another compound that can make gut dysbiosis worse. Since the pathogenic organisms feed off of sugar, a diet high in sugar is going to contribute to the growth of those bugs. This can cause behavioral and learning issues which can interfere with the benefits seen from a gluten-free and dairy-free diet.

In fact, I wrote a blog on avoiding sugar.

When undertaking a nutritional intervention for your child with autism, it is important to stick to whole, unprocessed, fresh, and organic foods whenever possible.

Success Strategy – The obvious thing is to reduce or eliminate sugar. This can be done in a few ways. There are other sweeteners which can be enjoyed like coconut sugar that can make the switch easier. You can simply switch out regular white sugar for coconut sugar and slowly begin reducing from there. Coconut sugar has a lower glycemic index, but keep in mind it is still sugar and has negative properties like feeding yeast, so use it sparingly. All natural fruit can also be a good alternative to sugar. You can use things like bananas to sweeten smoothies and even muffins. Other sweeteners like stevia or monk fruit can be a wonderful alternative to sugar without the negative health effects of artificial sweeteners. Xylitol and erythritol are other options although some people have GI issues with these forms so start slow.

9) Inadequate Nutrition

Poor quality food and nutrient deficiency can play a role in behavioral issues, attention or focus, sleep, even things like constipation! So you can see how having foods with low nutritional quality in your child’s diet can cause or exacerbate issues. This goes for gluten-free and dairy-free foods too.

Processed foods are not typically nutrient dense and often have fillers, preservatives, and other chemicals. So when you transition to a gluten-free and dairy-free diet, try and stick to whole foods, or you could be either continuing the same problems or even creating new ones with these foods.

Success Strategy – Eat whole foods and cook from scratch! Once you determine what your child will/will not eat, batch cooking and doubling (or even tripling!) a recipe to eat later is a valuable tip. Muffins, meats, soups, and casseroles can all be stored in the freezer to be reheated for eating later. This allows you to maximize your time and still eat healthy, home made foods. If you do need to bring in some processed foods, review those ingredient labels and try and bolster your child’s diet with additional fresh vegetables and fruits in the way of smoothies or other creative ways to get them in. You can continue to slowly reduce the number of processed foods as you further hone your child’s diet.

10) Additional Food Compounds Irritating The Gut Or Body

Inflammation can occur even on a gluten-free and dairy-free diet, depending on your child’s unique biochemistry. Things like oxalates, FODMAPs, histamine, and glutamate can be problematic for some individuals. Oxalates are inflammatory molecules that inhibit mineral absorption, cause dysbiosis, inflame the gut, and cause oxidative stress and pain. As mentioned above, FODMAPs are fermentable carbohydrates that bacteria feed on and can create gas, bloating, pain, diarrhea, and constipation. This is obviously no fun! Histamine is another culprit of inflammation. It is often thought of related to seasonal allergies and itchy, watery eyes, and sneezing. But foods that are high in or liberate histamine can cause other inflammatory issues on the inside of the body as well. And, if your child is also exposed to pollen or other environmental allergies, their “bucket” for histamine may overflow. Inflammation can worsen symptoms and impede the results of your GFCF diet.

Success Strategy – While a gluten-free and dairy-free diet is a great foundation, removing additional foods or food compounds may also be necessary to get the results you are seeking for your child. Understanding your child’s specific dietary needs is important in determining the right personalized nutrition intervention for them. So rather than abandoning dietary intervention, it may be a case of fine-tuning. For example, A low oxalate diet can reduce harmful oxalate levels thereby reducing inflammation and pain. But, it can also be helpful with dysbiosis, as high oxalates damage the microbiome. Removing FODMAPs can reduce GI distress. Reducing high histamine foods during a high pollen time may reduce rashes or tummy aches.

To summarize, here are the 10 strategies to help when the GFCF diet is not working.

Personalized Nutrition for Success

The big takeaway point here is to not give up. A gluten-free and dairy-free diet is a great place to start for your child with autism. And many families see tremendous improvement from just that. But, if your child does not, there may be other factors at play or additional foods or food compounds that need to be removed as well.

And this is where taking your child’s unique needs into account is the key. What I’ve learned after working with thousands of families is that for a diet to be most successful, it needs to be tailored to the individual needs of each person. Personalized nutrition, or BioIndividual Nutrition as I call it, is about taking the specific diet principles your child needs and creating the personalized therapeutic diet plan that’s right for them.

If you would like step-by-step guidance, my Nourishing Hope for Healing Kids program walks you through implementing a healthy gluten-free and dairy-free diet but also teaches you how to figure out what additional special therapeutic diet(s) your child may benefit from and how to create a personalized nutrition plan that’s right for you. You’ll also have a community of families just like yours to connect with.

Helping Children with Anxiety Through Personalized Nutrition and Therapeutic Diets

An astounding 31% of children have anxiety (and 46% of adults!) To say this is a problem would be an understatement in my opinion.

Symptoms of anxiety can be debilitating and can negatively impact the child’s home life, school performance, friendships, and ability to function at all in certain circumstances.

If you have a child with anxiety, chances are you’ve noticed your child often displays physical and behavioral signs such as restlessness, recurring headaches, withdrawing from family, or refusing to go to school.

In addition to anxiety being common in children, anxiety is particularly high in children with ADHD and autism. Researchers found that 41% of children with ADHD had anxiety and/or depression. [1] According to a research paper published in Neuropsychiatry, “up to 80% of children with ASDs experience clinically significant anxiety, with high comorbidity rates for social phobia, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and separation anxiety disorder (SAD) (30, 35, 37 and 38%, respectively).” [2]

Children with ADHD and autism often find the uncertainty of their environment very stressful. Some have sensory processing disorders that can add to the problem. Shopping centers, crowds, cramped spaces, bright or fluorescent lighting, and loud noises, can overwhelm their system. This can push them into “fight or flight.” Everyday activities such as going to school and shopping can cause anxiety.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to help children and individuals with anxiety. Understanding what factors contribute to anxiety for the individual can help. One of the biggest underlying factors is biochemistry. And since food and nutrition – both good and poor – can affect biochemistry, addressing diet and nutrition can really help.

Food, Nutrients, and Biochemical Factors in Anxiety

Certainly lifestyle strategies such as stress reduction and mindfulness can help people with anxiety, it’s still important to get to the root causes or contributing factors. Understanding and addressing the biochemical roots affecting anxiety help support your children from the inside out.

1) Food reactions can contribute to anxiety

As a nutritionist, I have worked with children with ADHD and autism for 20 years and I have both seen food cause (and alleviate) symptoms of anxiety. What foods affect anxiety varies based on their underlying biochemistry and personalized nutrition needs.

Food sensitivities: Inflammation, as we’ll discuss further in #2, is a common underlying factor in anxiety. And food sensitivities are a huge cause of anxiety including gluten, casein (the protein in dairy products), soy and eggs. When foods are not tolerated, they can create inflammation that can trigger anxiety.

Glutamate: Glutamate is excitatory and can stimulate the nervous system. In other words, foods containing glutamate, such as soy products, corn starch, corn syrup, and products containing carrageenan can cause anxiety.

Histamine: Foods containing a large amount of histamine and those that can trigger a release of histamine can also cause inflammation and anxiety. Histamine-rich foods include aged or fermented foods, cured meats, canned or smoked seafood, yogurt, citrus fruits, most berries, spinach, tomatoes and tomato-containing products, spices, artificial food colors, and preservatives.

Salicylates: In addition to glutamate and histamine, salicylates can also cause anxiety and a host of neurological and behavioral challenges. Examples of salicylate-rich foods include grapes, berries, apples, green bell peppers, canned mushrooms, red chili, chicory, apricots, herbs, and spices. Almonds and peanuts are also rich in salicylates.

Oxalates: Furthermore, oxalates can also not only trigger inflammation but also are known to cause anxiety.

Grains: For people with gut inflammation, grains can be particularly problematic. And once the gut is chronically inflamed, it can cause systemic inflammation.

Sugar: Sugar can contribute to anxiety. For example, poorly regulated blood sugar is a factor in anxiety, and a high sugar diet over time can lead to blood sugar dysregulation. When blood sugar drops too low, anxiety can be a symptom. Also a high sugar diet is often associated with low nutrient intake and depletion of nutrients, which can also affect mood.

2) Chronic inflammation in anxiety

Chronic systemic inflammation is an underlying factor in anxiety conditions. Inflammation is also common in ADHD, autism, depression and most other neurological conditions, as well as chronic disease.

During an inflammatory reaction, chemicals known as cytokines are produced by the body – and research shows that these cytokines can cause many neurological (and physical) symptoms including anxiety [3, 4].

Anything that triggers inflammation, such as allergens, inflammatory foods, and chemicals, can cause or exacerbate anxiety.

3) Leaky gut can exacerbate anxiety

Leaky gut is a condition where the tight junctions in the intestinal lining are damaged. This creates an environment where bacteria, fragments of bacteria, and even proteins from foods that are not fully digested can “leak” into the bloodstream. It is also known as intestinal permeability. This mechanism can trigger the immune system and create systemic inflammation as the immune system becomes hyper-stimulated.

