Autism and defining clinical nutrition & wellness

Rosalba Maistoru M.A., BCBA

The field of clinical nutrition has evolved into a practice that is increasingly incorporated into mainstream medical treatment. Clinical nutrition is the study of the relationship between food and the well-being of the body. More specifically, it is the science of nutrients and how they are digested, absorbed, transported, metabolized, stored and discharged by the body. Besides studying how food works in the body, nutritionists are interested in how the environment affects the quality and safety of foods, and how these factors influence health and disease.

It is believed by many reputable scientists, physicians and clinicians that there are generally two things that make people feel sick, toxicity and inflammation. Research over the years has also suggested that there is a real connection between what an individual eats, how they live their life and how they feel. For example, common foods, including nuts, wheat gluten, dairy products, fish, shrimp, soy, bananas, corn and eggs, can trigger allergic inflammatory reactions. If the proteins in these foods are not properly digested, they may create a dysfunction in multiple organ systems, including the brain and the gastrointestinal system. These manifestations are known as food allergies and sensitivities. In children, common symptoms may include frequent ear infections, repeated urinary tract infections and diaper rashes, continuous stuffy/runny nose and colds or upper respiratory infections, dark circles under eyes, hyperactivity or poor attention span. This condition is often seen in many individuals with ASD.

The immune system fights stress and toxins created by the environment and a person’s diet. When this system is overwhelmed, it can damage the metabolism and lead to certain diseases. A deficiency of iron can decrease immunity as well, limiting oxygen delivery to cells and resulting in fatigue and poor work performance. Iron intake is also negatively influenced by low nutrient density foods, which are high in calories but low in vitamins and minerals. Sugar sweetened sodas and most desserts are examples of low nutrient density foods, as are snack foods such as potato chips.

Iron is an integral part of many proteins and enzymes that maintain good health. In humans, iron is an essential component of proteins involved in oxygen transport. It is also essential for the regulation of cell growth and differentiation. Many think iron is a heavy metal, which it is not. Iron is an essential micronutrient. ‘Essential’ used in this way means that the body does not produce the nutrient; ‘micronutrient’ means that the body only requires tiny amounts to function.

lmost two-thirds of iron in the body is found in hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to tissues. Smaller amounts of iron are found in myoglobin, a protein that helps supply oxygen to muscle, and in enzymes that assist biochemical reactions. Iron is also found in proteins that store iron for future needs and that transport iron in blood. Iron stores are regulated by intestinal iron absorption. There are people who cannot absorb iron very well or cannot make red blood cells normally, increasing the risk of becoming anemic.

There are two forms of dietary iron that people consume, including heme and non-heme. Heme iron is derived from hemoglobin and is primarily found in animal foods such as red meats, fish and poultry. Non-heme iron comes primarily from plant foods, such as lentils, beans, nuts, fruits, vegetables and is also found in grains such as rice, wheat and oats. While meat proteins and vitamin C improve the absorption of non-heme iron, many substances can reduce the amount of non-heme iron we absorb. These substances include tannins in coffee or tea, dairy, phytates (fiber found in legumes and whole grains), eggs and some types of chocolate. Calcium can impair the absorption of both non-heme and heme iron. Therefore if a person needs more iron, he or she should avoid these items to improve the amount of iron absorbed. But if a person has a problem of too much iron, he or she should use these items to help lower the amount of iron absorbed because excess amounts of iron can result in toxicity.

Meat contains both types of iron. Meat, especially red meat, is the best source of heme iron. When we eat meat we consume the blood proteins, the hemoglobin and myoglobin contained in the flesh of the animal. Plants do contain tiny traces of heme iron, but not enough to make a difference. Unlike heme iron, the iron from all of the non-heme sources is inorganic and must be changed before it can be absorbed. Heme iron is easily absorbed by the body and the best source of iron for people who are iron deficient. Iron deficiency decreases body temperature by decreasing norepinephrine and decreasing cellular oxygen, which contributes to the low-body-temperature problem in hypothyroidism.

