If you are considering implementing a casein-free diet for your child, be prepared. Some parents are made to feel that removing cow milk from a child’s food choices is a form of child abuse. Naysayers are unaware that a large percentage of the world’s population does not consume animal milk once childhood has passed. In fact, humans are the only species that drink milk as adults, and the only “animal” to drink the milk of another animal. Cow milk may be the perfect food for baby cows, but it was not meant to sustain humans.
If you are wondering whether a casein-free diet will benefit your child, consider this: children who crave dairy, and who eat a lot of it, are most likely to benefit from going casein-free.
Casein is the most abundant protein in milk. It is also found in dairy products and other foods containing dairy or lactose (including milk, yogurt, cheese and ice cream). Because this milk protein is commonly used in processed foods, even foods proclaiming to be “dairy-free” or “lactose-free” will contain casein.
So why is casein a problem? The most studied theory proposes that children with autism, or other neurobehavioral disorders, process certain proteins (in this case the milk protein casein) differently than typical people do. Incomplete digestion and this difference in processing leads to high levels of protein by-products, called casomorphines, which exacerbate undesirable symptoms commonly associated with these disorders.
Similar to how the brain reacts to gluten in these individuals, it is believed that the brain reads these proteins as if they were opioid-like chemicals, like heroin or morphine. These by-products may then affect behavior like a drug would. They can affect speech, reduce the desire for social interaction, increase confusion, delay cognitive and auditory processing, and decrease the ability to feel pain.
This opioid reaction can also become addictive. For some, the craving for dairy foods can be so intense that eating a yogurt or ice cream produces a feeling analogous to “getting high”. Removing casein usually produces benefits within a month, and sometimes within a week. In some children there is a worsening of symptoms for a few days (similar to a drug withdrawal) followed by improvement. In fact, one mom said that her child adapted to going gluten-free without skipping a beat but upon removing dairy, he started “raiding the fridge for yogurt and cheese” and became aggressive during his withdrawal period. This subsided as the days passed so don’t be surprised if you have a similar experience.
The idea behind removing casein from the diet is to heal inflammation in the gut caused by casein, reduce the level of casomorphines in the system and remove the opioid messaging to the brain which will lead to a reduction in symptoms and improve social and cognitive behaviors and speech.
Before embarking on a casein-free diet, consult your child’s doctor. Because dairy products are one of the main sources of calcium in children, you’ll need to make sure the child’s diet has other good sources of calcium and vitamin D. Talk with your child’s doctor about fortified foods (ie. calcium-enriched rice milk or coconut yogurt) and/or supplementation to avoid any nutritional deficiencies. Because it is best to get vitamins and nutrients from natural whole foods, I recommend you consult a licensed dietitian or nutritionist who can educate you about the casein-free diet and help tailor a menu to your child’s health needs and taste preferences.
If you choose a casein-free diet you must become aware of the ingredients of everything in your grocery cart. Read labels carefully, because milk or milk products can be present in surprising places, like non-dairy creamers, soy cheeses and soy yogurt and even sausages. Caseinates, such as calcium caseinate, potassium caseinate and sodium caseinate are derived from casein. If you really want to see if a casein-free diet is going to help your child, avoid purchasing any food whose label lists either casein or caseinates, even if it is not a “dairy” food.
Source of Casein include (but are not limited to):
Animal Milk (all forms: cow, sheep, goat, etc)
Non-dairy cheese (check the label for caseinate)
Half & Half
How I Jump Started the Casein-free Process:
When we removed animal milk from our diet, I bought 1 carton each of Rice milk (Costco has the best one, it tastes very much like skim milk and not very much like rice), Almond milk (get the Original, Unsweetened version) and Coconut milk (Unsweetened, Unflavored). I made a taste testing game of it. I blind folded my boys and had them taste each kind and tell me which one they liked the best. Then I used that one for cereal and for drinking. Not one to waste, I used the milks they didn’t like in protein shakes or to make hot cereal (cream of buckwheat or oatmeal). Please remember to purchase unsweetened and unflavored products. There is no point in loading your child up with sugar and artificial flavors as those are implicated in behavioral disorders as well.
When it’s time to transition out of dairy yogurt, I would recommend doing the same thing. Keep in mind that if you choose a soy product, make sure it is made with NON-GMO soy beans. It will say on the label. A lot of children are sensitive to soy, so we try to avoid it in our house.
For ice cream – there are non-dairy ice creams available in pints. You could taste test those as well and use the ones you don’t like in smoothies, etc. However, the non-dairy ice creams are pricey. I make my own popsicles (see Popeye Pushups) or I buy sorbet which is usually non-dairy. We live near a Trader Joes and their sorbets are delicious!
It’s important to note that while I stick with their preferences for drinking and for use with cereal, I do purchase a variety of different milks and keep them on hand for different culinary purposes. This gives their bodies the best of all worlds in that we aren’t too heavy on one kind of product over another (almond milk vs. rice milk, etc).
If you have gone casein-free, please share any tips or ideas on how you implemented the dietary changes in your home. We have many parents who could use your input and support as they attempt to remove casein from their children’s diet. Feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section in order to benefit our readers.
This post is an excerpt from the ebook: E.A.T. An Italian Mother’s Guide to Going Casein-free in Autism Spectrum Disorders now available on Amazon.
β-Casomorphin Induces Fos-Like Immunoreactivity in Discrete Brain Regions Relevant to Schizophrenia and Autism http://aut.sagepub.com/content/3/1/67.short
Stanislaw Kaminski, Anna Cielinska, Elzbieta Kostyra (2007). “Polymorphism of bovine beta-casein and its potential effect on health”. Journal of Applied Genetics 48 (3): 189–198. doi:10.1007/BF03195213. PMID 17666771.
Kurek M, Przybilla B, Hermann K, Ring J (1992). “A naturally occurring opioid peptide from cow’s milk, beta-casomorphine-7, is a direct histamine releaser in man”. Int Arch Allergy Immunol 97 (2): 115–120. doi:10.1159/000063326 . PMID 1374738.
Review of the potential health impact of β-casomorphins and related peptides European Food Safety Agency , Scientific Report (2009) 231, 1-107
beta-Casomorphin-immunoreactivity in the brain stem of the human infant. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8351411
Effect of casein and beta-casomorphins on gastrointestinal motility in rats. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2319342