So if you are asking yourself how what goes on in the gut can impact what happens in the brain, and especially conditions like anxiety, the answer is “quite a bit!” The gut-brain axis is the mechanism by which the gut and brain communicate with one another. Inflammatory cytokines can be formed as a result of leaky gut and they can cross the blood brain barrier. When that happens, the cytokines can cause a whole host of symptoms which include anxiety, depression, headaches, and irritability [5, 6, 7].

In addition to increased inflammation, pathogens also thrive in a leaky gut. These pathogens can compound issues related to mood and increase anxiety and they also compete with good bacteria in our microbiome – which can help reduce anxiety.

Poor digestive function usually occurs with leaky gut and this results in impaired absorption of critical nutrients and amino acids that the body and brain need for good mental health and reduced anxiety.

4) Decreased methylation in anxiety

Poor methylation plays an important role in anxiety and depression and is common in ADHD, and autism. Children with ADHD and autism are at greater risk of reduced methylation. Methylation is a biochemical pathway important for many essential processes of the body. For example, methylation is essential for the production of neurotransmitters that regulate mood and anxiety such as serotonin and dopamine. To summarize, reduced methylation can cause decreased levels of serotonin (and dopamine) which can lead to cognitive and behavioral challenges such as anxiety.

5) Dopamine imbalances and anxiety

An important neurotransmitter involved in social interaction and reward behaviors is dopamine. Dopamine has been studied in regards to anxiety in autism [8] and can also be imbalanced in ADHD. Under normal circumstances, the dopamine transporter is able to clear excess dopamine from the synapse. A synapse is a gap where nerve cells can send impulses to other nerves via neurotransmitters. Genetic variations in autism disrupt this transporter.

In addition, pathogenic bacteria can contribute to high dopamine and therefore increased anxiety. One toxin, HPHPA which stands for 3-(3-hydroxyphenyl)-3-hydroxypropionic acid, is produced by Clostridia bacteria in the gut and can be a causal factor for autism. For ABC News Dr. James Greenblatt explains that “HPHPA causes deactivation of an enzyme [Dopamine Beta-Hydroxylase] so that dopamine cannot be converted to the neurotransmitter norepinephrine.’’ This inability to convert dopamine effectively can lead to oxidative stress and a depletion of glutathione. Glutathione is a major antioxidant key in the detoxification process. [9] This reduced detoxification can also worsen anxiety.

6) Excess glutamate, hyperactivity, and anxiety

Another important neurotransmitter linked to anxiety is glutamate. It is an excitatory neurotransmitter that has been studied in regards to ADHD and autism. [10] Some children, particularly those with autism, can be deficient in an enzyme (glutamic acid decarboxylase) that breaks down glutamate and turns it into GABA. GABA (γ-Aminobutyric acid) is an amino acid that produces a calming effect through inhibition of nerve transmission in the brain. [11, 12]

In addition to being made in the body, glutamate can come from the foods we eat, either from food additives in packaged food or naturally in certain foods that are fermented and processed. Many of these food additives are derivatives of glutamate (think MSG) including autolyzed yeast extract, hydrolyzed protein, even “natural flavors.” They can cause significant reactions, including anxiety, for sensitive individuals. Reading ingredient labels is important, especially for those who react poorly to glutamate.

7) Pyroluria, nutrient deficiencies, and anxiety

Another common biochemical factor in anxiety is a condition called pyroluria, also known as pyrrole disorder. There can be a genetic component to pyroluria and it can be induced by stress. People with pyroluria over-produce pyrrole which is a by-product of hemoglobin synthesis. This results in depletion of vitamin B6 and zinc because the excess pyrrole to bind to these nutrients. Vitamin B6 and zinc are two key nutrients linked to anxiety, sleep issues, reduced cognitive function, and problems concentrating when deficient. Individuals with ADHD, anxiety, autism, and other neurological conditions have an increased rate of pyroluria, for some conditions the rates of pyroluria are over 40%. [13]

Diet and Nutrition Considerations

There are a number of diet and nutrition strategies that help reduce anxiety. The key is to address the underlying factors that are contributing to the individual’s anxiety and this requires a personalized nutrition approach, or what I call BioIndividual Nutrition® (and teach practitioners in my professional training program). A BioIndividual Nutrition and therapeutic diet approach takes into account a person’s unique biochemistry, genetics, and environmental factors to determine the right nutritional intervention.

Allergen-free and elimination diet

As I mentioned above, food allergies and sensitivities are common causes of inflammation. An allergen-free diet can help. Depending on your needs, a gluten-free, casein-free and soy-free diet, as well as egg-free, nut-free, and corn-free, or the elimination diet may be helpful to reduce anxiety if your body is reacting to food allergies and sensitivities.

Grain-free diets

In addition to gluten-free, diets that support the reduction of inflammation in the GI tract such as grain-free and starch-free diets can be very helpful to improve anxiety. The Paleo diet, as well as the Specific Carbohydrate Diet and GAPS diet are great grain-free diet options.

Low salicylate diet

In addition to anxiety, salicylates can cause hyperactivity, irritability, aggression, red cheeks and ears, and sensory sensitivity. Salicylates are found in berries, grapes, raisins, apples, juice, and oranges. A low salicylate diet can help with anxiety along with many behavioral and physical symptoms.

Special therapeutic diets

Additionally, when appropriate, the following special therapeutic diets can help anxiety, for individuals where underlying biochemistry may be affected or depleted: low glutamate diet, low histamine diet, or a low oxalate diet.

Additional meal strategies

For parents and caregivers looking to support a child with anxiety, here are some additional suggestions.

  • Maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Including healthy protein and fats with every meal helps to stabilize blood sugar. These can include but are not limited to: grass-fed meat, wild caught fish, poultry that is pasture-raised, organic eggs, grass-fed butter, virgin coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, grass-fed butter or clarified ghee if tolerated. It is also important to consume as many deep colored vegetables as possible for their nutrient density.
  • Avoiding foods that can cause or exacerbate inflammation like gluten and other foods I have mentioned above can help as well. Industrial seed oils such as cottonseed, sunflower, safflower, and canola should be avoided.
  • Many additives in foods can also cause or make anxiety worse. Avoiding artificial sweeteners, artificial nitrites and sulfites, food dyes, potassium bromate, BHA/BHT, propylene glycol, propyl gallate, MSG, disodium inosinate and guanylate can be helpful.
  • Supporting the good gut bacteria through probiotic-rich foods can be beneficial as well. However, if your child is sensitive to glutamate and/or amines, watch for any negative reactions as those sensitive can see increased anxiety as a result.
  • Create the optimal diet right for your child based on their bioindividual needs. There is no one-size-fits-all diet and determining what your child needs is key to reducing anxiety.

Proper supplementation

Adequate nutrition is important to make sure the body can make the neurotransmitters it needs, keep inflammation under control, and support the brain.

A multivitamin/mineral formula and essential fatty acids (as I discuss in my Nourishing Hope for Healing Kids program) are a great place to start.

Proper nutrients can play a pivotal role in reducing certain symptoms and behaviors. In fact, I was part of a 12-month study on nutritional and dietary intervention in autism. [14] Along with a healthy gluten, casein, and soy free diet, the study also included a high quality multi-vitamin/mineral formula and essential fatty acid supplement. The study found, “ improvements in aberrant behaviors (ABC—Irritability, Lethargy/Social Withdrawal, Stereotypy, and Hyperactivity), sensory processing (SSP), and GI symptoms (6-GSI, PGI-2, ATEC), and Overall (PGI-2).”

By the end of the study, parents reported a statistically significant improvements in:

  • Mood/happiness
  • Anxiety
  • Sociability
  • Attention focus
  • Hyperactivity
  • Tantrums
  • Aggression

Understanding someone’s underlying biochemistry and SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) can help determine proper supplementation needs. For example: folate and B12 are important for methylation; B6, zinc, magnesium to support transsulfuration and pyroluria, and magnesium for its calming effects.

No one wants to see their child struggle, especially with something as debilitating as anxiety. There are things you can do, starting today, that can make a profound improvement. Dietary and nutritional intervention is something that families can implement, with the right guidance and support. If you are ready to get started and need a step-by-step program, I encourage you to enroll in my Nourishing Hope for Healing Kids program where you get everything you need to create the best diet for your child.

Because of the complexity of anxiety and the high rate of co-morbid conditions such as clostridia infection or PANDAs, two infectious conditions that can cause increased anxiety, or an auto-immune condition, always work with your doctor to assess for any underlying medical issues.

Top Lunchbox Picks for Back to School from a Nutritionist and Mom

I have to admit that as a nutritionist and a mom, I’m a bit obsessed with lunchboxes and finding the perfect non-toxic lunch containers for my daughter (and myself).  I own and have tried many.  While all of my choices at home are BPA-, phthalate- and lead-free, I’m still not thrilled with plastic options.  I’m uncomfortable that they may find out that they are not as non-toxic as they think they are.  I try to avoid as much plastic as I can for this and many other reasons.

