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Experts call for greater attention to autism-related nutrition problems

Report highlights importance of addressing common nutrition issues in kids with autism and great unmet need for studies on adults
July 16, 2015

A review of published research emphasizes the need to address significant nutritional issues among people with autism – across their lifespans.

The report highlights a wealth of studies showing that many children with autism have poor nutrition, likely resulting from extremely narrow eating habits. As a result, they may require nutritional supplements or fortified foods.

The same report flags the unacceptable absence of studies looking at nutritional issues among the rapidly growing number of adults with autism.

“We know that children with autism are at risk for nutritional problems, and this review is important for bringing further attention to the issue,” comments Autism Speaks Vice President for Medical Research Paul Wang, who was not involved in the study. “The authors are also absolutely right that we need to focus on the nutritional needs of adults with autism. This needs to include both the adequacy of current diets and the possible consequences of nutritional deficiencies they may have experienced in childhood.”

As an example, Dr. Wang notes the possible role that childhood nutrient deficiencies may play in the increased rates of bone fractures seen among adults with autism.

The scientific review article – "Nutritional Status of Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Do We Know Enough?" appears in the journal Advances in Nutrition.

Children and adults with autism can become malnourished due to the extremely narrow eating habits that often result from avoidance of new or unfamiliar foods, hypersensitivity to certain tastes and food textures and other mealtime behavior issues. As a result, it’s important for their physicians to assess whether they require nutritional supplements or fortified foods to ensure adequate nutrition, the authors urge.

The report cites a number of studies showing that children with autism are more likely to be significantly overweight or underweight. Restricted dietary patterns likely contribute to both issues. With obesity, other factors can include reduced physical activity and weight gain as a side effect of behavioral medications. Again, the authors urge doctors to evaluate and address such issues to improve the long-term health of their patients with autism.  

In terms of specific vitamin deficiencies of note, the report cites a number of studies that have found low levels of folate, vitamin B-6 and vitamin B-12 among children with autism. So common are these deficiencies, the authors write, that they might even be useful as biomarkers that help diagnose the disorder in very young children. 

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