Making Good Food Choices Every Day with Your ASD Child: Interview with Dr. Chad Larson.

(Revised article which was originally published in the September,2015 issue of Autism Parenting Magazine)

By Nick Malcuit

Parents who have children with autism have heard how diet affects and even exacerbates behaviors. There is an abundance of articles and books on the subject. However,  families feel deterred by mainstream medicine and its slow and cynical recognition of natural and alternative approaches including diet to help with behavior issues.

So when the opportunity arose to interview Dr. Chad Larson and discuss his views on diet and autism, I was both eager and excited to get some answers. I was not disappointed. Dr. Larson’s journey to the autism population is a unique one.He referred to it as a “reluctant switch” initially during our interview, as his practice evolved and changed based on his patients needs. From sports injuries and chronic pain treatment to endocrinology and nutrition; he is board certified in Chiropractic and Naturopathic Medicine.

Our discussion turned to the connection between GI problems and autism as well as an explanation of the opiate effect and leaky gut syndrome.Dr. Larson provided a comprehensive overview of how gluten and casein affects individuals with autism. During digestion, or should I say mal-digestion, the proteins cannot be broken down and form gluteomorphins and casomorphins. Both are responsible for the “opiate effect”as they influence the opiate receptors in the brain and are morphine-like and addictive. Using my 16 year old son Louis as a frame of reference, this explains the “craving” of french fries or breaded chicken. When I first met my step-son, he was three. He was “addicted” to fast foods such as McDonald's as well as breaded foods and french fries. When we began to change his eating habits it lead to extreme behaviors and tantrums (withdrawal). Gluten and Casein, Dr. Larson explained, lead to malabsorption of nutrients and vitamins and break down the barrier of the intestinal wall. Leaky gut syndrome and imbalance of bacteria in the gut contributes to many health problems ranging from brain function to the immune system.

With a basic understanding of the science behind these issues, parents can see how important nutrition is, especially within the autism population. Paraphrasing Dr. Larson, nutrition is basically the root of general health. Could the medical community be a microcosm of society as medical schools direct students to the pharmaceutical industry for answers and treatments of symptoms instead of taking the more natural approach? Dr. Larson’s naturopathic practice looks at the individual and how to identify the causes of certain conditions. Parents want to know which foods are hurting their children. While there are ways to do this in the home using the removal and provocation method; this can be both tedious and difficult for parents. Broken down by Dr. Larson, if you believe dairy is causing headaches, you remove the dairy and see if the headaches improve. You then re-introduce dairy, with the belief the headaches will reappear. Then you again eliminate the dairy; as well as the headache symptom and thus remove dairy from your diet. But as further stated by Dr. Larson, “you can take the guesswork out.” Testing can be done to determine food sensitivities (several variables), gut barrier integrity and immune system tolerance. Cyrex Laboratories offers the most advanced autoimmunity test panels available on the market with a comprehensive array of tests to determine a patient’s reactivity.Families can ask their doctors about how to have the testing done. Why is testing important? As stated earlier, part of the principles of naturopathic medicine is to treat the individual. The goal is to identify and remove obstacles to good health as well as find and treat the causes, not the symptoms. This will improve overall health. Using the autism population as an example, Dr. Larson pointed out that behaviors and symptoms for five children with autism will have five different manifestations.That is evident in my own home. Both of my stepsons are on the spectrum and both are unique as well as completely different when it comes to behaviors, food allergies and personality. Yet both have been impacted by diet and nutrition.

With all the information gathered during the interview and discussion with Dr. Larson, how does it best translate to day to day living for parents and families? Decisions need to be made on testing children to see what the underlying issues are and also to evaluate their pharmaceutical needs. We had our own experience with Risperdal but decided to make a change. It has worked out well for us. That decision, however is up to the parents. A great place to start though is with diet and nutrition.

Dr. Larson, while advocating for the treatment of the individual, has seen enough research and evidence to conclude as many parents have that gluten and casein do not belong in the diets of most children with autism. By removing these substances, we are on the road to a better diet and better health. I emphasized that our family looks closely at labels and ingredients when we shop. Dr. Larson explained in a clever way that if the food we are eating has a label, maybe we shouldn’t be eating it. That put a pin in the balloon, didn't it? Many families think they are doing a smart thing looking at labels but that is not the answer either. Dr. Larson’s point was well taken. One of the main takeaways from the interview was when he said,”the closer food is to its natural form, the healthier it is.The further away it is from it’s natural form, the worse it is for you.” Obviously, when he talked about labels he was just making a point. Pre-washed lettuce or spinach in a bag is okay even though it has a label but there are vegetables, mostly frozen, that are packaged with butter sauce or other additives. We need to be careful. How about going to a market and buying fresh broccoli, zucchini or carrots instead of frozen? We have to change the way we shop before we can change the way we eat.

In addition, I asked about low carb diets and other so-called “fad” diets. Dr. Larson replied that in his nutrition programs there are “high carb days and low carb days”. Parents should be aware that fruits and vegetables have carbohydrates and they are obviously a better choice than slices of white bread which are probably bleached. The best we can do for our children is to buy and eat whole foods, balance our diet and avoid any processed foods. We need to eliminate the toxins in our body and replace them with good foods and natural ingredients which will help fight disease and lead us on the path to good health.Will this translate to less behaviors and less stressful situations with children who have autism? I can say absolutely yes!     

As we concluded our talk I asked where Dr. Larson sees diagnosis rates of autism in the next five years and his response was quick and direct. Using the basic cliche “paradigm shift” terminology, he explained that we need to change the way we are doing things or they will continue to grow at an alarming rate. Citing foods and environmental issues as part of the problem, his concern is not only autism but all autoimmune conditions, which have already increased dramatically.This is obviously something we need to address as a society but seem to be turning a deaf ear. The good news is we can begin in our own home with our own family and make the changes we need to to improve our health. When Dr. Larson was talking about eating whole foods, vegetables and fruits and eliminating processed foods, I joked with him that this is not only a way to improve behaviors in children with autism but also to improve the behaviors and health for all of us as well; a little care for the caregiver. I’m not sure if you’ve heard the expression you are what you eat, but those words are so true. Healthy=Healthy. This is something we can control, and we all should be on board.  

I urge you all to visit Dr. Larson’s website, It is a great resource and I thank him for his time.

© Nick Malcuit 9/2015


BIO: Dr. Chad Larson

Advisor and Consultant to Clinical Consulting Team for Cyrex Laboratories:

Dr. Chad Larson, NMD, DC, CCN, CSCS

Dr. Larson holds a Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine degree from Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine and a Doctor of Chiropractic degree from Southern California University of Health Sciences. He is a Certified Clinical Nutritionist and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He particularly pursues advanced developments in the fields of endocrinology,orthopedics, sports medicine, and environmentally-induced chronic disease.