As such all of the products and lunchboxes here are BPA-, phthalate-, lead-free, and the food and beverage containers are also plastic-free. Planetbox is our family favorite. It has held up for years. It’s easy for little fingers to open. It has individual sections and there are no containers or lids to lose.

Here are some of the best choices for non-toxic options. Let us know your favorite!

Full Lunchbox System

PlanetBox

Stainless lunchbox system with carrying case and place for water bottle. Be careful as not all of the compartments are water-tight although you can get waterproof containers that fit inside for yogurt, apple sauce, or anything liquid.  This is by far my favorite lunchbox system. My daughter has had this same lunchbox going on the third school year. Three years for a lunchbox is amazing! It’s very durable. There are thin ice packs to go with it and a carrying case.

Inside Lunchbox Containers

Lunchbots small (stainless steel)

Lunchbots medium (stainless steel)

Lunchbots large (stainless steel)

ECOlunchbox (stainless steel)

 

Water Bottles

Lifefactory

Finally a glass water bottle that doesn’t break, and no more metal tasting water!  Glass water bottles with a silicone sleeve. 9 oz bottles fit well into most lunch boxes.  Even better, these are Life Factory’s baby bottles with a solid cap so they can be reused after baby is older or purchased new if you’re just discovering them.  They also have 12, 16 and 22 oz sizes with straw, sport, and screw on tops.

Hydro Flask

If you can’t take glass to school or you want your beverage to stay insulated (from either the cold or the heat), this series of water bottles is one of my very favorites. We own several, including: one with a flip lid for hot beverages like coffee, and a couple with screw tops for water.

Reusable Sandwich Bags and Clingwrap (Plastic-free)

LunchSkins – These reusable storage bags are dishwasher-safe and resealable. They come in different sizes and are easy to open and close. They have a grease-proof and moisture-proof lining that helps keeps food fresh.

Abbego – Like a peel or rind, this wrap protects and breathes. It extends the life of foods by shielding it from air, light & moisture, while letting off-gas escape. And each ingredient comes from the earth!

What food to put in your lunch box

And, what about what to pack inside those lunchboxes? A special diet doesn’t have to mean boring or mean sandwiches everyday!

Here are some creative alternatives that can be adapted for any diet:

Packing school lunches doesn’t have to be another chore for you or boring! I know it can be tricky not feeling like you are stuck in a rut with the same things over and over again. With a little planning and creativity, your child can have delicious, allergen-friendly lunches every day of the school year. In fact, if you want a downloadable resource, I also have a list of 50 lunch box ideas for you.

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50 Gluten Dairy Grain Free Lunch Box Ideas How to Pack Lunch on a Special Diet

Download our handout on GFCF and Grain-Free Lunches

There are a lot of children on special diets. In our Nourishing Hope community the following diets are very helpful for kids with ADHD, Autism, and Neurodevelopmental Delays…

  • GFCF Diet
  • Paleo Diet
  • Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD)
  • GAPS diet

But for parents new to special diets, some of the most common questions I get when I suggest a gluten-free/casein-free or Paleo diet are,

“What is my child going to eat?”

“How do I pack lunch on a special diet?”

One of the challenges of school lunch is that we parents are not there to supervise and make sure/encourage they eat all of their lunch.

Many of you know it can be tricky. They will eat the same meal at home but then when they are at school the might not. On the other hand, if we give them the foods they love that are not as healthy “just to get them to eat” they avoid all of the healthy stuff and only eat the junk.

Being the mother of an elementary school child, I have been experimenting for a couple of years on what’s best to put in my daughter’s lunch box that is healthy and delicious.

And I’ve settled on a strategy that works best for us…

A Paleo lunch box

For example, if I feed my daughter a sandwich sometimes she will eat just the bread and not the meat/protein. If I put crackers or a sweet treat, she may eat them but not the vegetable and protein.

There are a couple ways we handle this, most often I do not make a sandwich (unless it’s a tuna or salmon salad sandwich which she tends to love and eat the protein).

I also avoid including the treats, which requires her to eat the healthy choices available. If I do include a treat, I tell her she needs to eat the meat and vegetable or I won’t serve the treat on the next special occasion.

This combination of nutrition and parenting techniques works well for her.

What I do most often choose from several categories of food (protein, vegetable, fruit) and put a Paleo style lunch together. This way we avoid the bread, starches, and sugars and focus on the healthy food.

Download our Lunch Box handout… post it on your refrigerator… add your own options and ideas… And get packing!

Gluten-Free and Dairy-Free Diet for Autism

autism diet

Choosing to implement a gluten-free and dairy-free diet for you or your child with autism can be beneficial in many ways. Reports from parents after implementing a gluten-free and dairy-free diet include improvements in areas such as cognition, receptive and expressive language, development, skin conditions, as well as reduction in behaviors, improved sleep, decreased ear infections and digestive symptoms, and more.

If you have heard there is no science behind a gluten-free and dairy-free diet for autism, it’s just not true.

Maybe you’ve wondered why you haven’t heard about an autism diet and the science if there’s something to it. Well, this article is for you.

Thousands of anecdotal reports from parents plus the existing scientific data shows that following this diet can help children with autism. Understanding the impact of an autism diet plan is especially important in determining if this option is right for your child.

What Is Gluten?

Gluten is another term for the proteins found in wheat, barley, rye, and triticale, and products made from them. Gluten plays a crucial role in helping different foods maintain their shape due to it acting as “glue” that holds everything together. You can find gluten in various foods, such as soups, pasta, baked goods, cereals, processed meats, dressings, and sauces.

Exposure to gluten can also come from what is called “cross-contamination.” This is when a gluten-free food is prepared, heated, fried, or placed with foods that contain gluten. Common sources of cross-contamination include French fries that are fried in the same fryer with gluten containing foods like breaded chicken or fish patties, as well as toasters, cutting boards, even knives.

Have a separate toaster, cutting board, and knives for gluten-free cooking/prep and thoroughly wash all surfaces. The more sensitive the individual is, the more they will react to these cross-contamination situations.

Thoroughly researching the different foods that contain gluten and possible risks of cross-contamination is important before implementing a gluten-free diet for autism.

Dairy / Casein

The topic of dairy can be confusing so let’s start with the basics. Dairy is a term that refers to all animal milk and milk products, and is made up of different components. For example, lactose is the milk sugar; whereas, casein is a type of protein in milk.

Just as with gluten, you can have cross-contamination with dairy, so use the same cross-contamination precautions regarding cutting boards, counters, etc.

If something is made from dairy, unless it says casein-free be careful to ensure that it does not contain it. Often the terms dairy-free and casein-free are used interchangeably. When reading labels, we often assume dairy-free means casein-free (which theoretically it “should” be), however, some companies label their products as “dairy-free” when really they are lactose free, so always read the ingredients to be sure.

Also, a product can be casein-free but still contain lactose or even dairy fat.  The challenge with casein-free foods is that there can be trace amounts, or there can be other components in the dairy that can cause problems, such as the milk sugar (lactose) or another protein. Many times people have a harder time processing the casein protein rather than the sugar or fat from dairy, but at least in the beginning, removing all components of dairy gives you a good look at whether there are reactions.

And in addition to the differences between the various components of milk itself, there are differences between different types of milk. A2 beta casein milk and camel milk, for example, but for the purpose of a dairy-free/casein-free diet (especially at the beginning) there is no animal milk of any kind included.

Autism and Diet

The signs of autism in children can be wide-ranging, such as avoiding eye contact, delayed language skills, sensitivity to sound, repetitive behaviors, and obsessive interests. Additionally, children with autism often have physical symptoms, such as gastrointestinal distress, diarrhea, constipation, sleep challenges, and rashes. And while these symptoms are not considered part of their autism diagnosis according to the DSM V, there is plenty of research showing that children with autism struggle with these symptoms as well.

Following a therapeutic diet plan based on the unique needs of the child can potentially reduce, or in some cases even alleviate, both the autism symptoms as well as the physical ones. The body and brain are connected, and as you heal the body you improve health, learning, mood, and behavior.

After we talk about the basics of what a gluten-free and dairy-free diet is, I’d like to share the science of WHY an autism diet like this works.

Tips to Consider for an Autism Diet Plan

While a gluten-free casein-free diet is not the only “autism diet” out there, it is the most popular. So for the purpose of this article I will call this diet the “autism diet.” However, I’d like you to know that my nutrition philosophy is about personalized nutrition (what I call BioIndividual Nutrition), where there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, the diet and nutrition plan is tailored to the individual needs of the person.

However, since there are so many negative reactions associated with gluten and dairy, and because people see such beneficial results, it’s the first therapeutic diet I most often suggest to people when getting started.

Here are a few tips to consider if you are thinking about implementing an autism diet plan:

Safe and Effective

Dietary intervention can be something families can implement immediately. Parents are largely in control of what their child eats daily and can have a big influence on the progress that can be made from a gluten-free and dairy-free diet.