The most recent scientific work suggests a connection with thyroid hormone dysfunction and various behaviors witnessed in those diagnosed with ASD. Healthy humans require iodine, one of the trace minerals and an essential component of the thyroid hormones, thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). Failure to have adequate iodine leads to insufficient production of these hormones (hypothyroidism), which affect many different parts of the body, particularly muscle, heart, liver, kidney and the brain. Thyroid hormones are closely related to all brain function and to pancreas function. Many studies have shown that attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD) in children are linked to changes in the levels of thyroid hormone in the blood, and that irritability and aggressive behavior are linked to thyroid hormone levels and hypothyroidism.

Other symptoms of an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism), include fatigue, constipation, depression, low body temperature, memory disturbances, concentration difficulties, paranoia, migraines, over-sleeping and/or the inability to sleep due to gastrointestinal discomforts, anemia, “laziness” (no motivation), muscle aches and or weaknesses (e.g., low muscle tone), hearing disturbances, slow reaction time and mental sluggishness, labored breathing, hoarseness, speech problems, brittle nails, and poor vision and/or light sensitivity.

Once damage to the thyroid takes place it affects all the other organs, beginning with digestion and absorption. As toxins start to accumulate in the system, an array of symptoms can include high homocysteine levels, poor circulation (especially to the skin with as little as 20 to 40 percent of normal blood supply, resulting in a pale face), weight gain/weight loss, depending on the type of metabolism one had to begin with, no appetite or binge eating, bloating, fluid retention, skin problems (itching, eczema, psoriasis, acne, hives, and other skin eruptions, skin pallor or yellowing), aching joints, low blood pressure, high cholesterol and sensitivity to cold.

It has been shown that changing an individual’s diet produces a change in behavior and how they feel. For example, inflammation can be cooled by eliminating toxic foods and eating an allergy-free diet. Avoiding foods with refined sugars and flour, trans fats, hormones and pesticides, as well as gluten, dairy, eggs, corn and yeast is also key in reducing inflammation. The human body thrives on whole foods, fresh vegetables and fruit, whole grains and beans, nuts and seeds and lean animal proteins. An abundant supply of vitamins, minerals, and flavanoids (chemicals from vegetables and fruits), also improves skin health. These include vitamin C (as ascorbate), natural forms of vitamin E, selenium, magnesium, all the B vitamins, the omega-3 oils, and a diet rich in deeply colored vegetables and some fruits.

A well-balanced diet acts to provide sources of energy and nutrition for optimal growth and development. A balanced diet refers to intake of appropriate types and adequate amounts of foods and drinks to supply nutrition and energy for the maintenance of body cells, tissues, and organs, and to support normal growth and development. For a healthy diet, replacing unhealthy and fattening foods with healthier alternatives, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, is routinely recommended by clinical nutritionists.

To find a clinical nutritionist in your area, contact the American Board of Nutrition at 205-975-8788, the American College of Nutrition at 212-777-1037, the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board at 972-250-2829, or the American Dietetic Association at 800-877-1600 (website:

Please note: All information is for educational purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Any references to treatment options, programs, or services are not endorsements and the author and any parties associated with the materials printed do not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of the information or the consequences arising from the application, use, or misuse of any of the information contained herein, including any injury and/or damage to any person or property as a matter of product liability, negligence, or otherwise. No warranty, expressed or implied, is made in regard to the contents of this material. No claims or endorsements are made for any drugs or compounds currently marketed or in investigative use. This material is not intended as a guide to self-medication. Nothing herein is intended to prescribe for, or to treat disease, but is intended to inform, and to recommend certain courses of action that may be viable to investigate further. In every instance, it is advised that these actions be undertaken with the advice and consent of your medical professional. The reader is advised to Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified medical provider for all medical problems prior to changing or starting any new treatment and to discuss the information provided here with a doctor, pharmacist, nurse, or other authorized healthcare practitioner and to check product information (including package inserts) regarding dosage, precautions, warnings, interactions, and contraindications before administering any drug, herb, or supplement discussed herein. We hope you will find the materials mentioned helpful as a means to begin learning more about ASD, Essential Nutrition & Biomedical Approaches. Some helpful resources can be found at the following web links:, and

Courtesy of Spectrum Publications

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