A Child’s Autism Diagnosis May Impact Their Parents’ Diet and Weight, Research Shows
Several behaviors associated with autism spectrum disorder in children, like disruptive conduct and rejection of foods, were associated with changes to a parent’s everyday diet, according to a small study that underscores the need for more research on the impact of autism on families.
November 25, 2019
A child’s diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder — and associated food sensitivities — may affect the dietary patterns of their parents and caregivers, according to a small study1 from researchers at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University.
The research, presented at last month’s Food and Nutrition Conference & Expo in Philadelphia, was centered on a well-documented aspect of autism: that many on the spectrum have food aversions and restrictions, and that behavioral issues can make mealtimes challenging.
Children with autism, according to one study2, are five times more likely to experience mealtime problems — like tantrums, extreme food selectivity, and ritualistic eating behaviors — than are their neurotypical peers. They may also face increased risk of weight gain and obesity, given the common predisposition to diets of limited variety that are mostly high in starches and low in fruits, vegetables, and fiber.3
“We gathered information on how parents of children who are on the spectrum are affected by their child’s everyday diet, and observed trends regarding whether parents fall into the same dietary patterns as their child,” Jadin Fields, a student researcher, told Healio Psychiatry.4
The study involved 27 parents and caregivers of children living with autism. They were asked questions related to meal-time behavior, feelings about meal-time behavior, weight change, and their own dietary intake.
The researchers found that several parameters observed in children with autism, like disruptive behavior and rejection of foods, were associated with changes to a parent’s diet. Parents who reported experiencing meal-time difficulty with their child, for instance, were more likely to eat out and to skip meals. Child food refusal was also linked to higher sugary beverage intake among caregivers.
What’s more, body mass index (BMI) among caregivers also rose. The mean BMI for caregivers increased from 27 at the time of a child’s autism diagnosis to 29 – a statistically significant difference.
The findings, according to the researchers, demonstrate a strong need for further study of autism’s impact within the family unit over time, and the importance of educational resources that teach families about healthy nutritional habits and approaches.
“It is important for health care providers to work together with parents and caregivers to provide family-centered approaches to nutrition for ASD,” Kerri Lynn Knippen, one of the study’s authors, told Healio. “Interdisciplinary programs that focus on educating the family unit, especially the caregiver, on ways to handle stress associated with mealtimes and mediate eating behavior while addressing nutritional needs are needed.”
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1 Knippen, K. et al. (September 2019). Parental Dietary Intake & Mealtime Feeding Behavior Associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Volume 119, Issue 9, A71. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2019.06.205
2 Sharp, W.G., Berry, R.C., McCracken, C. et al. (2013). Feeding Problems and Nutrient Intake in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Meta-analysis and Comprehensive Review of the Literature. Journal of Autism and Development Disorders. 43: 2159. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-013-1771-5
3 Evans, E. W., Must, A., Anderson, S. E., Curtin, C., Scampini, R., Maslin, M., & Bandini, L. (2012). Dietary Patterns and Body Mass Index in Children with Autism and Typically Developing Children. Research in autism spectrum disorders. 6(1), 399–405. doi:10.1016/j.rasd.2011.06.014
4 Gramigna, J. (2019, October 30). Parents of children with autism may benefit from diet interventions. Retrieved from: https://www.healio.com/psychiatry/autism-spectrum-disorders/news/online/%7Be022203c-870a-4c90-a7d1-c24579bfc7f4%7D/parents-of-children-with-autism-may-benefit-from-diet-interventions