Improving your child’s food intake: Removing the harmful stuff and things devoid of nutrients and adding nourishing food over time has no down side. Nutritional intervention is a safe and effective strategy.

In fact, here is a video from Dr. James Adams, PhD on nutritional intervention and our published study.

 

Identify Gluten and Dairy Products in Your Child’s Diet

This elimination diet removes all gluten and casein protein from your child’s diet and that isn’t always an easy task. But with a little planning and follow through you can do it. Thoroughly reviewing your child’s diet is the first step in determining which foods to eliminate and which ones to leave alone.

However, gluten is also found in non-food products, such as Play-Doh, hygiene products, and it’s also in the adhesive on stickers and stamps. So be sure to think about the various ways your child may come in contact with products that may contain gluten.

How to Start a Gluten-Free and Dairy-Free Diet

Most people choose from two different approaches for implementing a gluten-free and dairy-free diet. For example, you can choose to “dive in head first,” or you may prefer to follow a gluten-free diet first before progressing to dairy-free foods or vice versa. Either one of these approaches can work, as it’s up to you to determine the best option for your child and family.

I urge parents to be realistic in the time it will take to get familiar with all of the sources of gluten and/or dairy. Changing the way your child eats often means changing the way you cook so make sure you give yourself ample time to become familiar with all of those sneaky gluten or dairy ingredients. In fact, in the GFCF diet implementation process I teach parents in my step-by-step nutrition program, the first half of the steps are things to help you get prepared before you even begin the diet.

While it may seem daunting at first, it does get easier over time, especially with the right support.

Don’t Forget Soy-Free

Gluten and casein proteins are very inflammatory to the gut, they are two of the most common food allergies/intolerances, and they form opioid compounds when not fully digested.

Soy also has these characteristics. So when implementing a gluten-free and casein-free diet, I almost always recommend removing soy as well. Technically speaking, the diet I recommend is a GFCFSF diet, However, because wheat and dairy are the main staples in the modern western diet and because it’s pretty easy to avoid soy, for simplicity I tend to refer to it as a GFCF Diet – though it’s really GFCFSF – gluten-free, casein-free, and soy-free.

What Can Your Child Eat While On An Autism Diet Plan?

Following a gluten-free and dairy-free diet gives your child the flexibility to choose from various foods, such as chicken, red meat, fruits, vegetables, eggs, nuts/seeds, beans, rice, potatoes, and anything that doesn’t contain casein or gluten. As you begin, you’ll start to notice there are many naturally gluten-free and dairy-free foods already in you or your child’s diet.

Reading food labels carefully is vital to avoid accidentally giving your child foods with gluten or casein proteins, as these ingredients are sometimes “hidden” in packaged products.

Potential Benefits of Following a Gluten-Free and Dairy-Free Diet

Implementing an autism diet plan can potentially offer a wide range of benefits for your child. As mentioned above, improvements can be varied and include receptive and expressive language, enhanced cognition, better sleep cycles, less hyperactivity, improvements in constipation, and a decrease in disruptive behaviors. Consistently following an autism diet plan can offer immense benefits for your child.

The Science Behind a Gluten-Free and Dairy-Free Diet

Understanding the science behind an autism diet plan is important.

Many well-meaning friends, family members, therapists, and even health practitioners, may try to steer you away from this approach. Most often it’s from lack of knowledge, so the more knowledge you have the more you can advocate for your child and stay motivated in the face of any negativity. It will also help you speak more knowledgeable with your healthcare professional so you can know when they have an important medical point or when they are being dismissive because of their own lack of scientific understanding.

As we discuss the science behind gluten and dairy, in addition to the multitude of effects gluten and casein can have on the brain directly, also pay particular attention to inflammation–both in the gut and brain. Inflammation is at the root of most diseases and disorders. Inflammation of the brain is found in autism, as well as other neurological conditions such as ADHD, anxiety, depression, and more. It can cause many of the symptoms of autism. Additionally in the gut, inflammation affects our ability to digest our food properly and prevents us from absorbing the nutrients we need for our brain to function.

7 Science-Based Reasons Gluten and Casein Negatively Affect Autism (and the Research Behind It)

1. Opiates from Gluten and Casein in Autism

Did you know that certain long-chain peptides are very similar in structure to natural opioid-binding peptides? Gluten and casein are two such proteins. In fact, gluteomorphin, also known as gliadorphin, is the name of the opiate peptide formed during the (partial) digestion of gluten and casomorphin is the opiate peptide of dairy.

These peptides can enter the bloodstream for a few reasons. One of the first reasons is that the body needs adequate enzymes to break down these proteins and specifically an enzyme called DPP-IV. Children with autism have been shown to have lower DPP-IV activity. [1]

Another way these peptides can get into the bloodstream has to do with something that is called “leaky gut.” Leaky gut is a condition where the intestines become permeable, allowing things from the gut into the bloodstream, and leaky gut is common in autism. [2] When that happens, these peptides can bind to opiate receptors in the brain and create a whole range of issues such as high pain tolerance and even feeling foggy or disconnected. It can also create addictive-like behaviors to foods with these compounds. Many parents report that their child prefers to eat mainly foods with gluten, or dairy, or both. And this is also why when removing these from the diet, there can be symptoms like withdrawal. And some families report that their child’s restrictive eating improves once the gluten and dairy are out of their child’s system!

Here is more research on the opioids in foods and how they affect autism symptoms:

  • Gluten and casein cause opioids excreted in urine, which affect behavior in autism. This study states, “A gut-to-brain axis is both possible and probable” [3]
  • Epidemiological studies have linked the consumption of A1 beta-casein with neurological disorders, such as autism and schizophrenia [4]
  • Exorphins (gluten-morphins and casomorphins) are found in the urine of people with autism [5]
  • Gliadorphins and casomorphins can affect the neurotransmitter system in the central nervous system (CNS) and result in the social impairment seen in autism [6]

Opioids cause inflammation in the gut and brain. They also affect the brain directly, causing many symptoms including pain, irritability, anxiety, foggy thinking, and other symptoms common in autism, as well as addiction to gluten and dairy foods.

2. Zonulin and Its Role in Leaky Gut in Autism

Another advantage of implementing this diet is that gluten is known to trigger zonulin. Zonulin is a protein that modulates the permeability of the GI tract, and causes it to “unzip” or open, also known as,”leaky gut.” Studies show zonulin has been linked to gut permeability in autism, [7, 8] as well as many chronic inflammatory disorders (including autoimmune, metabolic, digestive, cancer, and neuroinflammatory). [9]

An increase in gut permeability can cause heightened reactions to other food components in the intestinal tract for children with autism. This can result in constipation, diarrhea, inflammation, food allergies/intolerances, or trouble concentrating. Since the gut and brain are connected, when the gut is unhealthy, the brain can’t function optimally.

We know individuals with autism have a higher prevalence of gastrointestinal (GI) issues. In fact, here is a blog I wrote about this almost a decade ago. And in a study by Dr. James Adams, the severity of gastrointestinal symptoms has been linked to the severity of autism symptoms. [10]

The above study on zonulin from 2021 [8] showed that serum zonulin was significantly higher in children with severe autism than controls. This suggests the missing link from Dr. Adams on the correlation between GI severity and autism severity may possibly be related to increased intestinal permeability.

Kids following a gluten-free diet have a much lower intestinal permeability than those who consume gluten.

3. Inflammation to Gluten and Dairy in Autism

IgG antibodies to foods create inflammation in the body and in the gastrointestinal tract. In autism, researchers found high titer IgG antibodies to gliadin (gluten) in 87% of individuals with autism (as well as 86% of of those with schizophrenia) and high IgG antibodies to casein in 90% of people with autism (and 93% of schizophrenic patients). [11]

In another study, elevated inflammatory markers (cytokines) to gluten were found in people with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) who had GI symptoms. [12]

Inflammation as a result of gluten and dairy can create issues in the gut and gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea, constipation, gas, and pain. And in turn, this can cause systemic inflammation that affects the brain, as well as the negative effects caused by not breaking down our nutrients properly to get the nutrition our brain and body need.

4. Mast Cell Activation in Autism

Mast cell activation and high histamine levels are common in autism, and research suggests this activation leads to inflammation in the brain (and locally in the gut) and is a possible cause in the development of autism. [13]

Food allergies, as well as gluten and casein intolerance [14], can cause histamine release. High histamine  in turn can contribute to gastrointestinal disorders [15] and high acid levels in the stomach and GERD. And conversely histamine can increase food allergies.

Gastrointestinal disorders and high histamine in autism lead to increased symptoms and severity of ASD.

5. Increased risk of Celiac in ASD

Celiac disease is an autoimmune reaction to gluten, where the body attacks the lining of the digestive system, causing severe digestive symptoms, as well as additional health conditions. While much of what we see in autism is non-celiac gluten intolerance, there is also an increased risk of celiac disease in autism.

