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Celebrity chef Evans makes claims on diet and autism: experts respond

Posted on 3 August 2017 under News

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From the moment a child is diagnosed with autism, Professor Andrew Whitehouse writes, their family enters the unknown.

Professor Whitehouse, who directs the Autism Research Team at the Telethon Kids Institute and is Chief Research Officer for Autism Cooperative Research Centre, describes a world where conference halls are lined with salespeople, letterboxes are stuffed with pamphlets, and life is transformed into a whirlwind tour of a fantastical array of therapies and potions that are positioned as the “cure all” for their child’s difficulties.

Andrew Whitehouse: expert advice.

It’s no surprise that when a story emerges about a therapy or diet that promises huge benefits to autistic people, controversy follows.

The Magic Pill has been pilloried by the medical profession

Such was the case this week when media reported on the release of The Magic Pill, the paleo documentary from celebrity chef Pete Evans.

Evans claims the diet can impact significantly on autism, alzheimers, epilepsy and kidney disease, prompting the Australian Medical Association (AMA) to say elemets of the documentary are, “ridiculous, harmful and mean”.

One media outlet says a most hurtful claim involves four-year-old Abigail, who is autistic and epileptic.

By the end of the film, after adopting the paleo diet, she is shown being able to speak, with the diet “given full credit for this change”.

AMA president Michael Gannon told the Daily Telegraph that “the idea that a high-fat diet can change a child’s behaviour in a month is just so patently ridiculous…and yet the reality is the parents of autistic children are so desperate they will search for anything.”

Dr Gannon also criticised the film for “invoking some kind of grand conspiracy” between the pharmaceutical industry, the food industry, the medical profession and “everyone else”.

My Kitchen Rules judge Evans hit back at Dr Gannon’s criticism on Instagram.

Next to a screenshot of Dr Gannon’s tweet suggesting the film should be up for an award for “least likely to contribute to public health”, Evans wrote: “Is this type of behaviour befitting of the president of the AMA?”.

Diet modification is common

Professor Whitehouse says diet modification is one of the most prominent alternative therapies.

There’s a lack of reliable research into autism and diet.

He last year wrote about this for The Conversation, stating, “A diet free of gluten (found in wheat, rye and barley) and casein (the main protein in dairy products) attracts more attention than any other and is estimated to be given to  approximately 40% of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

“In some cases, clinicians recommend diets; in others, they’re instigated by parents eager to find anything that may help their child.

“But there is currently little scientific evidence the gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF) diet has beneficial effects for children with autism.”

Professor Whitehouse told Fairfax, “There’s no question that the number of children with ASD who have gut problems is higher than what would normally be expected in children generally but how this might relate to diet is still very murky.

Lack of rigorous research studies 

“I see parents who swear black and blue that changing their diet has helped their children and my answer is ‘I believe you but at the moment there’s little scientific evidence  to say that changing the diet improves autistic behaviours  - so go into it with your eyes open’. We need more evidence to guide clinical decision-making.”

On its website, Autism Spectrum Australia states: Over the past two decades, research on the effect of diet and nutrition on autism has been increasing, with a focus on the role of food additives, refined sugar, food allergies, and fatty acid metabolism.

However, there has been a lack of rigorous research studies in this field, and to date there is no sound conclusive research evidence to support the efficacy of any nutritional interventions in improving symptoms of autism spectrum disorder.