As scientists learn more about the link between the foods we eat and how they influence almost our bodies, we understand more and more how important it is to eat the right foods. Food is medicine, and functional and genetic nutrition for autism can make a tremendous impact.

Yes, autism spectrum disorder presents in a wide variety of ways — hence the word “spectrum” —  but many of its symptoms can be traced back to issues with food and nutrition.

Each year, science continues to shine more light on the potential causes of autism, including environmental ones. Every parent wants the best for their child, and today we’ll talk about some of the best nutritional options for children with ASD.

How Nutrition Can Help Or Harm Autism Symptoms

The foods your child eats (or doesn’t eat) can greatly affect autism symptoms. Many pediatricians minimize or ignore nutrition in favor of behavioral therapy and prescription medication. However, this approach overlooks the importance of diet as a therapeutic measure.

There’s a growing body of evidence linking gut dysfunction to autism. Children with autism are more likely to have gastrointestinal (GI) problems, with more severe GI problems directly often connected to more severe autism symptoms.

The types of microbes living in the gut are also associated with autism, particularly late-onset autism. A diverse diet full of whole foods supports a healthy range of gut bacteria. This range of gut bacteria, called the microbiome, makes sure that food is digested properly and keeps inflammation in check.

The structure of the gut is often altered in children with autism compared to non-autistic children as well. Research shows that autistic children may have a “leaky gut,” which allows molecules from food to cross into the body and promote inflammation.

Eating whole, anti-inflammatory foods can be a great start to a diet for autism. There’s growing evidence that inflammation itself plays a substantial role in the development of autism, and higher levels of inflammation are associated with more severe cases of autism. Children with autism also have higher levels of inflammation than children who don’t have ASD.

The inflammatory response makes its way across the blood-brain barrier into the brain, where it causes neuroinflammation (inflammation in the brain).

What does all of this mean? The food your child eats truly does affect their behavior and autism symptoms. If your child eats a pro-inflammatory diet full of wheat, dairy, sugary foods, food dyes, and processed ingredients, the chances are that it’s not helping their symptoms of ASD.

On the other hand, an anti-inflammatory diet that helps repair the digestive tract and supports the immune system can help improve autism symptoms. In my practice, I’ve seen children show huge improvements after making tweaks to their diet.

Foods And Supplements For Autism Nutrition

If food is medicine, what should your child be eating to help ease the symptoms of autism?

The best diet for children with autism is a diet that’s full of whole foods. Providing your child with a wide variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, and healthy protein sources will give them the nutrients and antioxidants their body needs to function at its best.

Beyond whole fruits and veggies, the top nutrition I recommend to the families of my patients with ASD are:

  • Fish oil supplements (full of omega-3 fatty acids)
  • Magnesium
  • Iron
  • Zinc
  • B vitamins
  • Vitamin D

Fish Oil Supplements

Fish oil supplements are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which we know have tremendous benefits for fighting inflammation. Fish oil supplements specifically have been shown to improve the symptoms of autism in children, and reduce the production of cytokines, one of the major causes of inflammation in ASD patients.

How do you choose the right fish oil supplement for your child? First, speak to their pediatrician or specialist and ask if they have brands they recommend. They may also have suggestions for things you should look for in a supplement.

You’ll want to check the label of your fish oil supplement for the levels of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DPA) it contains. These are the 2 primary omega-3 fatty acids that give fish oil its therapeutic effects. Your doctor can recommend a good dosage amount for your child.


Magnesium is a mineral that can impact on your child’s autism symptoms. Children who have autism are more likely to be magnesium deficient. To combat this, feed your child magnesium-rich foods like leafy green vegetables and nuts.


Iron is closely linked with brain function and cognition. It helps carry oxygen into the brain and aids brain cells in making neurotransmitters, among other essential functions. It’s vital to have enough iron so the brain can work properly.

Autistic children also tend to have lower-than-normal iron levels. Even if your little one isn’t anemic, low iron levels still have a strong negative effect on cognition. Feed your child iron-rich foods like grass-fed beef, shellfish, spinach, and legumes as part of an autism-friendly diet.


Like magnesium, zinc levels are different in autistic children compared to neurotypical children. Zinc plays an important role in maintaining proper brain function, including acting as a co-neurotransmitter with glutamate. Increase your child’s zinc intake with oysters and nuts.

B Vitamins

Children with ASD often have low levels of vitamins B6, B9, and B12. Giving children a combined vitamin B6-magnesium supplement helps ease some of the symptoms of autism in certain cases. Additionally, adding more leafy green vegetables, salmon, or chicken to their diet can give your child more B vitamins.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D acts as a steroid in the brain and affects both brain development and function. Some studies have shown that giving children a supplement containing a large dose of Vitamin D can lead to striking improvements in symptoms. Vitamin D deficiency is also linked to autism.

Giving your child a vitamin D supplement is one option to increase their vitamin D intake. You can also feed them tuna, salmon, eggs, and mushrooms. You can also ensure they spend a few minutes playing in the sun each day, which allows the skin to synthesize vitamin D.

What To Avoid In Your Child’s Diet

There are also several foods and additives you should try very hard to avoid in your autistic child’s diet. Some of these foods increase inflammation, exacerbating the symptoms of autism. Others can have adverse effects on the body and brain.

Here’s what to avoid:

  • Gluten and CaseinGluten and casein can create massive amounts of inflammation that can worsen autism symptoms and may even cause them. Gluten- and dairy-free diets have shown promise as part of a treatment plan.
  • Sugar and Refined Carbohydrates—Sugar is one of the worst foods for autism because it feeds inflammation in the body. Refined carbohydrates like crackers, chips, and more act just like sugar in the body, and you should treat them like sugar.
  • Pesticides—Growing evidence links autism to pesticides. For example, exposure to the pesticide dimethoate in pregnancy increased the risk of the babies developing autism. Eat organic whenever you can, and try to avoid using pesticides in your yard and home.
  • Artificial Food Dyes—Synthetic food colors are bad news. There are strong links between behavioral problems and artificial food coloring. Artificial colors may not directly cause autism (the jury’s still out), but they can certainly affect behavior.
  • Preservatives—Like artificial food dyes, artificial preservatives can also negatively impact behavior. It’s best for everyone to avoid foods with artificial preservatives and colors, but particularly important for patients with autism.
  • Artificial Sweeteners—Sensing a theme here? Like the other artificial food additives, artificial sweeteners are bad for autism. Artificial sweeteners affect how the body uses glucose, and high glucose can cause inflammation. Be safe and avoid them altogether.
  • Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)—Too much glutamate in the body from eating MSG can exacerbate some of the negative symptoms of autism, so it’s best to avoid MSG altogether.

It’s also important to remember that diet, although crucial,  is just one part of a treatment plan for autism. Making sure your child gets the nutrient- and antioxidant-rich diet they need is just one spoke in the wheel of treating autism.

Your pediatrician or specialist should also work with you to create a plan for your child with special needs that addresses behavioral challenges such as emotional dysregulation. With a functional plan to treat facets of autism from inflammation to frustration, you’ll begin to see tremendous improvements in symptoms.


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