Research shows that people with ASD are more likely to carry the HLA gene with the HLA-DRB1 *11-DQB1*07 structure, which increases the risks of celiac disease. [16]

6. Gluten, Casein, and the Glutamate Connection

Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter and some children (and adults) with autism are more sensitive, and their brains are more responsive to the effects of glutamate. That can result in more hyperactivity, irritability, restlessness, anxiety, migraines, seizures, and many more symptoms. Recent studies also show that elevated glutamate is often found in people with autism. [17]

Gluten is 25% glutamate by weight, and casein is 20%. Hence, gluten and casein in a diet can increase glutamate levels. And in sensitive people or those with high levels of glutamate such as those with autism, these foods can exacerbate neurological symptoms, including irritability, stress, anxiety, and hyperactivity. Glutamate can also cause inflammation in the brain and gastrointestinal system. [18]

Limiting the intake of gluten and casein in a diet can help reduce symptoms related to autism.

7. Dairy and Cerebral Folate Deficiency

Some children with autism have a condition known as Cerebral Folate Deficiency. In this condition, folate is not able to be transported properly into the brain because of autoantibodies to the folate receptor, and there are not adequate levels of folate in the brain. This can lead to irritability and sleep problems, low muscle tone, slow head growth, loss of bodily movement, speech complications, and seizures.

One study showed that 75.3% of children with autism had folate receptor autoantibodies. [19]

Studies show that soluble folate-binding proteins in milk can cross react with folate receptors, increasing autoantibodies to folate receptors making this problem even worse for kids with autism by further decreasing folate to the brain. Conversely, studies show a dairy-free diet can reduce folate receptor autoimmunity in cerebral folate deficiency syndrome. [20] 

A milk-free diet decreases folate receptor antibodies and autoimmunity.

Scientific Studies Showing Improved Symptoms and Positive Results from Gluten-Free Casein-Free (GFCF) Diet

Above I’ve shared the underlying factors that cause gluten and dairy to be a problem for people with autism. Below I share the growing scientific literature on the efficacy and benefits of a gluten-free and dairy-free diet.

91% of Children with Autism Improved Behavior, Speech, and/or GI on GFCFSF

Research suggests that ASD may be accompanied by inflammatory immune responses, and that this may predispose people with autism to be more sensitive to the protein in wheat, dairy, and soy. Sensitization to these dietary proteins then leads to inflammation of the digestive system and exacerbates negative behaviors.

This exciting study resulted in 91% of the children showing clinical improvement that was observed by therapists/teachers/parents following implementation of a casein-free, gluten-free, and/or soy-free (cf/gf/sf) diet. Improvements were seen in GI symptoms, speech, autistic behavior, less hyperactivity, better focusing, and improved night time sleep. [21]

4.5x Developmental Age and 6.7 pts IQ from Diet and Nutrition Intervention in Autism

This is a study I am particularly proud of because I was a part of it! Our study showed a 4.5x increase in developmental age as well as a 6.7 pts increase in non-verbal IQ. The study involved individuals aged 3-58 years old implementing a dietary intervention of a healthy gluten-free, casein-free, and soy-free diet; along with a multivitamin/mineral formula, essential fatty acid supplement, digestive enzymes, and a couple of additional nutritional interventions studied over one year. You can see my full write up on the study here.

In addition to improvements in development and IQ, major areas of improvement where seen across the board in included a reduction in autism symptoms and GI symptoms, improvement in language, focus, anxiety, and more. [22]

Reduced Autism Behaviors, Increased Social and Communication Skills with GFCF Diet

This report reviewed existing scientific literature and found consistently positive results with a GFCF diet for autism. The literature included papers where groups of children were studied, as well as individual case studies.

Researchers found there was an overall reduction of autism behaviors, increased social skills, and communicative skills.

They also noted that autism traits reappeared after the diet had been broken. [23]

Development Was Significantly Better For the ASD Group On a GFCF Diet

The aim of this study was to evaluate the effect of a gluten and casein-free diet for children with autism and on urinary opioid peptides associated with gluten, gliadin, and casein. The study found that the children who were on a gluten-free and dairy-free diet had better development than the controls. [24]

Given the prevalence of impaired social interaction, communication, and imaginative skills in autism, this study shows how powerful dietary changes can be!

Significant Improvement in Autism and ADHD Symptoms in Children with ASD on the GFCF Diet

This study was a two-stage, 24-month, randomised, controlled trial with 72 Danish children (aged 4 years to 10 years 11 months) assigned to diet (A) or non-diet (B) groups. Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) and the Gilliam Autism Rating Scale (GARS) were used to assess core autism behaviours, Vineland Adaptive Behaviour Scales (VABS) to ascertain developmental level, and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – IV scale (ADHD-IV) to determine inattention and hyperactivity. At 12 months, there was a significant improvement to the diet group scores on all autism, behavior, and ADHD scales measured. Because of the improvement in group A, group B was also assigned to the diet midway through the trial! The results suggest that dietary intervention may positively affect developmental outcomes for children diagnosed with ASD. [25]

GFCF and Keto Diets Improve Autism Symptoms

One study compared the GFCF diet to the Ketogenic diet for autism. Both diet groups had significant improvement in autism symptoms. There were some differences–one diet showed better results in behavior, while the other diet group had better scores for cognitive awareness and sociability. If you want to see more on this study, you can check out my GFCF vs. Keto write up. In summary, the results of this study showed that they are both good diets to improve symptoms of autism, depending on the individual needs of the person. And this study highlights another example of how the GFCF diet can benefit individuals with autism. [26]

Closing Thoughts

Following a gluten-free and casein-free diet can help alleviate autism symptoms.

Creating an autism diet plan in advance can help you implement a GFCF diet smoothly and successfully.

Making these adjustments to your child’s diet can improve their symptoms of autism while also offering additional health benefits.

In fact, parents in my Nourishing Hope for Healing Kids program complete surveys at the end of the program. In the families that participated, 88% had improvement in their autism symptoms. Additionally, a majority had improvements in picky eating, cognition, play skills, expressive language, comprehension, attention/focus, aggression, GI symptoms, sociability, and more. This step-by-step program helps families implement a healthy GFCFSF diet along with additional personalized dietary strategies and nutritional supplementation

The encouraging news is that dietary intervention for autism can be an effective way to make dramatic improvements in your child’s health, learning, and behavior! The GFCF diet is a great intervention on your road to nourishing hope.

Download my GFCF Guide to learn more on implementing a gluten free and dairy free diet, or join us and other families just like you in our step-by-step nutrition program for parents and individuals.

Results of GFDF diet

5 Reasons You and Your Kids Will Love Leafcutter and Mason Bees

You and Your Kids Will Love Leafcutter and Mason Bees

Bees!

Do they strike fear or joy?

I didn’t realize how much I love bees. It’s really a new affinity I have gained in recent years.

As I have gotten more and more into gardening, I have realized the importance of bees. I could have tons of tomato or squash flowers but if they don’t get pollinated by bees, they don’t produce fruit.

And when I heard about the decline of our bee populations (and the use of so many pesticides), I became more appreciative of bees.

But I didn’t really realize it.

It was actually my good friend, Terri Hirning, who gave me a mason bee house for my birthday that had me realize that I love bees.

You know how sometimes it takes a friend reflecting something back to you for you to notice. That’s what happened here. Apparently, I had been talking about them a lot and taking photos and videos (in slow motion).

I had never heard of a mason bee house. So I did some research.

Actually my house works for both mason bees and leafcutter bees.

Why Leafcutter and Mason Bees are Special

Mason bees are active in the early spring and pollinate fruit trees, and leafcutter bees are around late spring to summer and pollinate summer fruits and vegetables.

Mason bees and leafcutter bees do not produce honey.

But they do something else very special…

Leafcutter bees (and mason bees) have almost 100% pollination rates, compared with honey bees who’s pollination rate is around 3%. (Honey bees are wonderful too! Don’t get me wrong. I love them all.)

This means that virtually every flower a leafcutter bee lands in, it will pollinate.

This is because of how different bees carry pollen. Honey bees carry pollen on a little structure (a type of “pollen basket”) on their hind legs, so there is not much loose pollen to spread from one flower to another. Leafcutter (and mason) bees, on the other hand, carry pollen on the hairs on their abdomen. As they go from one flower to another they easily pollinate each flower when the loose pollen falls from these hairs. I like to think of leafcutter bees as doing a belly flop onto each flower they encounter.

Mason bees and leafcutter bees are solitary bees. Each female is her own queen… in other words, she lays her own eggs. So there are no worker bees to guard the queen, and therefore they are not aggressive, and tend to be very gentle bees unless handled. And their sting is much more mild than a honey bee or wasp.

Mason bees use mud to lay eggs in long holes, tunnels, or reeds. Leafcutter bees cut out circles of leaves and make cocoons out of them. They also lay their eggs in tunnels. Although the size of the holes they prefer is a bit different. Notice the green cocoon the leafcutter bee made in our bee house.

As with other bees, they forage for pollen (protein) and nectar (sucrose and water) for food and to use for food for their eggs.

Why have leafcutter and mason bees?

 

5 Reason to Raise Leafcutter and Mason Bees

  1. Fun for Kids and Families
  2. Increase the Yield in Your Garden
  3. Good for Bees and the Earth
  4. Help Children Be Less Afraid of Bees
  5. Teach Science

1. Fun for Kids and Families

It’s fun to set up the bee house and watch the bees emerge from cocoons. They crawl out of their hole and fly around doing their job of pollinating on day one. My daughter and I love to find them in the garden and watch them work. We get a kick out of seeing the leaves with a circle cut out, knowing they are hard at work laying more eggs. We also like to watch them come in and out of their nesting holes carrying leaves and going back out to forage for pollen and nectar.

2. Increase the Yield in Your Garden

Leafcutter and mason bees can significantly increase the yield of crops. Leafcutter bees were introduced in the United States in the 1930’s by alfalfa farmers for this very purpose. Many farmers have discovered mason bees after seeing the amazing yield of their neighbor or friend who had mason bees.

3. Good for Bees and the Earth

Our bees need all the help they can get. Between pesticides and colony collapse, the more we can take care of bees the better it is for ourselves, the bees, and our planet. Be a steward of nature. It’s fun and rewarding.

4. Help Children Be Less Afraid of Bees

Certainly, a healthy fear of bees is reasonable. And for those that are allergic to bees, I’m not suggesting getting solitary bees, or any bees for that matter.

With that said, having an irrational fear of bees isn’t helpful. The more calm we can be the better. My daughter has never been stung by a bee, but every time she was around them she panicked. Now, she loves bees. She is excited to watch them and be around them.

5. Teach Science

Bees are a great teaching opportunity. You can teach children about: pollen and nectar, pollination, flowers and fruit, the importance of pollinators, the types of flowers that attract bees the most, and how to protect bees.

It’s a fun experiment. I love science and kids learn most from hands-on experiences and opportunities to experiment. They will love having bees.

 

 

It’s also a great way to teach photography and videography. Here are photos from our garden. Our bees love our chamomile flowers. Notice the fluffy pollen on her tummy (notice she doesn’t have green eyes, and females have a more pointed abdomen).

See how this male has distinctive green eyes. He just emerged from his cocoon and is ready to launch.

 

How to Raise Mason and Leafcutter Bees

Supplies

  • Bee house
  • Nesting materials
  • Bees
  • Optional items: Bee pheromones

Setting up Your Bee House

Bee house

You can make or buy a bee house. Make sure your house has a depth of around 7 inches so that you have room for a roof and a place for bees to walk and stand.

I have two bee houses. One bee house I got from my good friend, that I mentioned above.

And here’s the other bee house I have.

You can also make a bee house or use a can to place tubes or reeds. Make sure your bee house has a roof and a bit of an overhang for rain.

Place your house so it’s facing the south or southeast so it gets morning sun. Bees are cold blooded so they need the warmth from the sun to fly. But find a location where their house can be shaded in the hot afternoon.

Nesting materials

Leafcutter bees are pretty tiny, and they nest in 6 mm holes. Mason bees need 8 mm holes. Wild bees are even smaller than leafcutter bees and use 4 mm nesting holes.

Tubes, reeds, or holes should be 6 inches in length to lay males and females.

There are three types of nesting materials (these are the ones for leafcutter bees, there are also different sizes for mason bees): Cardboard tubes, natural reeds, and wood drilled holes (split in half). Do not use bamboo nor holes drilled in solid wood. Next season’s bees in cocoons can’t get out, and will die. Bees tend to like natural reeds the best.

Bees:

Mason bees are active from Feb to May, and leafcutter bee season is May to September.

I really like Crown Bees to get your bees, house, and nesting materials.

Bee Pheromones

This is optional. It’s a spray that helps bees find their way to their new home. Spray it on the nesting materials. InvitaBee Plus+ is the brand I used.

Bee Building Materials

Make sure you have materials for them to build their home.

With leafcutter bees you’ll want plants they can use to make their cocoons. They like broad, flat, smooth leaves, such as rose leaves, lilac, or peas and beans.

Mason bees need mud. You can buy special mud for this purpose. You can also wet your own mud if you have the right native type.

Get Started Today

It’s easy to raise leafcutter bees.

You don’t need any special equipment such as a beekeeping suit or hive. You don’t need a smoker or care for the hive. You don’t need to know how to harvest honey or anything like that.

Almost anyone can raise leafcutter or mason bees.

It’s fun and is a great opportunity to explore nature with your kids. Get started today.

Does Sugar Cause Hyperactivity in Children?

How an ADHD Diet Can Help Your Child

 

Blood Sugar Levels and Hyperactivity

Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD face difficulties interacting with peers, performing well in school, and getting along with family members at home. Although more research into the multitude of causes of the disorder is needed, studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that there is a link between ADHD in children and diet. Read on to learn more about the role that sugar may play in ADHD symptoms.

What Is ADHD?

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts 6.1 million children in the United States alone. Science has yet to uncover the exact cause of ADHD but believes that genetics, environmental factors, and dysfunction of the central nervous system may be involved. Kids with ADHD may exhibit many symptoms, including:

  • Forgetfulness
  • Squirming and fidgeting
  • Excessive talking
  • Difficulty taking turns
  • Trouble resisting temptation
  • Frequent daydreaming
  • Disorganization
ADHD common symptoms

Most often, stimulant medications and behavior therapy are used to treat the condition by mainstream medicine.

5 Ways Sugar Causes Hyperactivity and ADHD

For years, people have wondered if sugar could be to blame for ADHD. Scientific research hasn’t found sugar to be the sole cause of symptoms in a hyperactive child. In other words, children don’t get ADHD symptoms due to consuming sugar alone, and an ADHD elimination diet for kids that is free of sugar is unlikely to resolve the condition overnight. That said, there is some evidence to suggest that sugar may be detrimental for children who already have ADHD. There are several studies and theories on the subject, including:

1. High Glycemic Foods Cause Hyperactivity

Foods such as: fructose, high fructose corn syrup, fruit juice, donuts, bread, and instant oatmeal are high glycemic foods. These are foods that raise blood sugar rapidly.  Researchers have found that high glycemic foods can cause hyperactivity in children, and low glycemic foods help to reduce symptoms of ADHD. [1]

2. Foraging Instinct From Fructose Contributes to ADHD

One study published in Human Evolution and Behavior found that a type of sugar called fructose can reduce energy levels in body cells. The researchers observed that this caused the cells to shift into starvation mode and that this could trigger instincts to forage for food to ensure the body’s survival. This hyperactive foraging response causes symptoms of impulsivity, aggression, recklessness, and cravings, contributing to ADHD (as well as aggression and bipolar disorder). [2]

3. Sugar and Low Dopamine Exacerbates Hyperactivity

Low dopamine activity in the brain is a common finding in ADHD. [3] And sugar is known to release dopamine in the brain. [4] Medical research into addiction has revealed that individuals with low dopamine levels may be more prone to addiction, in this case sugar. In a study by Richard J. Johnson, MD, he hypothesizes that sugar significantly increases dopamine, which leads to reduced dopamine receptors and dopamine, exacerbating the low dopamine in ADHD and worsening the symptoms of hyperactivity. [5]

4. Sugar Contributes to Poor Impulse Control

Poor impulse control is a known symptom of ADHD. Researchers speculate that kids with the condition may be more likely to eat sugary foods in excess because they have trouble resisting the temptation to do so. Poor impulse control in ADHD may worsen the ADHD itself because of sugar leading to a vicious cycle.

5. Low Blood Sugar Can Lead to Poor Concentration and Inattentiveness

Sugary foods cause blood sugar levels to increase rapidly and then plummet quickly after digestion, leading to a sugar crash. The more someone eats sugar, the more it can impede the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar levels, and the more the individual craves sugar. As the individual eats more sugar, this cycle continues and can lead to low blood sugar or hypoglycemia. Low blood sugar can lead to poor concentration, inattentiveness, confusion, nervousness, and irritability. These symptoms can add to the poor concentration and focus someone with ADHD often has to begin with, and may exacerbate other behaviors of ADHD.

Hyperactivity and ADHD Sugar

Sugar & the Recommended Diet for Children

One thing that is not up for debate is that many children in the United States (and many countries around the world) consume too much sugar daily.

American children consume 81 grams of sugar per day, which comes to over 65 pounds of sugar per year. And a 2017 study estimated that Children in England consume half of their daily recommended sugar intake at breakfast by consuming sugary cereals and eating foods high in carbohydrates, and three times the recommended amount per day.

Sugar-filled beverages account for a large amount of the sugar consumed. Sugar from drinks can add up quickly. And can come from sources that some people don’t think of as unhealthy as they might soda. For example, fruit juice, sports drinks, and non-dairy milk beverages contain around the same amount of sugar as soda. In a study from 2011-2014, 63% of children drank a sugary beverage on a given day. This equaled 143 calories from these beverages, from which virtually, if not, all of the calories came from sugar. [6]

In addition to leading to sugar crashes, sugar is often an empty calorie, meaning it provides no real nutrition for kids. This has led to experts recommending that kids aged 2 to 18 consume no more than 25 grams or six teaspoons of sugar per day for overall health and well-being.

Sugar in Common Kids Drinks

Are Artificial Sweeteners an Option?

No. Parents who are concerned about high blood sugar and hyperactivity in their children may consider using artificial sweeteners as a substitute; however, there is evidence to suggest that this is not a good idea, such as:

Effects on the Digestive System. Some studies have found that artificial sweeteners may disrupt the natural balance of healthy bacteria in the digestive system. It is possible that this imbalance could impact the rest of the body, including the brain, further discouraging the addition of artificial sweeteners in a diet for children with ADHD.

Potential to Spark Cravings for Sugar. Scientists believe that consuming artificial sweeteners may cause a rise in insulin levels in the body, leading to sugar cravings. Although there is also conflicting evidence, some studies have found that people who consume artificial sweeteners are more likely to become obese.

Excitotoxins. Some artificial sweeteners are excitotoxins and can cause excitability of brain cells causing neurological damage.

Tips for an ADHD Diet

Consuming too much sugar has proven health consequences, which is reason enough to limit how much sugar kids with ADHD eat.

And now, research is showing what parents and clinicians have seen for years: sugar can cause or exacerbate hyperactivity and other symptoms of ADHD in children (and adults).

If you would like to reduce the amount of sugar in your child’s diet, follow these tips:

Focus on Protein and Fat.  Including healthy amounts and types of protein and fat to the diet of children is important to ensure they have the building blocks they need for growth, energy, and cognitive function. Protein and fat make kids feel fuller for longer and can cut down on the urge to snack on sugary foods.

Start Slow. Take small steps in changing your child’s diet. Suddenly cutting out all sugar from your child’s diet can be stressful for all of you. Instead, identify the largest sources of sugar from your kid’s diet and find healthier alternatives. Making one or two changes at a time can help children adapt to the change.

Try Diet Eliminations. An ADHD elimination diet can help you identify foods that could be worsening your child’s symptoms. With this approach, you remove the suspicious food from your child’s diet, keeping a log of what they eat and what symptoms they exhibit. After a few weeks have passed, analyze the data. If you don’t notice any change in your child’s symptoms, try eliminating another food. Once you have identified potential triggers, slowly reintroduce them to your child’s diet and see if symptoms return. This will help to establish a link between the food and your child’s behavior that you can share with their doctor.

As we’d discussed today, sugar can be detrimental for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. We also know that a low sugar diet is helpful for ADHD for many additional reasons, including for maintaining normal blood sugar levels which has many health benefits. If you want to learn more on how sugar can impact health and how to reduce it in your child’s diet, here is another article to get you started.

The good news is hyperactivity and ADHD symptoms can improve, and the solutions you have in your own kitchen can help.

Salicylate Sensitivity and Summer 2021

If you were hoping that summertime – a time with no school, fresh air, sunshine, and exercise – would help your child feel better and improve their behavior…. but it hasn’t, then salicylates might be your challenge.

Salicylates in Food

Salicylates are naturally-occurring food chemicals in fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods like herbs, spices, nuts, etc. In the 1950’s and 60’s, Dr. Ben Feingold observed that artificial additives and high salicylate foods caused hyperactivity and other symptoms in some children. Biochemically, salicylates are a type of “phenolic acid” or “phenol.” Phenols need to be broken down in the body, i.e. “detoxified,” which occurs through a process called sulfation.

For children with salicylate sensitivity, summer can be particularly challenging because so many of the abundant summertime fruits are very high in salicylates, a high salicylate food list include:

  • Grapes
  • Strawberries
  • Blueberries
  • Raspberries
  • Most melons including watermelon
  • Peaches
  • Nectarines
  • Plums
  • Apples
  • Red bell pepper
  • Cucumbers and pickles
  • Tomato sauce 
  • Zucchini (with peel on)
  • Cinnamon and spices
  • Almonds
  • Honey

Many of these foods are delicious and plentiful, children eat quite a bit more during summer than any other time. The resulting increase in salicylate consumption can cause a child’s body to become overloaded, and cause physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms.

Salicylate Symptoms

Symptoms vary by individual, but some of the most common salicylate sensitivity symptoms are:

  • Red cheeks and ears (not from the heat)
  • Hyperactivity
  • Irritability
  • Defiant behavior
  • Aggression toward self or others
  • Bedwetting and day-wetting accidents
  • Sleeping challenges

If you’d like more information on how these foods can cause behavior challenges, along with the foods to avoid and those to eat, see my post on salicylates and behavior challenges.

Chlorine in Swimming Pools

Chlorine from the swimming pool is another summertime stressor. Your child doesn’t even need to drink the water, just soaking in a chlorinated pool will cause it to absorb into the body.

Chlorine is processed by the same sulfation pathway as salicylates in fruits. Sulfation requires proper methylation and transulfuration, as well as adequate sulfate (sulfur) and many other needed nutrients.

Each of these stressors (the fruit and chlorine) will deplete the sulfate and detoxification pool further, making each that much more difficult to handle. After working with many children with autism in my nutrition practice, I’ve found that most react poorly to chlorine from swimming pools. Add this fruit consumption to chlorine from swimming pools, and a child can fairly easily hit “overload.” Crying, meltdowns, increase in stimming, and hyperactivity can result.

Food Additives

Junk food with artificial food additives are more plentiful during summer. Artificial additives such as artificial colors (red 40, blue 1 and yellow 5), flavors (such as artificial strawberry flavor and vanillin) and preservatives (BHA, BHT and TBHQ) are strong phenols–and require the same biochemical processes.

If you don’t consume these, good for you. You shouldn’t.

In the average American family, however, blue-colored sports drinks on hot days, cotton candy from the beach boardwalk or fair, shaved ice or blended slushies from the amusement park are all too common occurrences (sadly). Alone they are known to cause hyperactivity, combined with these other stressors and they can be particularly problematic. Learn about food additives to avoid.

Summer 2021 High Salicylate Food Substitutes

I hope this summer is better than ever. Here are some ideas to get you off to a good start.  The following foods high in salicylates and for lower salicylate substitutions.   

Please note: it might not be that you or your child can’t have ANY high salicylate summer fruits and veggies, it might just mean you have to pay attention to the amount and limit it (along with avoiding all artificial additives. Also peeling certain fruits and vegetables can lower salicylate levels.

Instead of This ======> Try This

Instead of blue sports drink ======> try a natural electrolyte drink like this organic coconut water 

Instead of artificial flavored and colored candy ======> try a natural one like Yum Earth, they have a variety of natural candy options

Instead of shaved ice ======> try to get your own shaved ice machine and use organic pear or another natural juice to flavor

Instead of popsicles with high fructose corn syrup and artificial colors  ======> try and make your own with these silicon popsicle molds or try Ruby Rockets (they have veggies in them)

Instead of ice pops with high fructose corn syrup and artificial colors ======> try and make your own with these reusable ice pop molds

Instead of high salicylate fruit ======> try pear or mango

Instead of cucumber ======> try peeled cucumber

Instead of zucchini ======> try peeled zucchini

Instead of lots of salicylate fruits ======> try a small serving

What Can You Do?

  1. Avoid food additives. Firstly, if your child eats artificial additives, cut them all out.
  2. Identify salicylate intolerance: If you want to determine if your child may have an intolerance to salicylates, start by simply observing your child within the hour after they eat, and before bedtime—making correlations with high salicylate consumption. The best way to determine salicylate intolerance is to avoid high salicylate foods for a period of time and observe any improvements, and then add them back and see if you notice a reaction. You can also try digestive enzymes such as No-Fenol by Houston Enzymes to help the body process polyphenolic compounds.
  3. Try a low salicylate diet trial. There are two diets that I like that address this: The Feingold Diet and The Failsafe Diet. The Feingold Diet is a smaller list of salicylates to avoid—it includes many of the big offenders (but misses some) and is easier to do. The Failsafe diet is much more comprehensive, but more complex and restricts more foods.
  4. Determine swimming pool solutions. The best part about having your own swimming pool you can choose a less toxic sanitizing option. While I’m not a expert at this, you can Google and research: salt water chlorination, ionizers, ozonators, and more. At public pools, these other options are not usually available, though you can ask around about any public pools that might use them (as some do).
  5. Consider epsom salt topically for support. You can also try Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) baths or magnesium sulfate cream before or after a swim in the pool—the sulfate absorbs and helps supply sulfate for sulfation/detoxification. This can help a child process the chlorine better, hopefully, creating less (or no) reaction. An Epsom salt bath or Epsom salt cream can also help reduce salicylate reactions too. You can apply cream before or after swimming. Not everyone likes or can take a bath. Showering after swimming and then applying Epsom salt cream can provide similar support to a bath.

In our Nourishing Hope for Healing Kids nutrition program for parents I cover everything you need to know about addressing salicylate reactions and improving your child’s behavior, focus, and mood.

Enjoy your summer and the time with your family! And keep nourishing hope.

Share your family’s experience with salicylates and summertime in our comment section below.

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Easiest Vegetables to Grow in Your Home Garden

 

It’s vegetable garden time!

This is the perfect time to plan your garden. If you’ve seen my gardening posts in the past and you’ve considered a garden but hadn’t planned in time or had the capacity, now’s the time.

Typically, after Mother’s Day signifies the start of most summer gardens. Where I am in California and in other warmer spots, the season starts earlier. But most of you will be able to start your garden soon.

Some of you have written to me with your adventures in your own garden.

Others have said you don’t have a green thumb or you simply lack the experience… that you’d like to try growing something but you don’t know what to grow. And other people live in a big city or in an apartment and don’t have the space.

Today’s blog is about the Easiest Vegetables Anyone Can Grow.

I’ve lived in a big city, in an apartment, in a foggy place with not much sun, and I’ve also had the opportunity to grow vegetables at my family’s home both as a child and adult – so I’ve tried it all.

I’m not a farmer… I’m an average person that simply loves getting my hands dirty and watching things grow. I find it therapeutic to nurture plants. I find it nourishing to grow your own food, and I enjoy the feeling of self-reliance.

So, what I’m going to share comes from practical trial and error, and lots of mistakes.

And the good news is, if I can do it, you can too!!

The Easiest Vegetables to Grow

 

Zucchini

Zucchini is very prolific. You’ll get so many zucchini you won’t be able to keep up. Last year I had one zucchini plant and it supplied my family week after week. You can get vining varieties like Romanesco or bush varieties depending on how much room you have. Bush varieties require more room but they are easier and less maintenance because they don’t require staking. Vining varieties are great because you can grow upward when space is limited.

There are tons of summer squash varieties. Feel free to try any: zucchini, yellow summer squash, scalloped, patty pan squash in gold, white/light green, or green, or others. Feel free to try any of them.

Here are a couple of my favorite recipes with zucchini (but any summer squash can be substituted: Pickled Zucchini and Zucchini-izza.

Tomatoes

Tomatoes grow like a weed. They will grow all summer until the first frost hits.

Cherry tomatoes are super easy and you get a ton of them – and kids usually love them straight off the vine. Sungold is one of my favorite varieties because they are so sweet (and orange in color).

Early Girl and other early varieties provide fruit earlier in the season, which is nice, especially if your growing season is shorter due to frost or snow. And it gets you off to an early harvest.

Slicing tomatoes are juicy and flavorful. They are great for slicing and eating, sandwiches, and salsa. Varieties include red round tomatoes and large tomatoes may cover a whole sandwich such as Mortgage Lifter, Beefsteak, and Stupice.

Heirloom tomatoes are probably my favorite. They are sweet and beautiful colors and delicious. They are often quite expensive in the store, so growing them at home makes you feel very abundant. However, their skins can be a bit thin and they can crack – once that happens they will start molding on the vine, so you want to watch them and pick them in time. My favorite is the German/Striped German variety. They are a marbled yellow and red tomato that is very sweet and beautiful to slice. There are many varieties: Cherokee Purple, Brandywine, German, and Valencia to name a few.

It’s always good to see if you want a determinate or indeterminate variety. Determinate are more bush-like and you don’t want to prune them because they grow to a “determined” size and pruning means you are cutting off potential fruit. Indeterminate grow like a vine and will continue to grow and grow taller and taller. Indeterminates are great where space is limited, and you want to grow them up a trellis or stake.

Either variety is wonderful, and if you are new to gardening and you have space, pick either variety, make sure you stake them and just let them grow. No need to do much really.

Green beans

Green beans grow easily as well. They are one of our family’s favorite vegetables so this time I planted 36 plants – 24 from seed and 12 from seedlings. I also plan to plant some more seeds part way through the season… this is succession planting. This way you have some growing at different times so instead of a huge harvest all at once, you have a steady supply over time.

Green beans are easy and fun for kids to plant from seed. But if you want to get off to a quick start you can buy seedlings.

Green beans also grow as bush and pole varieties. Personally, I prefer the flavor of pole beans better, and if you want super tender thin green beans without the thicker skin, strings, and large beans inside, try French or Filet green beans and pick them early and often.

Pole beans are fun for kids to pick as they are easy to hunt for them on the vine.

Kale

Kale is great for virtually any weather. They can grow in early spring and late fall (even winter in some places) as they are frost tolerant.

They are also fun to have growing in your garden because you can simply go outside and pick some when you want to make kale chips for dinner – a kids’ favorite.

There are so many varieties. Right now we have five varieties – Lacinato/Dino kale, Curly Green kale, Scarlet kale, Red Russian kale, and White Russian kale.

Lacinato are low oxalate and make great Kale Chips along with a Low Oxalate Kale Salad. And the Russian kale varieties are tender and chopped up great in salads. Although, I use all varieties for any kale needs.

Lettuce

Lettuce grows great in partial shade so it grows well in an apartment or space where light is limited. In fact, in warmer climates it’s great to grow your lettuce in the shade of your tomatoes or in a partially shady spot. It does need 6 hours of sunlight but lettuce doesn’t like scorching heat.

I find leaf lettuce or varieties like Butter Crunch are easier to grow than head lettuce. Or if you grow a lettuce like Iceberg or Romaine you just might find it doesn’t form a “head.” Often you might find that you just harvest leaf by leaf from the head as you go, rather than waiting for the whole head to form – as that can be more difficult for new gardeners.

You can also grow lettuce and kale as micro/baby greens, where you sprinkle lots of seeds close together and you harvest it when the leaves are small.

Parsley

Parsley is easy to grow and very hardy.

In fact, it will grow back for a second year, even after being covered in snow. But it is a two year annual, so it will go to seed after the second year and then be done with its lifespan.

There are curly and flat Italian varieties. Both are great with many nutrients, antioxidants, and health benefits.

You can chop up some leaves and sprinkle them on a fish dish for an added fresh flavor. They balance garlic well, and even freshen your breath. Kids often like to pick a stem and eat it just like that. I like to chop some and add it to a salad.

Growing in Containers

If you find you only have a patio to grow on (for example in our apartment in San Francisco, our south facing side is the front and the backyard is shaded by the building) so it’s better to grow in containers on the porch.

If you try planting straight into the ground, in most places the soil will need to be worked and amended. Sometimes it is too clay-like and the roots will not be able to grow down far enough.

Raised beds are the easiest way to start a new garden. You can buy varieties or build your own.

But if you don’t have the capacity to build a raised bed or tend to your ground soil, or you don’t have the space you need, growing in pots is just fine.

In fact, all of the vegetables I have just discussed: Zucchini, tomatoes, green beans, kale, lettuce grow really well in pots. Also peppers, winter squash, garlic, onions, potatoes, and carrots grow well in pots. Just make sure the container is large enough for the type of plant you are growing. Tomatoes need more room than lettuce, for example.

 

Best Containers

 

 

Fertilize

Key. Be sure to water and fertilize!

Of course, watering is number one. But don’t forget to fertilize. If you want strong plants and sweet fruits, it’s important to remember to fertilize. I’ve made this mistake before.

With organic fertilizers you can often fertilize weekly or every other week. While I know that seems like a lot of time, so you can choose varieties that release over time like Dr. Earth. 

Personally, I find it easier to do smaller amounts of fertilizer more frequently. Because when it’s only once a month, (time goes by so fast and) I forget. This way I just fertilize every weekend and if I miss a weekend or two, no problem. 

Two of my favorite organic fertilizers:

Dr. Earth – I mix some in the soil when I plant my starts, and sprinkle some on the top layer of soil.

Neptune’s Harvest Fish & Seaweed Fertilizer – I like to use this as the season goes on since it can be “watered” right on top and sink down well since it’s a liquid fertilizer.

Have Fun Getting Started

Gardening is fun, easy, saves money on food, something your whole family can take part in, and a great stress relief (for me!), as well as nourishing for the mind and body. 

While getting a vegetable garden started may seem daunting, it doesn’t have to be. You can start with the things I have mentioned that are among the easiest to grow. Start small so it is not overwhelming. But the most important thing is to start!

A seed pack or seedlings (already sprouted seeds/baby plants), some dirt, a few pots or area in your yard, sun, and water is all you need.

Have fun and please share with me what’s growing in your vegetable garden this year in the comments below!!

 

 

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No-Mato (Tomato-Free) Sauce

Ingredients

  • 5-6 carrots, chopped
  • 1 red/purple beet, peeled and chopped
  • 1 small or 1/2 large onion, peeled and chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, chopped
  • 1 ½ cups water 

Directions

Place all chopped and prepared vegetables and water into a pot. Once water boils, reduce heat, cover and
simmer for 50-60 minutes. Vegetables should be soft when pierced. Then place an emersion blender in pot
and blend until smooth (or place contents in blender and puree). Use in place of tomato sauce as desired.